Befriending Our Parts in Eating Disorder Recovery with Internal Family Systems

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Food can become such a point of anxiety. Not because it’s food, but just because you have anxiety. That’s how eating disorders develop.
— Vanessa Carlton

The “problem” in eating disorders is not just about food, eating habits, or weight. It’s a coping response we have to past trauma, shame and anxiety. We develop these harmful habits — such as eating in a disordered way — to deal with the experiences in our life that overwhelm us with fear, grief, shame and other emotional pain.  

Internal Family Systems (IFS) revolves around the idea that all of us have many “parts” or inner personalities, and that each part has its own individual way of handling various situations to manage the system (ourselves) as a whole.

The three main roles of the “parts” that exist within us from an IFS perspective are managers, firefighters, and exiles:

  • The managers create stability and run our day-to-day lives. These parts are proactive and encourage forward movement, striving and want us to improve. They try to maintain control of each situation and relationship we encounter through behaviors such as perfectionism, people pleasing, controlling, judging, and criticizing. (If I do everything right, I’m not a horrible person.)

  • The firefighters or distractors are reactive and try to make us shift gears and balance other parts in the system. These parts protect us by “extinguishing” our harmful feelings, through unhealthy behaviors, including disordered eating, self-harm, and drug abuse. (I’m getting relief now before I lose it.)

  • The exiles are the parts of us that have experienced trauma and carry burdens, and often become isolated within the system in order to protect us from feeling pain, fear, shame and other negative emotions.

In addition to these three parts is the Self (with a capital “S”), which resides within each of us. Our Self is our true, unburdened, and self-assured soul, and cannot be damaged by experience. According to IFS founder Richard Schwartz, the Self has “8 C’s”: calmness, curiosity, clarity, compassion, confidence, creativity, courage, and connectedness.

Through a process called Self-Leadership, we are able to relate to and understand what each of our parts really needs, so that we can heal as a whole.

Our harmful behaviors are a misguided form of self-preservation

We are born with an innate desire to self-preserve and protect ourselves from harm. Over time, that desire can shift into thoughts and behaviors that on the surface seem counterintuitive and harmful.

Our critical thoughts (managers), for example, are often our mind’s way of alerting us to something that it wants us to pay attention to or protect from harm. Thoughts of body image dissatisfaction may be our mind’s way of protecting us from the pain of being objectified, bullied or assaulted in the past.   

Similarly, with eating disorders, when we restrict, binge, purge and self-harm (firefighters), we really are trying to soothe, distract, and protect ourselves. The internal logic of the behavior might sound something like:

“If I binge I can find comfort and soothe myself from the pain I experience from feeling unloved.”

“If I restrict I can protect myself by maintaining the level of control I need to feel because life feels chaotic right now.”

“If I purge I can distract myself from the anxiety or self-loathing I feel when I look in the mirror.”

But these actions are merely temporary fixes, which is why there is an urge to engage in these behaviors the next time a psychological threat is triggered. When we begin to recognize the positive intention of all our parts, we can soften toward those parts of ourselves, and try to understand them.

Responding to your various parts

And I said to my body. Softly. ‘I want to be your friend.’ It took a long breath. And replied, ‘I have been waiting my whole life for this.
— Nayyirah Waheed

One of the most healing things we can do is have compassionate curiosity towards what our thoughts, emotions and behaviors are really trying to tell us.

That’s not to say that we should never seek comfort from outside sources. Life can be hard, and each one of us at times feels the need to avoid, distract, numb or soothe ourselves with activities like working, exercising, scrolling through social media, drinking a glass of wine, or eating a sweet treat. And there is nothing wrong with allowing yourself to have what you need to soothe yourself.

The shift we can make to avoid falling into or heal from addictive and destructive patterns is to embrace and befriend our experience, including our negative thoughts, unpleasant emotions and destructive behaviors — welcoming them with open-hearted curiosity.

When we’re able to empathize with each part, understand how they are trying to help us and their fears of what would happen if they didn’t do the job that they are doing for us, we can open the door to uncover the stories of trauma and shame that each of our parts are trying to keep us safe from. Once parts are being heard and compassionately witnessed, they can begin to unburden and heal so they go back to their natural preferred roles in our system. Over time, our parts learn to increasingly trust the Self’s ability to take care of ourselves.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder or negative body image, you can begin to get curious with kindness about that part of yourself and start to have a relationship with it.

You might ask the part questions like:

  • "When you engage in this behavior or negative thinking what is your intention or mission? How are you trying to help me?"

  • "What are you afraid will happen if you stop doing this behavior or negative thinking?"

The goal of Self-Leadership and asking yourself questions like these is not to minimize or disown these parts, but to gain an understanding of how these parts are trying to help you and to differentiate your individual parts from your true Self, which can help you on the path to healing.

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Marcella Cox