One approach that I use in working with eating disorders is Internal Family Systems (IFS). IFS holds the belief that within each person there exist many “parts” of self or sub personalities and that each have developed over time as a way to try to help manage the system as a whole. This might sound crazy or very far fetched, but in looking at one’s own experience, it’s often very easy to see this in play.
An example of this in eating disorders is the part of the person that wants to restrict food in order to change their body and then, often at the same time, another part of them that wants to binge on food. This experience is often very confusing for clients: why they binge when they so desperately want to stop. In using IFS, I help clients identify the different parts of themselves, and understand what that part’s intention is, and what it’s needing in order to stop engaging in its problematic behavior. Having insight into these questions can have a profound effect on one’s internal state and actions.
Another goal of IFS is increasing compassion for ourselves and our various parts. When we understand the positive intention of one of our parts (the bingeing part for example is often a way to numb and distract people from uncomfortable feelings), we can then have more compassion for it instead of hating it (and ourselves). IFS can also be helpful in exploring painful past experiences and increasing compassion and understanding for ourselves. When we visit these past experiences from our adult loving presence it helps us see our past differently which affects how we see ourselves today. IFS can be very helpful in understanding and shifting eating disorder behaviors, whether restricting, binging, purging, or anything else that gets acted out in the course of an eating disorder.
Written by Anna Clark, LMFT