We Are Greater Than The Sum Of Our Parts: Internal Family Systems Therapy for Eating Disorders

Woman measuring waistI am half way through the year-long Level 1 of the Internal Family Systems (IFS) training. IFS is a psychotherapeutic modality used for helping people and their therapists understand and solve the problems that bring them to therapy. And IFS helps make sense of the seemingly irrational world of eating disorders. I’d had some exposure to and experience using IFS prior to enrolling in the training, but the training is giving me a broader and deeper understanding not only of IFS, but also of how we humans work. I’m finding the process exhilarating!

IFS has little to do with families in the conventional sense. It’s based on family systems theory, which is based on general systems theory. Systems theory is a way of conceptualizing and understanding how living things work via understanding the interdependence of living things, e.g., an ecosystem. Any given group of people unconsciously operates according to the rules that govern all systems. Family systems theory, the basis of my field of study and licensure, provides a means of understanding how and why people develop certain problems. The problem is regarded as a symptom of imbalance within the family system, and an attempt by the system to correct that imbalance, given the circumstances. IFS, in turn, focuses on our internal systems, which operate internally as a family operates externally and as do all larger systems.

The basic concept of IFS is that we all have many different parts of ourselves. These different parts have different perspectives and thus often have different beliefs and goals. Poet Walt Whitman was referring to this innate multiplicity when he said, “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”

How often have you found yourself saying, “Part of me knows I should do ‘X’, but another part of me wants to do ‘Y’,” or, “Intellectually, I understand ’Y,’ but emotionally, I feel ‘Z’.” This is our instinctive awareness that we don’t operate as a unified whole. Yes, we contradict ourselves, and this is normal!

There are several different models of therapy that involve working with different parts of self. IFS focuses on the naturally protective function of parts of ourselves, and what those parts are trying to protect us from. There is no such thing as a bad part. When I first learned about IFS, this idea resonated with me because many years ago, long before I knew that I would one day be a therapist, I was seeing a therapist who said, “I believe that people are self-protective, not self-destructive.” I learned from her that even when we do things that are bad for us, our original intent is to protect ourselves from emotional discomfort or pain. And when it comes to disordered eating, protecting one’s self from emotional pain becomes the number- one priority. Undereating, overeating, purging, exercising compulsively—these behaviors are intended to increase pleasant feeling states or decrease unpleasant ones. The longer one relies on these behaviors, the more complicated things become, because more parts get involved.

But where does this pain come from? When someone with anorexia feels anxious if she eats a normal amount of food, how did she come to acquire this anxiety? She would say that she is worried that the food is turning into fat, or that she’ll never stop eating. But why would she worry about such things, so much so that she denies herself the necessary food for her well being? Undereating is a behavior of a part that wants to protect her from the anxiety, no matter the cost to her health. What this part doesn’t know is that the anxiety comes from another part, and that the part that holds the anxiety is probably a younger part, a part that has memories of and emotions from experiences of long ago. For example, this part may hold memories and pain from things like hurt and shame due to being rejected by other kids, or of fear of not being loved by a parent because the parent put so much emphasis on her getting straight A’s that she came to believe that this was what made her loveable, to experiences involving verbal, physical or sexual abuse. These parts are referred to in IFS as “exiles,” and it’s the job of protective parts to keep these younger parts, well, exiled.

This is why simply trying to change eating behaviors won’t work in the long run. As long as the internal system is arranged in such a way that some parts are keeping other parts exiled in order to protect the person from pain, any behavior changes will be superficial and temporary. Some protective parts are really good at making rules and like to be good students and will follow an eating plan and work hard in therapy, but eventually, exiled parts will get triggered and the parts that engage in eating disordered behaviors will come to the rescue.

So, how to get out of this predicament? IFS also focuses on our true, core Self, which is not a part, but rather an essence. And distilled to its simplest form, IFS says that healing comes when we connect to parts of ourselves from Self. Self is, by nature, compassionate and curious and non-judgmental. When protective parts are seen and heard by Self, they can lead us to the exiled parts. When exiled parts are seen and heard by Self, they can get unstuck from the past and healed. And a trained therapist can guide the process of connecting someone with eating problems to his or her disordered eater parts from his or her Self, engendering not just behavior change, but true healing. Ultimately, all parts will reside with one another and Self in harmony. Yes, we are multitudes!

© Copyright 2011 by Deborah Klinger. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.

The preceding article was solely written by the author named above. Any views and opinions expressed are not necessarily shared by GoodTherapy.org. Questions or concerns about the preceding article can be directed to the author or posted as a comment below.

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  • Antonio

    July 26th, 2011 at 2:06 PM

    The undereating part fits my sister perfectly and this behavior of hers started in high school.even to this day,she’s 26 now,she does not eat enough and I believe is the reason for her being shorter than all of us in the family,including my mom and another sister.No amount of explanation will convince her to eat enough food to just give her enough energy and stamina.she has continued this behavior of hers throughout her first pregnancy and even now,while she is nursing the baby.

    I believe this article has given me an introduction or a sneak peek into why she refuses to change her eating habits even though she very well understands it is harmful for her health to eat so little.I am going to mail her the link to this article and hopefully she will eventually fix her eating problem.

  • Sonia

    July 26th, 2011 at 4:34 PM

    Eating disorders are a curious thing because you know that these people are smart, smart enough to know how many calories are in something and all of that stuff like that. But then again not smart enough to think on a real level the damage that they are doing to their bodies by engaging in this kind of behavior. When you look at something like this then it is so important to get the family involved because they can offer some real answers as to why this might have started and some ways to get through to them.

  • rosie d

    July 26th, 2011 at 4:38 PM

    different parts of me telling me to do different things?has definitely happened to me and on several occasions.its one of the most difficult situations to handle as you are not too sure what to go ahead with.trusted friends do help a lot in such situations though :)

  • Greg Kahn

    July 26th, 2011 at 4:40 PM

    My sister suffers from eating issues and is constantly in a bad way as well. My opinion is that her issues stemmed from our parents largesse and through this she has trained her inner self to avoid food. I can’t wait to shoot this article over to her to let her read it. She has tried so many different programs and is always temporarily successful only to relapse back in to the issues within a few months. Hopefully by seeking out proper treatment and true inner correction she can make a lifelong change.

  • sallie

    July 27th, 2011 at 4:32 AM

    So IFS is beneficial for morethan just families that have eating disorders in them?

  • LD.O

    July 27th, 2011 at 9:08 AM

    We have many parts in us,which can sometimes behave as different individuals actually.But when it comes to family,so is the case with each member and ecause a family spends most of it’s time together there is just so many chances of there being conflict of ideas.In a family of four,it’s not just four individuals,it’s 40 parts of those four individuals which need to get along!

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    July 28th, 2011 at 8:21 PM

    Thanks, everyone, for your comments. First, I want to say that it hit me today that I forgot to mention that the IFS model was created by Richard Schwartz, PhD., LMFT, and his IFS web site is selfleadership.org.

    Antonio, I’m glad this helps you understand your sister better. I hope it is helpful to her as well.

    Sonia: I think we’ve all had the experience of seeing smart people– maybe ourselves!– do seemingly stupid things. It’s because different parts of us see things differently from other parts. And yes, family involvement is key for people who struggle with eating disorders, if they have loving, supportive family around. I mainly work with adults who live away from family members, but when I work with younger people who are still living with their parents, I involve the parents in the treatment process. This is different from the process of IFS, which all takes place inside the person, but both are powerful components of therapy.

    Rosie: yes, trusted friends have perspective that we don’t, and are invaluable when parts of ourselves are in conflict with each other!

    Greg: I’m sorry to hear about your sister’s struggles. I hope she finds treatment that works for her for good.

    Sallie: IFS isn’t designed for families, but is based on the idea that we have many parts that operate like a big family inside of us, and it can be used to help people with all kinds of things, not just eating disorders.

    LD.O:Yes, when family members get together, all those parts of each family member are there. It can get pretty crowded!

  • vp

    July 29th, 2011 at 9:25 PM

    Alright, I’ll try my best to understand this. Even though we are a single being, we are split up into multiple parts. These parts are often in disagreement which makes us unable to easily come to difficult decisions. In the context of an eating disorder, a bulimic would know that what they’re doing is bad, but other parts of themselves will be telling them that it’s good. Is that right?

  • sally dunham

    July 29th, 2011 at 9:44 PM

    That was so interesting! Thanks Deborah for sharing that. Learning about things like IFS must make it very rewarding when as a therapist you finally come up with a breakthrough that can save someone from a mental disorder’s wrath. It feels unfair that we as intelligent human beings can develop such disorders and stress that other creatures don’t. It’ll probably be a million years before it evolves out of us.

  • Brian Kelly

    July 30th, 2011 at 12:48 AM

    Humans dominated the entire planet as the supreme species for a reason: we are above our instincts or can be. I honestly believe that if you have sufficient willpower, motivation and drive, you can force your mental illness aside long enough to not have it crush your life.

  • s.c.d.

    July 30th, 2011 at 1:48 AM

    @Brian Kelly–There are very few with that kind of willpower, and such comments are usually made by those who don’t have a mental illness of any kind. Talk to me when you’re suffering from anorexia and tell me how it goes. I guarantee you’ll be back here saying you were completely wrong.

    I used to think the same. I went there, and it was not easy coming back. We can get better with the right kind of professional help. Understand though it’s not a case of just snapping out of it or wanting it badly enough which is what you’re implying there. That’s too simplistic a view.

  • Kay Graham

    May 4th, 2013 at 6:05 PM

    vp asked “Alright, I’ll try my best to understand this. Even though we are a single being, we are split up into multiple parts. These parts are often in disagreement which makes us unable to easily come to difficult decisions. In the context of an eating disorder, a bulimic would know that what they’re doing is bad, but other parts of themselves will be telling them that it’s good. Is that right?”

    This post is old but it seems to me it needs an answer. I’m not an IFS therapist but one of the cool things about the method is that many people can use it successful on their own, as a form of self-therapy. I am one of these.

    The answer is yes that’s a fair summary of how people work internally (except that, according to IFS, we don’t split into parts, they are all within us at birth — just not activated). In my experience, most people are aware that they have, for example, a part who wants to smoke, and another part who wants to quit. In Sue, the smoker part might dominate and smoke her head off while the non-smoker part complains and calls her names. In Mary, the non-smoker fights a mighty battle with the smoker and wins. We are all different and our parts and reactions are our own.

    What IFS does is help the Self (aka: our true self, the real me, “I”, some call it the soul) get to know the parts and mediate between them. Sometimes it’s possible to negotiate a compromise.

    At other times, though, we need to go deeper to find a hidden part (called an exile) who was damaged long ago and needs to be helped to tell the story of what happened to her and get rid of the burden of pain she has been carrying, unconsciously, for so long. Why? Because if we don’t help the exile Sue may smoke herself to death and Mary may switch to an eating addiction that is just as dangerous. Exiles have protector parts who try manage the exile’s pain on an ongoing basis and when that doesn’t work “firefighter” parts run for a cigarette whenever Sue gets upset (or a donut in Mary’s case).

    This is getting into deeply repressed material (the unconscious part of us that our conscious mind usually doesn’t want to deal with) but IFS provides a fairly easy way to access at least some of this painful stuff. Doing so can change life for the better by lessening the turmoil caused by differing (or even warring) protector parts and by releasing the exile from her painful prison.

    I hope this helps. It’s not as complicated as it sounds and I hope people who read this will look at the links for more information. As you can tell, I’m a fan!

  • Deborah Klinger, M.A., LMFT, CEDS

    May 5th, 2013 at 3:50 PM

    So Kay’s comment triggered an email to me, and I discovered that I had missed some posts back when the article was originally posted! My apologies to vp, Sally, Brian and s.c.d.
    I’ll say that vp, yes, Kay’s explanation is correct. We are born with many parts, all of which have natural qualities and states of being, but over time, when we have a hurtful experience (e.g., via abuse, neglect, developmental needs not being adequately met), our system will “exile” the part that holds the emotional pain caused by the experience, in order to protect that part from being hurt again, but also, and I find more predominantly, to protect us from being overwhelmed by that part’s pain. So you have a part that is stuck at the age of the hurtful experience, in the hurtful situation.
    The protection is executed by a parts that take on roles that are more extreme that their true nature. eating disordered behaviors are carried out by protective parts, so yes, someone with bulimia will often have a part that tries to control food intake, another part that goes on eating binges, and another part that gets rid of the food via vomiting or laxative use. All three of these are types of protective parts, and IFS enables the bulimic to connect to these parts from his/her Self, and eventually find her/his way to the young exiled parts whose pain the controller, binger and purger is protecting the person from.
    Brian, willpower can’t force a mental illness aside any more than it can a physical one. In fact, “willpower” originates in the mind, and with mental illness, the illness is in the mind, so trying to use the very organ that’s impaired to stop the illness is like trying to, I don’t know, stop lung cancer by breathing harder or something. However, willpower, motivation and drive are necessary in order to do the hard work in therapy to get well.
    s.c.d., it sounds like you speak from experience. I hope you’re in a good place now!
    Thanks, Kay, for your thoughtful post and for bringing this unfinished thread to my attention!

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