Contributor: Brittney Williams, LPC/MHSP at Fairhaven Treatment Center
The Internal Family Systems Model (IFS) views the internal system as a whole, considering all aspects of the interrelatedness and dynamics occurring with the various “parts”; inner personalities that make up our system. With this approach, eating disorders are viewed systemically as “parts” and explored relationally with all other “parts” in a system.
Eating disorder “parts” are able to be seen and treated in the same way all other “parts” are, in this model, which allows for healing, reharmonization, and unburdening to occur internally. IFS has discovered our “parts” do not go away, and the longer they are misunderstood and have a lack of a relationship with The Self (IFS’s concept of Self has been discussed in a previous article in this series), the longer their maladaptive roles will persist.
IFS Conceptualization of ED
In the IFS model, eating disorders are conceptualized as another “part” of the internal system. This model identifies all humans to be made up of various “parts” that manage our daily functioning, serving a purpose to aid the entire system in surviving.
“Parts” vary in their beliefs, views, intentions, and methods for how to serve in getting our systems’ needs met. Some “parts” take a proactive “never again” approach while others step in from a reactive “if all else fails” motto.
Eating disorder behaviors are seen and experienced as “parts” that have picked up the role of disordered eating in an attempt to protect and help the system survive. From the IFS perspective, recovery from an eating disorder is much more than “fixing” the body weight and stopping disordered eating behaviors. It’s about regaining Self-leadership in the system.
This allows for all “parts” to shift out of roles that are not best for the whole system long-term. For example, IFS conceptualizes the disordered eating behavior of restriction as stemming from a “part” of the system that took on a belief regarding the behavior of restriction being what is best for the person, and this “part” will continue to engage in this behavior until it trusts there is another way to help.
The goal of healing eating disorders through IFS’s “parts” approach is not to get rid of the eating disorder, rather set the “part” free from the disordered eating role it took on. The IFS approach toward healing eating disorders consists of compassion-led befriending and unburdening of “parts.” [1, 3]
Healing ED through IFS
When using the IFS model, eating disorder behaviors are first established as a “part” through a technique referred to as un-blending, which is helping the person experience there is more within them than only the eating disorders thoughts, desires, beliefs, etc. This step is significant in working with eating disorders because oftentimes, those who are suffering remain blended with these “parts” the majority of the time and forget they have other thoughts, desires, beliefs, etc. within.
Through this process often clients will experience a significant amount of internal conflict or polarization between “parts” of themselves. The IFS model allows space for all “parts” to be seen, heard, witnessed, and healed despite how conflicting some may be with others.
In treating eating disorders with IFS, it’s important to understand the nature of the model, explore and become familiar with “parts,” and how to un-blend from them in order to access Self-Energy. Being in a Self-led place leads toward building a relationship between “parts” and Self, which results in healing.
Eating disorder “parts” are viewed, from Self, with compassion, openness, curiosity, etc. When Self-Energy is present, fostering a relationship for communication, understanding, and healing is possible for the internal system. Other “parts” in the internal system are often polarized with eating disorder “parts,” which is why working with these polarizations is of equal importance in this work.
Working with all polarized “parts” from the compassionate, Self-led place allows clients’ “parts” to become less reactive, trust Self more, and stop overpowering the whole system by having the client constantly blended with eating disorder thoughts, urges, and behaviors, which allows for healing to occur. The process of becoming more familiar with what being in Self feels like is an on-going journey for unburdening the system, including the roles eating disorder “parts” get into.
When an eating disorder “part” builds a connection between Self and this “part,” the “part” is able to decrease in intensity by letting Self in to help with its fears, concerns, and extreme role. Often what is found is a burdened exile underneath these extreme behaviors, known as eating disorder “parts.” This finding supports the notion that trauma and eating disorders are heavily intertwined.
Through this “parts” approach, clients can experience their eating disorder being approached with curiosity regarding how this “part” has helped their system, how it took on its current role, how it feels about its role, and what it fears would happen if it were not in its role. These are just a few examples of internal dialogue questions Self can ask these “parts” in order to build the relationship, gain trust, and get closer to healing the burdened pain underneath the behaviors. [1, 3]
IFS is a unique approach in that it does not encourage that eating disorders are something to be overridden with skills use. Rather, it suggests these are “parts” of our systems that can change roles once healed. These eating disorder parts are just like some of our other “parts” such as care-taker, people-pleasing, perfectionistic, indulgent, etc., which want what is best for us even if they have found themselves in a role that outwardly is seen as maladaptive.
This approach gives hope in an area that often brings up a lot of shame and misunderstanding from the external world. The IFS model allows people to experience that full healing is possible because it allows space for the work to go beyond “fixing” behaviors. [1-3]
Grabowski, A., Y. (2018) An Internal Family Systems Guide to Recovery From Eating Disorder: Healing part by part. New York, NY: Routledge.
Holmes, T., Holmes, L., & Eckstein, S. (2007). Parts work: An illustrated guide to your inner life. Kalamazoo, MI: Winged Heart Press.
Schwartz, R.C. (2001). Introduction to The Internal Family Systems Model. Oak Park IL: Trailheads Publications, The Center for Self-Leadership.
About Our Sponsor:
Fairhaven Treatment Center is a leading eating disorder treatment center that provides treatment for adult women and adolescent girls struggling with Anorexia Nervosa, Bulimia Nervosa, Binge Eating Disorder and Other Specified Feeding or Eating Disorder (OSFED).
Fairhaven specializes in working with eating disorders with co-occurring post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), trauma and attachment disorder, and a history of addiction and substance use disorder.
About the Author:
Brittney Williams, LPC/MHSP, earned a Bachelor of Science in Psychology at Mississippi State University and a Master of Arts in Clinical Mental Health Counseling (with a specialization in Marriage/Couples and Family Counseling) at the University of Alabama. She is a Licensed Professional Counselor and Mental Health Service Provider in the state of Tennessee. In addition to her state license, Brittney is a Nationally Certified Counselor, EMDR trained and working on her CEDS and Internal Family Systems certifications.
While completing her Bachelor’s degree, Brittney trained in multiple Social Psychology research labs where she began studying the dynamics of trauma, social relating, and human behavior. While earning her Master’s degree, Brittney continued her education and trained experience further exploring the dynamics of trauma as a clinical intern. During this training, Brittney became increasingly aware of, and interested, in the connection between attachment trauma and eating disorders. Brittney has worked with the eating disorder population in various levels of care for the past 5+ years along with those suffering from trauma and other accompanying mental health-related issues. Brittney’s passion is to continue this complex work by offering evidence-based, compassionate clinical care to the eating disorder population.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Published March 3, 2021, on EatingDisorderHope.com
Reviewed & Approved on March 3, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC