Internal Family Systems (IFS) for Eating Disorders + OCD
What is IFS therapy and how can it support your recovery from either an eating disorder or OCD? That's exactly what I want to share with you all today. IFS is a non-pathologizing, compassionate, whole person approach to therapy that incorporates somatic and attachment work and seeks to unburden us from 'parts' (like an ED or OCD) of us that have become blended with our core self.
IFS has a few main tenants that are important to understand. The first is: IFS believes the mind is naturally in a state of multiplicity, which means we are made up of different parts of us. For example, you probably notice different parts of you come out at work versus at home, right? This doesn't mean we all have split personalities, it simply means we are complex human beings that have different parts to deal with different life situations. Secondly, IFS assumes there are NO 'bad' parts. All parts come in the service of protection, even if they appear to be destructive. We only run into issues when certain parts completely dominate our system and our core, wise, grounded self is inaccessible. Our core 'self' is an energy we all have that is confident, calm, curious, compassionate and creative. It is sort of like our 'true self' or 'wise self.' For those with eating disorders or OCD, our Self is likely hard to reach due to the ED part taking over. Therapy seeks to help us access our Self and build a relationship with our ED part.
The other thing to note is that there are two main different kinds of parts: managers and firefighters. Managers are parts that work to prevent distress and can be things like: perfectionism, eating disorders, anxious parts, ruminating parts, people pleasing parts, etc. Firefighters are parts that intervene to cope with distress after is has happened. Common firefighter parts are substance abusing parts, cutting parts, suicidal parts or high conflict parts. However, it's less about the type of part and more about the intention behind the part: is it trying to prevent distress or is it coping with the aftermath- or both?
Since we are not trying to get rid of parts- unlike other forms of therapy, we want to work on building a compassionate and curious relationship with each part. We do this in therapy by guiding you through a meditation-like state, to help you unblend from the part and then attempt to get to know it, hear what it might be trying to protect you from, learn about when it developed and why, and lastly, when we have it's permission, we help unburden it from it's dominant role in your life so that we can begin accessing your true Self.
The other key thing to know is that each part is protecting an 'exile.' An exile is sort of like an inner child in us that has become trapped in the scene of a past trauma or stressful experience. We all have many of these, and when we unburden our protective parts from guarding the exiles, they can be free to take on new, less destructive roles in our life. As we access more Self (the calm, compassionate, curious, confident energy we all have), we show our parts that our Self can take care of these inner children (exiles) and they no longer need to run our lives. Most parts readily want to take on new roles in our life- they are often tired, exhausted and burnt out. They are ready for relief and because they have good intentions, a critical part might take on a new role of being your cheerleader, an eating disorder part might take on the role of truly nourishing yourself and a compulsive part might want to help you take care of daily tasks in a more functional way. Every part and every person is different, so these are just some examples.
When we unblend from these parts and get to know them, we start to become more mindful and more 'Self-led' in life. This looks sort of like acting out of our wise/inner parent self, instead of wounded inner children. Often times our parts do not recognize that we have grown up, we are not in the scene of trauma anymore, and so we have to show them things are safe again. Over time, when our Self is leading, we begin to rely less on eating disorder or obsessive compulsive parts, and we naturally feel more psychological relief.
This is one of my most favorite approaches to therapy due to it's non-pathological nature, and ability to help us get to the root causes of psychological issues. It helps us go deeper, build self compassion and a secure relationship inside of us- which later helps us form secure relationships in other areas of out lives. This is one of the most beautiful things to witness as a therapist and truly has the power to lead to lasting healing.
If this resonates with you and you want to try an experiential exercise to see how it feels, I invite you to do the following:
Close your eyes and get in a comfortable position. Take a few deep breaths and just focus your attention inwards with curiosity.
Allow whatever sensations, thoughts, or images that arise to be there. Just breath and focus on it without judgement.
Explore if whatever is showing up has a specific color, shape or feeling. Find where it is located in or around your body and just extend it curiosity.
Notice how you feel towards this part. If it is anything other than curiosity/calm/compassion, ask the other feelings to just step back a little bit so we can get to know this part and it's role in your life.
When you feel curious again, notice how you feel towards this part and then ask how it feels towards you.
Ask it if we have permission to get to know it a little bit today, to hear it out. Make sure it knows we are not trying to push it away or get rid of it.
If we have permission, begin to explore what it is afraid might happen if it stopped making you (binge/purge/restrict/obsess). What is it afraid of?
Make sure to validate it, offer it compassion, and let it know that you get that it is trying to protect you.
Gently ask when it developed and what else was going on in your life at that time.
Thank it for whatever it showed you today, and let it know you'll come back to it for more exploring in the future.
Notice how you feel in your body now. Notice how you feel towards whatever part was showing up. Take a few grounding breaths and when you are ready, open your eyes and come back.
What was that like for you? This is just a small window of what IFS can feel like and what it can do for us. Of course, since we are often working with underlying trauma when we use IFS, it is best to do this with a licensed clinician. I'd be happy to help you if this feels like a fit for you. Reach out for a 15 min phone consultation today and let's help you get to your true Self!