How does the same eating disorder voice both command me to eat and then tells me to purge!?
Updated: Aug 16, 2022
To answer this question, I'm going to refer to some work by a man named Dr. Richard Schwartz, he founded, what's known as Internal Family Systems (IFS) or Parts Work. IFS, it works on the premise that the mind is divided into a number of sub-personalities, or parts. And each part has its own interests, own fears, desires, and gifts. So every day these different parts of us all collaborate to play their different roles. And they're all trying to help us in some way or another.
In the diagram above at the center, you can see that we've got our Self, which is our Higher Self, our Wise Self, and our Self or our Higher self is the whole of us - it is us - as a whole entity, a whole being. It's the us that's always calm, always curious, connected, compassionate, courageous, confident, creative, and clear - because it knows what it wants, and it knows what's best for us. We've then got at the top, the exiles. So that's the part of us which is generally our younger selves. It's the vulnerable part that's been banished, it's the part that usually carries pain and it has feelings like shame, fear, loneliness and sadness And then on the left and the right, we've got our protectors, which are the parts of us that are our managers and our firefighters. So they're the parts that actually work to help to prevent and extinguish the pain that the exiles are bringing up for us. So they have different roles... the managers are there to be proactive to prevent pain - they perform, produce and please. Then the firefighters are actually the reactive parts of us that work to extinguish pain - they do things like distract, numb and soothe.
To summarise again, we've got our Self, which is the whole of us. And then we've got these different parts of us that have different roles. The key thing is that there are no bad parts. But as we develop, our parts each form their own system and they get their own wounds and their own burdens, but they're all trying in some way to help us. So even the worst feelings they might bring up and the worst impulses, like purging or binging can come from a part of us that is trying to achieve a positive outcome for us. So we don't want to get rid of any of these parts, we just want to help them transform into a role that is actually helping us productively rather than sabotaging us.
Our eating disorder IS US. Many people talk negatively about their eating disorders - "I want to get rid of it, I hate it. I want it to go away" - but our eating disorder is us and it's trying to help us in some way
Our eating disorder IS US. Many people talk negatively about their eating disorders - "I want to get rid of it, I hate it. I want it to go away" - but our eating disorder is us and it's trying to help us in some way. So it's not that bad part that you just want to get rid of, it's that part that you want to help transform and come to peace so that it can help you in a more productive way rather than hinder you. So our goal is to achieve balance and harmony within our whole system and get our Self to a point where it can lead and observe the other parts objectively and then make better decisions from there.
So I'll talk about each part in a little bit more detail now...
So we've got out exiles, those younger parts of us that are locked away, that hold onto our burdens and our feelings and our painful memories. They hold onto our beliefs and they often represent some kind of physical or psychological trauma that we've had in our life. Note here that trauma doesn't have to be a big thing, it can be something like comments about food and about our bodies made by our family when we were younger, it can be comments made by our family about not being allowed to eat ice-cream, it could be having a mother who was always dieting, or maybe you grew up in poverty having a shortage of food, these can all be psychological trauma. So all of these things form beliefs in our younger selves that then carry on into adulthood.
These can be beliefs like we're not enough. We're not good enough. We don't deserve food. My body as it is, isn't good enough. I don't deserve to eat good things. These are all beliefs that our exiles can hold onto, because our exiles are stuck in the past and they're easily repressed by our other parts. It's important to note that these child parts of us, these exiles, they just want to be seen and heard, they've been neglected for long enough. And when they're seen, heard and acknowledged, then they no longer need to cry out for help. They no longer need to be bringing up all these feelings that they're holding on to, which is then causing our protectors to jump in and try to save the day.
So then we've got our protectors... in order to handle difficult feelings, emotions, and experiences, our protective parts develop within us - in IFS these are known as our managers and our firefighters.
Our managers are very proactive and they try to manage these strong, negative beliefs and emotions that the exiles rise up within us. They work to make sure to do everything they can to avoid our exiles from being activated, so our exiles are screaming for help, and our managers are saying "no we don't need to hear this right now. We've got to manage things. We've got to keep everything under control." So our managers are perfectionists. They're people pleasers. They want to do things, right so they can avoid criticism, so they'll be loved, so they won't be abandoned. Our managers can also turn hard if they're hurt so that they can protect themselves from future hurt. Our managers can also be highly critical and very controlling. They are future oriented and are constantly worrying, overworking, people pleasing, perfecting, always trying, criticizing self and others, and they're very judgemental.
Then we've got our firefighters, these are our protective parts that are more reactive. So think of a fire being lit and then our firefighters come and try to put it out. Our firefighters are master distractors and they're impulsive. So when our exiles, our younger parts of us have these beliefs and emotions that are breaking out within us, our firefighters jump in to put it out. They find creative ways to keep us from feeling that pain and from letting the distress of our exiles come to the surface. Our firefighters are oriented in the present. All they're thinking of is right now, I need to put this fire out right now. They're very reactive and they don't worry about future consequences, they only worry about right now. They can also do things like numb us or cause us to disassociate. So for example, when we're in a binging episode, if our firefighters are causing us to disassociate, then we're not even mindful of, of how much we're actually eating, how we're feeling and what we actually do need. Some things that our firefighters do are cause us to over-eat over-exercise, over-sleep, over-spend. They cause us to numb out with different things like drinking drugs, smoking and self-harm. They cause us to withdraw, distract and dissociate, e.g. sit in front of the TV for hours and just keep going to the next episode or flick to the next channel.
If you're trying control your eating disorder, you'll just end up in a life-long battle with yourself
It might feel like a battle within yourself, because it is actually a battle within yourself - between these parts of yourself - which is why I always say, if you're trying control your eating disorder, you'll just end up in a life-long battle with yourself. Your eating disorder IS YOU. It isn't something that you need to get rid of, it is you and it's something that you need to understand, and it's something that you need to integrate so that you can be brought to wholeness, so that you can be brought to peace.
Going back to the original question: "can you explain to me how the same eating disorder voice that commands me to eat and eat and eat, then criticizes me for eating and ingesting all those calories and then threatens me if I don't purge immediately, I'll gain weight"...
If we look at this in terms of IFS or parts work, we've got our exile, which is bringing up feelings within us, maybe they're feeling shame or low self-worth or anxiety - and often these feelings are very, very subtle, so we don't even realize that we're feeling this. Then our firefighters are like "uh oh, exiles trying to break out, I've got to put this fire out," so in order to prevent us from feeling what the exile is bringing up, our firefighter, the master distractor, commands us to.binge on food. So now we we've binged, eaten way more than we wanted, and then what happens? Well then our manager steps in and our manager's very critical and it's thinking of the future. It's thinking of all the weight that you're now going to put on because of all the extra calories that you've just consumed because you've just been binging. So our manager's trying to reconcile the damage that the firefighter's just caused and wants to put everything back in order again. So now your manager is telling you to purge right now so that you don't gain weight in the future.
And that's why our eating disorder voice, that's causing you to binge can also be then telling you to purge - because it's coming from different parts that have different roles and different ways of helping, to try to make us not feel what we're actually feeling.
But above all of this, which is actually the entirety of us, is our Self. Our Self is not actually a part. It's our Healthy Self. It's our Core Self. Our Higher Self. It's not damaged and it's not reactive. It's not controlling. It's not stuck in the past or the present or the future. It's us in the entirety of the Universe, the entirety of Us, as we are the Universe in human form. When our Self is present and active, it allows all of these other parts to come up, it listens to our exiles, it acknowledges the manager and the firefighter, it sees all of this from a higher standpoint and it makes wise decisions objectively.
So what can you do when you're faced with these different parts of you that are coming up? You can observe non-judgementally what they need and what they are trying to protect you from, you can acknowledge them for their important roles but let them know that you're ok for now. And then our protectors can soften, and stand back a little, and let our Self take the lead.
"In our Self, we find a place of knowing, a place where we can observe the different parts of ourselves without being dominated by or without having to cast out parts". ~Tom Holmes