Eating disorders are typically treated with a medical focus on stabilizing the body and clinically focusing on behaviors and intrusive thoughts. However, only focusing on medical consequences and intrusive thoughts can create havoc in a complex system because the actual role of an eating disorder is often overlooked and misunderstood.
What if the goal of treatment for an eating disorder was to “befriend” it instead of trying to get rid of it?
Befriending an eating disorder is creating a relationship with the part to gain insight into the role it plays within a person’s system. This helps create a safe place where one can observe the eating disorder with curiosity instead of shame.
Understanding eating disorders through the parts lens, it becomes evident that eating disorders aren’t necessarily really about food. What if we looked at eating disorders as a way of protecting and soothing, as a coping skill for another part which may need nurturing, instead of pigeonholing the eating disorder as “the problem”?
Take a moment now to think about an occasion when you’ve felt overwhelmed with uncomfortable intense emotions, like your life was engulfed in a wildfire and the only way to extinguish the fire was to engage in an eating disorder. The eating disorder is not concerned about the surrounding people, circumstances, or the harm it may cause; it just wants the fire extinguished. The only way it believes it can do that, is by participating in behaviors like restricting food, binging, purging, and/or starvation. I often hear clients saying statements like:
“I can only eat dinner because I have to stay under 700 calories.”
“I gained two pounds, I’m going to get fat again, this is careless of me.”
“I have to exercise 5xs today because I had pizza.”
Rediscovering the intention of these parts helps to understand their intention and “who” they are working so tirelessly to protect. Instead of the eating disorder being “the problem” it is in actuality, a solution.
It shifts it away from blaming and/or shaming the eating disorders to embracing a safe holding space that seeks to understand through compassion, curiosity, creativity, calmness, clarity, confidence, connectivity, and courage. Imagine pausing and being curious then asking:
- “What are you trying to show or tell me when you engage in this behavior or negative thinking?
- “ What is your intention or mission? How are you trying to help me?”
- “What are you afraid will happen if you stop doing this behavior or negative thinking?”
- “What could you use more of from me at this moment?”
Through befriending the eating disorder, we are able to shift to a whole hearted acceptance and gain valuable insight that promotes healing from within. Notice the difference when the self can speak for the part with connectivity, compassion, and curiosity.
“I have a part that binges so it can ease the pain of feeling unworthy of love.”
“I have a part that restricts food so it can protect me by giving me a level of control that is needed because life feels chaotic right now.”
“I have a part that purges so it can distract me from the anxiety or self-loathing I feel when I look in the mirror
By empathizing, and understanding these parts and recognizing their fears and how they are trying to help, we can help ourselves build trust with the parts working within the eating disorder. When you are no longer shaming the coping mechanism/eating disorder, the parts that are on fire can be witnessed, unburdened and may no longer need to rely on the eating disorder. The fire is out. Connecting through the mind, body, and spirit helps eating disorder parts relax and let go, and eventually return to preferred roles within the internal system. The behaviors dissipate, illuminating healing and peacefulness.
About the Author:
Amanda Leone is a licensed social worker in the State of New Jersey with a Master’s in Social Work from the University of Pennsylvania. She provides an integrative approach to therapy, blending the systematic protocol of EMDR (Equilateral) with modalities like Internal Family Systems, Somatic Psychotherapy, and Equine Assisted Therapy. Amanda is especially drawn to supporting clients with anxiety/depression, eating disorders, trauma, relationship/attachment issues, gender identity, chronic illness, and self discovery. In addition to individual therapy, Amanda also leads Equine Workshops for personal growth and deeper insight. Learn more about Equine Assisted Therapy at Mindful Soul