Hello, listeners, and welcome back to the Therapy Spot. On this week’s episode, I spoke with Amy Grabowski, MA, LCPC, ATR. As the Director and Founder of The Awakening Center, she helps clients suffering from eating disorders. Specifically, she uses the IFS lens as a way for her clients to understand and begin the healing process. She recently authored An IFS Guide to Recovery from Eating Disorders: Healing Part by Part.
“Having experienced recovery myself, I can empathize with the difficulties that my clients face during recovery. I know that eating disorders are not about food, eating or weight. Eating disorders stem from a lack of a sense of self which causes one to feel empty, defective and out of control of life. Using a holistic approach, I help my clients recover their true sense of self and learn to honor, even love, the person they were meant to be.”
The holidays can be an extremely difficult time for anyone currently dealing with an eating disorder. Whether that’s you, or someone you care about, I hope Amy’s insights will provide you with a sense of peace and understanding.
What Do Eating Disorders Feel Like?
Many of you listening may not personally struggle with an eating disorder, but maybe you know someone who does. Maybe the whole idea of an eating disorder feels foreign and unthinkable to you. So what do eating disorders feel like? Amy uses an evocative analogy to explain the reality to her clients’ loved ones:
“Having an eating disorder is like being a passenger in the back of a rickety old school bus full of people. Some are angry, some are crying, some are fearful. The bus careens down a curving mountain road, late at night, in a blinding thunderstorm. Feel that, inside your body. How does that feel?”
“Then you look forward down the bus and realize there’s no driver! There’s no Self driving the bus. Somehow, by fate, karma, kismet — somehow the bus made it around the last curve. Here comes another curve, and you’re not sure you’re going to make it. So you grab onto something, anything — and this is where the eating disorder behavior comes in.”
“So what would you do?”
By and large, people tend to answer that they would try to get into the driver’s seat. Once you’re in the driver’s seat, of course, you can slow down. You can take the drive one curve at a time, one decision at a time.
This is exactly what Amy helps her clients do.
Eating Disorders and Anxiety
Did you notice what Amy didn’t mention in her analogy? She didn’t say a word about weight, about food, or eating, or even body image.
A lot of the conversation about eating disorders tends to revolve around the concept of food and weight. In actuality, however, eating disorders are a subset of anxiety disorders. Anxiety may be universal, but we all handle and process anxiety differently. The behaviors and symptoms of eating disorders are an attempt to calm body, mind, and spirit.
What makes someone lean towards these behaviors as a way to handle anxiety? According to Amy, the root lies with “a sacrifice of sense of self.” Past trauma lends a hand in this sacrifice, as does a sensitive nature.
Survivors of big-T Trauma such as physical or sexual abuse may feel unsafe in their own bodies. People with little-t trauma like neglect, ridicule, or humiliation may fall back on these behaviors in order to please others.
Regardless of the root cause, this “chips away at the Self. [Over time], it …makes a hole where the Self should be.”
Treating Eating Disorders With IFS
Amy uses a slight “twist” on the traditional IFS language. You may be familiar with the three main categories of parts: managers, firefighters, and exiles. Amy reclassifies these parts so that each exists on a spectrum from balanced and healthy, to extreme and unhealthy.
What does this look like? Well, first off, manager parts can be mentors or bullies. A mentor inspires you to take action, while a bully shames and ridicules you into it. Firefighter parts can advocates or troublemakers. Advocates speak for your needs in a reasonable way, while a troublemaker wants you to feel better at all costs. Finally, exiles can be kids or exiles. A kid part is easy to listen to a sympathize with, but exiles get, well, exiled! The Self, of course, is the “Wise one within.”
When it comes to helping her clients with eating disorders, Amy’s goals of IFS therapy are as follows:
- Develop a strong sense of self
- Parts need to feel heard, appreciated, taken care of
- Unburden young parts
- Healing must be emotional & physical
- Healing happens in the Limbic system of the brain
- Calm down Bullies – turn them into ally managers/Mentors
- Help Troublemakers tolerate uncomfortable feelings & learn effective coping skills
- “Slow down the bus” and work towards meditative, mindful awareness
Ultimately, Amy wants her clients to get in touch with their benevolent, kind, warm, and compassionate Self. This “wise one within” offers unconditional positive acceptance and regard.
A Few Final Words About Eating Disorders
The National Eating Disorder Association of the US estimates that as many as 70 million people worldwide likely suffer from eating disorders. They affect people of every gender, age, race, ethnicity, and economic bracket. That means it’s very likely some of you listening may be dealing with this now — or you know someone who is.
I want you to know that you’re not alone. While only one in ten sufferers seek treatment on average, sixty percent of those who do make a full recovery. You are worth the journey towards recovery.
Thank you so much, as always, for listening. Until next time.