Treating Eating Disorders Through the Lens of Internal Family Systems (IFS)

One approach I use in treating eating disorders is Internal Family Systems (IFS).  IFS believes that within each person there exists many “parts” of self or sub-personalities. Each of these parts developed over time as a way to try to help manage the system as a whole.

I know, this might sound crazy or very far-fetched. Yet, when looking a bit deeper at one’s own experience when trying to change a behavior, it’s often very easy to see this in play.

Identify the different parts of yourself

An example of this in eating disorders is the part of the person that wants to restrict food in order to change their body and then, often at the same time, another part of them that wants to binge on food.

While in sessions with clients, they often express frustration and confusion about this internal conflict. A common question is: why do I continue to binge when I so desperately want to stop?

When using IFS, I help clients identify the different parts of themselves, and understand what that part’s intention is, and what it needs in order to stop engaging in its problematic behavior. Having insight into these questions can help to dig deeper into one’s internal state and actions. By doing so, they are able to slow down and eventually stop the negative behavior.

Increase self-compassion

Another goal of IFS is increasing compassion for ourselves and our various parts. When we understand the positive intention of one of our parts, we can then have more compassion for it instead of hating it (and ourselves).

For example, the bingeing part is often a way to numb and distract from uncomfortable feelings. Having compassion for feeling overwhelmed for negative circumstances in one’s life can help them gently face them on their own or with help from others. They are able to take steps to address it instead of trying to bury it or numb from it.

IFS can also be helpful in exploring painful past experiences and increase compassion and self-understanding. When we visit these past experiences from our adult loving presence, it helps us see our past differently. Reframing our past can positively impact how we see ourselves today.

IFS can be a very helpful tool in understanding and shifting eating disorder behaviors, whether restricting, binging, purging, or anything else that gets acted out in the course of an eating disorder. I encourage you to do some research on this approach and see if it might be helpful for you. Here is a link to find a clinician trained in IFS. 


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–Written by Anna Clark, LMFT

Learn more about Anna here.