internal family systems: the necessity of compassion for even the destructive parts of ourselves


I just wrote a new post for Recovery Warriors and wanted to share here, too. While the story in this piece is about my eating disorder, I encourage you to consider what the destructive, misguided parts of you are and to consider these ideas from that perspective. 

I’ll never forget sitting at Geneen Roth’s retreat, furiously scribbling notes about some strange, fascinating thing called “Internal Family Systems.” I was 19, the youngest person in the room by a long stretch. My parents had sent me to her week-long retreat because, though my weight had been “normal” for quite some time, my relationship with food was far from it. So there I sat, wide-eyed in a room full of strangers 2,000 miles from home, when I first learned about Internal Family Systems (IFS) and gained a whole new perspective on my relationship with my eating disorder.

On and off for years, binging had been wreaking havoc on my psyche. I was so ashamed about it, yet the thought of not doing it at all seemed unfathomable. After every binge, I would sit in a daze of self-loathing, meticulously planning how I would get back on track and “make up for everything” in the following days. I abhorred the part of me that binged. It felt like a monster that took control of my limbs and made me do things I’d hate myself for an hour later. Why couldn’t I just STOP?

As IFS would describe it, the part of me that binged was a “firefighter,” a part that swoops in and acts fast when it perceives an emotional threat and reacts quickly to “take control” of the situation, whatever the cost. Firefighters want to distract your attention from painful feelings, often through impulsive behaviors that aim to be a “quick fix.” After a binge, one of my “manager” parts would then take over: assessing the “damage” and making a plan to get everything back in order and appear “normal” externally.

What Geneen helped me understand about these manager and firefighter parts of myself was that, as misguided as their idea of “help” was, their ultimate goal was to keep me safe, protected, and functional. To keep me from getting rejected, criticized, or hurt by others, or to have to face the parts of myself that feel too weak, needy, or vulnerable to accept (these are called the “exiles”). In that light, it seemed almost cruel to hate those parts of myself. Sure, they weren’t going about things in the best way, but their aim was both honorable and understandable.

Continue reading at Recovery Warriors.