Here, I share my lived experience of how my food addiction and eating disorders operated in a complex system of warring parts.
Often clients ask me what the difference between food addiction and eating disorders is. I want to share my lived experience as one illustration of how they are linked but still different. I will share my experience through the lens of Internal Family Systems (IFS), which says that we are all made up of a system of parts.
Big disclaimer: There are many different experiences and nuances of food addiction and eating disorders and how people experience their interaction. I am using them as general labels for what are always individual experiences. This is MY lived experience and will not apply to everyone.
I’ve always been addicted to food and believe that I was born with a food addiction or acquired it in infancy. As decades of self-exploration and therapy have shown, my early life history and the history of my ancestors confirm that both scenarios are likely. My grandparents experienced the horrors of World War 2 Germany, including imprisonment, displacement, perpetration, extreme hunger, terror and uncertainty. This may have caused epigenetic changes exposing my system to addiction. In IFS, ancestral wounds such as these are called legacy burdens.
I also know that there was a fair bit of misattunement and lack of emotional connection, as well as medical trauma in my early infancy. This is attachment trauma. For an infant to not get attuned connection to its caregiver is a threat to survival. No wonder that my small infant brain needed to find external means (food) to attach, to regulate, to soothe, when emotional regulation through parental care wasn’t always optimal. One thing was certain: Regular feeding did occur. So food was the attachment that could be relied upon.
Due to the attachment trauma, there was deep shame in the system, at a primal, preverbal level. If that preverbal part could speak it would say “something must be wrong with me, I’m not getting what I need, there is no one here for me, I’m faulty and bad”. This is what we call chronic shame in the therapy world. I’m lucky to have found IFS because IFS is the therapy modality that has enabled me to access and metabolise this chronic shame, the core of my pain.
So, my food addiction was ever present from day one. My brain had developed in a way that was seeking MORE food to survive the overwhelm of dysregulation and chronic shame, as well as being predisposed genetically to addiction. My brain is wired for addictive processes to take hold. This gave rise to my bingeing part. Even as a young child I was compulsively eating and always on the look-out for treats. Food was just very attractive to me. Initially, this part was just overeating. It could overeat on any food, but with exposure to readily available processed food, my brain became hooked even more, causing my bingeing part to increase the voraciousness of its binges in response to uncontrollable cravings.
The eating disorders started later. At the age of 11 I was taught that I must eat less to avoid gaining weight. “You’ll get fat if you don’t watch yourself” is what I heard. In IFS, we call this a cultural burden. A burden that is put onto us by society’s transmission of social and cultural standards. It was also a legacy burden, because other members in the family also struggled with their weight and their self-judgment issues. So this was projected onto me and my body.
That’s when a polarisation developed in my system: On the one side, I had a part of me that really needed to eat. On the other side I had parts of me that would stringently control my eating to avoid gaining weight at any cost. Gaining weight would have meant being rejected, ousted, abandoned. To a system with early attachment trauma, this was a life threat. No way could we ever gain weight! We would end up alone and not survive. This was not only terrifying but also reignited the chronic shame of my infant part.
This inner polarisation, like a tug of war between two opposing sets of parts, gave rise to disordered eating behaviours in the service of protecting me from weight gain. To keep me safe, prevent rejection, and keep the pain of the chronic shame exiled.
I was in a horrible cycle. Sometimes my bingeing part would gain the upper hand. Following the binge, a restricting part would enter the scene, accompanied by a fierce inner critic, telling me I am not to eat anything but cucumbers and watermelon for three days. Only for the bingeing part to take the reins again after the restricting episode. Over the years, my addictive system of parts became very cunning and extreme. The more violent the binges, the more violent the inner criticism and restrictive measures.
In the eating disorders world, my behaviour would be classified as a mix between binge eating disorder (led by my bingeing part), bulimia, and anorexic behaviour (led by my restricting parts). Even though my restrictive part tried to vomit, it didn’t succeed, much to its dismay. So over the years, other parts were recruited and trained to take on the jobs of executing bulimic behaviours, including over-exercising, consuming laxatives, pursuing expensive juice fasting retreats and colonics. There was also a part constantly looking for the perfect diet, meal plan, nutritional fix. And parts that made sure I weighed myself every day, recorded everything I ate and counted calories, bought different size clothes to combat weight fluctuations, used expensive anti-cellulite body lotions, and studied my body in the mirror. This gave rise to another set of parts who held deep shame, self-hatred, hopelessness and desperation. They further exacerbated the ever-present chronic shame of my infant part.
It was an intractable situation. My bingeing part was trying to help me regulate, to soothe and care for me and keep me alive, through food! That’s the food addiction. My eating disorder, the restrictive system, was born out of the desire to protect me from the weight gain my bingeing part was causing. Being considered fat would have meant total rejection, abandonment, from my environment and all the people around me. That would have threatened survival and exposure to that horrible ever present chronic shame. It had to be prevented at all costs. It was the desperation of a system in a total bind, both sides trying to ensure my survival.
The way the cycle was broken was when all my parts became so extreme and desperate, they all got exhausted and I reached out for help. By that time, my daily life was completely consumed with this process every second of the day. All of my parts were spinning their wheels. Seeking help started my journey of recovery.
So, this is just one person’s illustration of how eating disorders might develop to combat a food addiction. For others, the eating disorder can come first. There are many, many scenarios. What they all have in common is strong polarities of warring parts that give rise to inner conflict, turmoil and desperation. And what they also have in common is that they cannot be solved without the help of others. Please reach out to start your recovery journey. I can imagine if your system is facing similar challenges, your parts must be exhausted! Let’s help them gain hope and trust that things can be different.
This blog is also presented in a slightly different format in the IFS Foundation for Self-Leadership's Parts and Self online journal.