One of the more effective models I use in my practice comes from Internal Family Systems (IFS) Therapy, developed by Richard Schwartz, PhD. Working as a family therapist with bulimic women, there were many people in the room who all wanted the system to work, but they often had very different (even contradictory) ideas about how to achieve that. Over time he noticed that a similar process goes on within individuals: all of our parts want satisfactory resolutions to our problems, but they may have very different (even contradictory) ideas about how to achieve that. It’s not multiple personality disorder (which is better defined by significant dissociating between parts); it’s just that we have different parts within us that are sometimes at odds about what they think needs to be done in a particular situation. Dr. Schwartz noticed that when these parts feel safe and have their concerns addressed, they are less disruptive and more likely to accede to the leadership of what he calls the capital-S “Self.”
One way to visualize this model is to imagine that:
you = a company
your Self = the CEO of that company
and all your parts = various Department Heads of that company
(This is not an original idea of mine, but I forget where I came across it originally and I haven’t seen it since.) When the company has to make decisions about how to allocate resources or what direction to go in, the company holds a board meeting of all the relevant Department Heads. At this meeting, each of the Department Heads attempt to influence the rest of the board to see things the way they do and go in the direction they think is best. It’s the job of the CEO to listen to all of the concerns of the different Department Heads, consider the needs of the company as a whole, and make final determinations on how to allocate resources and move the company forward. Here is an example of someone who has an eating disorder (let’s call her Mia, for bulimia):
Before Mia comes in to therapy, her Eating Disorder (ED) part has been so loud and authoritative (plus the CEO has been so absent or ineffective) that it has been as if ED is the CEO. With that kind of power, ED has wreaked havoc in Mia. For example, ED says “We need to eliminate sugar, for good this time! That will solve the weight problem, which means we can be thin without throwing up.” When ED is in charge, there is very little discussion about this plan: Mia eliminates sugar (for hours, days, or weeks), finally succumbs to the cravings (again), then throws up, binges excessively on sugar (because “F- it! I’ve already messed up!”), and purges again. Then ED yells, “No more sugar!” and the cycle repeats.
When we use this model, the goal is to get the CEO back at the head of the table and ED back in its place as one voice in the mix. When the CEO is in charge, it can facilitate a discussion between ED and the other parts to find a plan that the CEO decides upon. Here is an example of how that might go:
The CEO listens to ED’s concerns (which are the loudest and most demanding), then asks another Department Head (let’s say Body) what it thinks about ED’s proposal.
Body says, “I like having the energy we have when we’re not eating so much sugar, but the bingeing and purging that follows is really hard on me.”
ED shoots back, “Well if you would just stop with the cravings, we wouldn’t be bingeing and then we wouldn’t have to purge!”
Next the CEO asks Wisdom what it thinks about the issue.
Wisdom says, “I’ve noticed that when we go to one extreme (like no sugar), we always swing to the other extreme (binge on sugar) which sends us to still another extreme (purge everything). Those times when we listen to what our [dietitian, therapist, doctor] says (ignore all this good food/bad food stuff, eat when we’re hungry and then stop when we’re full) we might not lose a ton of weight, but we have a life. We have energy. We have access to our brain. Our mood is even-keel. We have time to actually do the things we’re interested in like [school, career, relationships, creative projects].”
ED reluctantly agrees that Wisdom has a point and says, “Yah, but we don’t get down to X-pounds that way. We have to get down to X-pounds; that’s the most important thing.”
Perfectionist seconds this, adding, “If we get down to X-pounds, then we’ll be more attractive, our improvement rating will go up, and we’ll feel better about ourselves. All of that will make us more successful.”
Wisdom, respectfully says, “Really? We need to lose weight to be loved? To be successful? Has that been true for others [Oprah, Adele, every woman over X-pounds]? Losing weight is more important than [this relationship, this goal, this dream]?”
The CEO asks if there are any other parts that question ED’s priorities.
Body pipes up and says, “All I want is to be healthy and have energy to do the things I want to do. I don’t really care what I weigh.”
Self-Compassion speaks up and says, “ED, I understand why being X-pounds is so important to you. If I thought that being a certain weight or size was a necessary prerequisite for love and success like you do, achieving X-pounds would be a top priority for me too. But it’s not true that we have to be a certain weight or be a certain size to be loved. [Parents, lovers, spouse, children, friends, co-workers, etc.] love us as we are. They’ve loved us no matter what our weight has been or what size jeans we wear. Those kids in middle school who called us fat…they aren’t even in our life anymore. Would we even want someone in our life who judges us based on our weight? What kind of person does that?”
Shame, who has been quiet up until now says, timidly, “But it’s different for us. Oprah and Adele, they’re talented, so it doesn’t matter what they weigh. We’re not special. We need to be X-pounds to be special.”
Self-Compassion replies reassuringly, “Oh, Shame, that’s just not true. We are special no matter what we weigh. Our [child, spouse, parent, friend, beloved pet] could not imagine this world without us in it. And while we are special, we are also no different from anyone else on this planet: we have flesh, fat, weight. We take up space. We also have [empathy, talent, love, strength, courage, skills, humor, intelligence, caring, etc., etc., etc.]. We need our body to be the person we are, not a certain size.”
Wisdom says, “Actions speak louder than words. I vote we demonstrate for ED, Perfectionist, and Shame (as well as all the other parts who think our worth is dependent upon how much we weigh), that life is better when we don’t try to purposely manipulate our weight. How about we give our [dietitian, therapist, doctor] x-amount of time to try their methods out and see how that goes?”
Body quickly chimes, “I’m in!”
ED yells, “It’ll ruin us! We’ll blow up like the Blueberry Girl from Willie Wonka!”
Perfectionist warns, “If we give up now, we’ll never be able to get back on track!”
So now CEO has to take all this in and make a decision, based on the good of the whole. Which choice would you make if you heard all the concerns/ideas laid out like this from your various parts?
This model is a great way to 1) get to know your different parts and their concerns, and also (on a deeper therapeutic level) 2) practice accessing your CEO/Self. While, in any given situation, Mia’s CEO might opt to go with ED’s advice, the CEO will be monitoring the results of that decision to see how it turns out. Being conscious of the consequences of ED’s advice from CEO/Self is much different than experiencing it solely from ED’s limited perspective. CEO/Self is able to take in much more information and assess it in a much more mature/responsible/objective fashion than any one part alone can because it’s scope and capabilities are deeper and wider than any one part.
What parts of yourself would you benefit from getting to know better?