On the heels of a wonderful #aedchat, I’ve been spending a lot of time thinking about the concept of externalizing eating disorders. (If you missed the tweetchat, you can read the entire transcript here.) To grossly over-simplify, externalizing an eating disorder refers to the technique of considering the eating disorder as a separate entity from one’s self.
Jenni Schaefer, author of Life Without Ed, is often credited as being the first to really popularize this idea. In her book, now ten! years old, she talks about assigning her eating disorder the name Ed and coming to think of Ed as an abusive boyfriend, one that she loathed but was also afraid to leave. Jenni shares over the course of the book how creating this distance between herself and the eating disorder allowed her to garner the strength to begin fighting back, eventually making real change and forging a path to recovery. Creating “Ed” was a starting point for her in changing the way she saw herself and the disorder.
Many other therapeutic traditions have adopted a similar approach. Narrative therapy teaches individuals to reconceptualize their disorders garner a new sense of strength and the power to rewrite their stories. to In Family Based Treatment, for instance, practitioners introduce the eating disorder as a separate entity, a grave disease, to patients and families. The rationale is that the family needs to be united against this “intruder.” Indeed, many families come to this on their own. They observe how this awful “being” has seemed to come to posses their child, leaving at times a shadow of their loved one’s former self in its wake.
In my own work, I’ve heard from countless individuals how externalizing their eating disorder helped them begin to distinguish between their own thoughts and those of the eating disorder. Over time they began to recognize their true (“healthier”) self as distinct from this disorder who’s goal was to trick and deceive them. Once they were able to recognize this distinction, they could begin to attend more to the true self, letting the Ed or Ana or Mia fade further into the background (or kicking him or her to the curb).
While I observe how powerful an intervention this can be, I do find myself concerned that it has become almost an expected part of the treatment process. When one group member in an eating disorder group I run expressed that this didn’t resonate for her, other members told her that she would “get there” and seemed to indicate this as a sign of her not being further along in recovery.
Eating disorders can be so insidious and I think externalizing and visualizing them can be helpful in undermining their strength. But this doesn’t work for everyone. And not only that, I think there are some potential costs that come for some with treating the eating disorder as a separate entity. Hearing Dr. Kelly Vitousek talk at a conference a couple of years ago, I was struck by a number of these costs.
For one, I worry that it oversimplifies a very complex and nuanced issue. One of the issues that we continually challenge in eating disorder treatment is the practice of dichotomous (“black and white“) thinking, and creating two selves – healthy/sick or good/bad — seems to perpetuate that approach. It could be more powerful, in some cases, to consider the complexity of the disorder and acknowledge that the traits we may associate with each “self” — e.g. perfectionism with the anorexia — are not solely good or bad. Those traits are part of the person himself or herself and can be used in pursuit of more or less workable goals.
Further, while they are painful and destructive, eating disorders often emerge initially as a means of self-protection and safety. For some, a the world has become too dangerous or chaotic or unpredictable and the eating disorder serves an important function. To separate it from one’s self and villainize it could prevent one from fully acknowledging the role the eating disorder has played.
Some individuals end up feeling invalidated by this approach, that what they think or feel is treated by others as “just Ed talking” versus him or her. When I once remarked to a patient of mine that it felt like “Ed” was the loudest person in the room and I wished I could hear her instead, she became very upset and reminded me that she was the person behind all of the words, and it was important that I hear them all, not dismissing any because they were “Ed’s.” It was an important learning moment for me, and I’m cautious, even when a patient externalizes her own disorder, to not treat what is shared in that way.
And finally, could seeing the eating disorder as distinct from one’s self impair accountability? I’ve observed this go various ways with individuals with whom I’ve worked. I do think there can be a risk is over-externalizing, to the point where an individual feels that they are actually powerless over this much stronger being. The person feels that he no longer has any control, so why bother? It requires energy to fight a monster, and if someone is physically malnourished and weakened by the symptoms, they could feel unable to take on Ed, finding it easier to submit.
The bottom line is that this is an intervention that should be used judiciously. It’s not a one-size-fits-all approach, and one has to consider the individual or one’s self before determining if creating an “Ed” is the right way to go.
Have you used this technique in your work or recovery? If so, what was your experience?