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Understanding Compulsive Eating through the lens of Internal Family Systems

A graphic of a pink head on blue background with the upper body of a pink mannequin inside holding up white puzzle pieces.

Do you ever feel out of control around food? Like something inside you has taken over and is driving you to eat? Well, you may be surprised to hear that’s exactly what’s happening…!

The Part of us who feels compelled to eat steps into the driving seat and takes over. It often has little awareness of consequence and exists very much in the moment “I want it and I want I now!”

Whether it's the anxious Part, seeking comfort in food, or the rebellious Part, defying restrictions and boundaries, or the hardworking Part looking for a reward, when these parts are in control, it can feel unsafe and overwhelming inside.

These Parts are often young and have taken on roles inside that are well beyond their capacity. Their impulsive and compulsive nature is a clue to their developmental age. Some have the energy of a teenager desperate for autonomy, “I’ll show you!”. Others are aged 7 or 8 seeking comfort and connection, some even younger. Our preverbal Parts don’t come with words, just a physical urge and an insatiable appetite.

Regardless of their age they need our help. Many are tired and confused and stuck in the past. They don’t know we have grown up, that we have the capacity to support them and that we can help release them from these roles.


Who Is Driving The Bus?

A useful analogy I use with clients to help them understand the ideas behind Internal Family Systems is to consider our Parts as passengers on a busy bus. These Parts represent various aspects of who we are, each with its own voice, needs and desires. When everything is in harmony, these Parts can peacefully coexist as passengers on the bus, allowing our true Self (the grown up you) to drive safely and comfortably towards the destination.

In contrast, when life gets crazy, stress increases and emotions run high, our Parts intensify taking up all the space inside and true Self is nowhere to be seen. With no grown up in sight, our Parts hustle for the driver’s seat unaware of the consequences.

In the midst of the carnage, we can call upon our true Self, the core of our being, to guide us back into balance. Our true Self embodies compassion, wisdom, and clarity, offering a steady hand to help our Parts return to their rightful place as passengers on the bus. Through increased self-awareness and introspection and a willingness to connect to our Parts, we can learn to navigate through life’s challenges and restore inner harmony.

Parts Believe They Are Helping

Whether you are engaging in compulsive eating, are focused on limiting food or exercising excessively, these behaviours are all driven by different Parts of you vying for control. They believe they are helping you in the best way they know how. They don’t realise that they have taken on a responsibility that is no longer theirs to bare.

Many are exhausted and in need of support but are too fearful of stepping down. “Who is this true Self anyway? Where has it been all this time? And why should I trust it?” These questions make so much sense given how hard and how long our Parts have been working for us. It's why it takes time to build trust with our Parts.

Getting to know them is like getting to know other people.

Whether it's our perfectionist Part who focuses on all the details, our people pleasing Part who prioritises others needs or the inner critic who blames and shames for any percieved error, we can learn to open our hearts and offer compassion for their positive intention and sacrifice. 

We can make a commitment to show up for them with genuine curiosity so we can learn of their motivations, understand and meet their needs. By nurturing each Part with understanding and acceptance, we create safety and a profound transformation can occur.

The Transformation

As we explore our internal world we uncover hidden wounds, limiting beliefs and unmet needs that drive our compulsive eating. We begin to heal past hurts and help our Parts (who so often view the present through the lens of the past), to rewrite the stories that have been holding us back.

They learn to trust us as they discover that true Self has their best interests at heart, that Self can hold space for everyone. That Self can lead with confidence, kindness and compassion. Over time, our Parts feel safe enough to soften back, knowing that the true Self (that exists inside each and every one of us), will lead them towards healing and integration.

As we become more familiar with the wonder of our inner world, we move towards wholeness, knowing that each Part has a valuable role to play inside. In honouring the unique strengths and vulnerabilities of each Part, we create a harmonious internal landscape where all aspects of ourselves have the opportunity to be seen, heard, and valued.

It will come as no surprise to me if you have made numerous attempts to resolve your challenges with food, only to find yourself back where you started. This is a familiar experience for so many of my clients. Regardless of what has come before, I invite you to consider the compassionate, transformative approach of Internal Family Systems.

You can start by simply asking yourself “Who is driving the bus right now?” If there is any kind of activation it’s likely to be a Part. Take a moment to say "hi" and let it know you are here too. The simple act of noticing helps us to separate; we are no longer the Part, we are with the Part.  Try it out, I’d love to hear how you get on!

If you’d like to do a deeper dive you can join me for 21 days as I guide you through the essentials you need to meet your Parts, build relationships and lead your team. Exploring our internal world is a transformative adventure of patience, self-love and trust and one where we can find the true meaning of peace and freedom within.

Until next time, take care of yourself, you are worthy of love and healing.


Ready for more...


If you’d like to get started on healing your relationship with food you can access my FREE 20 page guide Working with Hunger and Fullness through a Parts Lens here.

If you are a professional interested in my 6 week training course you can find out more here.

Celia Clark is a Food and Body Image Specialist, Therapist and Course Creator who uses a Parts Work approach to help smart, sensitive women find true nourishment from within. She loves to share what she knows, so that women around the world no longer have to battle with food, their bodies and themselves.

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Me and my lovely team look forward to supporting you!



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