Family therapy is one of the requirements of many eating disorder recovery programs. Although family dysfunction does not necessarily cause an eating disorder, it is widely recognized among researchers and clinicians that family dynamics contribute to the development of disordered eating habits. Family therapy brings to light the role each person plays in the family, looks at the implicit and explicit beliefs upheld by the family, and teaches healthier communication styles that build trust and respect within the family. It can be a powerful adjunct to the individual and group work that is done in eating disorder recovery. However, it’s also a modality of therapy many clients (and their family members) avoid.
Although I never attended an inpatient eating disorder recovery program, I’ve spent a lot of time in individual therapy. Inevitably in the course of my sessions, my counselor and I explore my own family dynamics. Over the years, I’ve gained insight into the roles I’ve played in my family, most notably “peacemaker”, “mediator”, “rescuer”, and “doer”. I feel blessed to be gifted with the traits that make it possible for me to bring peace to others, mediate between individuals in conflict, throw a life line of hope to those in despair, and take care of others. These very traits are at play in my friendships and in my profession as a counselor.
But, as is common in families, I became stuck playing these roles when they were no longer helpful to me or my family system. When I discovered that, I was able to talk with my counselor about making changes in the way I respond to family situations, which allowed me to redefine and broaden my role. If I had always been the peacemaker, my family members might not have learned how to resolve their own conflicts. If I had always been the rescuer, my family members might not have learned how to self-soothe. At the same time, if I remained in those roles, I might not have learned how to assert my feelings and needs. Breaking out of a well-defined role is quite difficult. It’s just like starting a new exercise; you have to use new muscles until they are strengthened and the new behaviors are easier.
Think about your own family dynamics for a moment and take some time to read about some common dysfunctional family roles by clicking here. Do members of your family play a particular role? Perhaps someone is the scapegoat. Maybe someone else is the loner. Maybe there’s a “doer” in your family. Is someone the hero? Is there a mascot or class clown of the family? Maybe there’s a critic or even a manipulator. Now think about the role(s) you play. How helpful or hurtful is your role? How does it keep the family system “stuck”? What might happen if you slowly break out of that role? (Warning! Changing any part of a family system will change the family dynamics, so be prepared for push-back and seek the support of a counselor as you do make changes.)
When I realized that I no longer had to play the mediator, peacemaker, rescuer, or doer roles, I no longer felt obligated to put my needs aside in order to tend to the needs of others. I had the freedom to feel and express my emotions more openly to my family members instead of avoiding them and stuffing them down with food or binge-eating. The more flexibility there was in my family, the more open we all became to simply noticing the many gifts we bring to the system. Now we’re able to listen to each other’s needs, respect our differences of opinion, and trust that we will work through the challenges we face.
Peace, joy, and health,