Bulimia, Eating Disorders, Self-Criticism and IDL



Integral Deep Listening (IDL) teaches that we are asleep, dreaming and sleepwalking, lost in the drama of our life script. Wake-up calls must become tragedies, sickness and disease before they are loud enough for us to take them seriously. When that occurs the wake-up calls have already been going on for some time; the patterns that created them are entrenched and that much harder to reverse. These are reasons why crisis intervention is difficult and often creates additional problems.

In emergencies rationality tends to go out the window. When a person is in crisis and wants immediate relief they are not likely to want to invest the time and energy in doing an IDL interview and then following its recommendations. However, a crisis may be the only time IDL interviewing is tried, because desperation sets in and in such circumstances we tend to cast around for anything. This is a terrible reason to use IDL, because in such circumstances both improvement and worsening can be due to placebo but instead ascribed to IDL. We accept help from any source that convinces us it can provide relief; we jump at promises of quick symptom removal. We are therefore likely to compound our problem by trying interventions with side-effects that do serious damage. Cortisone, for example, provides amazing pain relief as well as long-term, irreversible bone loss, cataracts, indigestion and muscle weakness. Ativan, Xanax and Valium provide quick and impressive anxiety relief by acting on the same dopamine-activating pathways as do opioids such as cocaine, heroin and opium. In addition to creating addiction, these anti-anxiety medications come with a host of impressive side-effects, including dizziness, impaired reasoning and thinking, increased risk of car accidents and memory loss.

For example, Bulemia, or self-induced vomiting, is a chronic condition that takes on a sense of urgency when the bulimic feels full. They have to vomit. Saying “no” to that desire is not a rational possibility at that moment, and a person isn`t going to do an IDL interview instead of throwing up. However, there are plenty of times when the urge to throw up is not present when an IDL interview is possible. Once interviews have been done, the following of recommendations can substitute for purging.

When Carla, a young bulimic athlete did an IDL interview the sadness and anxiety she felt about her bulimia personified itself as a shark. How could listening to the perspective of an imaginary shark possibly help Carla get out of the repetitive, chronic drama that fueled her eating disorder? When Carla took the perspective of the shark, it said, “I am in Carla’s chest and heart; I infiltrate all of her body through her blood. Shark blood gets pumped through her body. I like it because I get to control Carla.”

Like many young women with eating disorders, Carla constantly focused on the condition of her body. Carla was at war with the shark and the shark was at war with her. The shark said, “Carla represents my soft side. I don’t like it! Her weakness makes it harder for me to achieve what I want to achieve. I would like to get rid of my soft side.” It became obvious very quickly that the abusive and persecuting voice of this shark provided Carla with major secondary gains. The shark said, “Giving Carla shit about doing things wrong makes her stronger so she will do better next time.” This is an example of a cognitive distortion, an emotionally-based irrational thought that we tell ourselves. It is as if we think, “Why use carrots when the mule moves quicker and farther when I use a stick? If a small stick won`t work it’s clear the mule needs a bigger one.”

Another secondary gain provided by the self-criticism that manifests as Carla’s eating disorder is the confidence it provides her. The shark said, “I am a part of Carla that feels very confident when it is in control.” Carla isn`t going to easily or willingly give up her eating disorder because of the powerful secondary gains that it represents for her. The act of purging itself creates more feelings of self-criticism that not only feel “right,” but increase Carla’s confidence that comes from feelings of being in control.

In addition to providing secondary gains, Carla`s eating disorder is maintained by her life script. The shark said, “I know how the world expects me to be (thin, beautiful and strong) and I need to be the person the world is expecting. You need to do these things and the world will get you where you want to be.” In other words, while the world is telling Carla that having an eating disorder is bad and that self-criticism is bad, it is also rewarding her when her outer appearance and actions conform to its expectations. Is this not a pressure all of us experienced growing up from our parents and teachers? Is it not continued into adulthood in our job pressures and the pressures we put on ourselves? In this respect, Carla’s bulimia is just an extreme case of the prison of common social scripting.

The shark provided a good reason why many people do not want to do IDL interviews: “If I were a ten in empathy that would make me weaker because I want to be focused on me all the time.” Isn’t this true? Haven’t we been rewarded all our lives for staying in control and punished when we lose control? Don’t we spend our lives inside our own heads, listening to our thoughts and feelings, focused on ourselves, our needs and our priorities, because that is how we maintain control? Don’t we feel threatened by sharing power, whether with others or with imaginary sharks? If empathy is power-sharing, isn’t it easily experienced as a diminishment of control? If we have been taught all our life to be strong and in control, how is it in our best interest to empathize with an imaginary shark or any other perspective? As rational adults empathy makes sense, but what needs healing in our lives is rarely the rational adult. Empathy is a giant leap of credibility for a scared child that knows it will be rewarded for fulfilling the expectations of others and punished if doesn’t.

What we discover in this IDL interview, as in most, is that the antagonist, the source of our conflict, is actually our ally and holds the keys to our recovery and rehabilitation. If this shark is such a persecuting source of self-criticism, why does it say, “If I were in charge of Carla’s life I would eat less and control what is eaten more. I would be a lot healthier and restrictive. She would do her sport with more confidence, like she deserves to be there. I do not get upset when Carla does things wrong; why should she? I don’t take things personally. I just do better next time!”

This imaginary shark is rational and has a lot of common sense. It contains the reason and wisdom that Carla has accumulated in her life, since it is a part of her, and it contains its own perspective, which is not at all stuck where Carla is. It understands how and why she has her eating disorder and purges, but it does not itself have an eating disorder or purge. This is because it has the confidence she lacks; it is not itself self-critical, and it does not take the opinions of parents, peers and society personally like Carla does. Consequently, it personifies emerging potentials that Carla can grow into if she listens to the shark and attempts to adopt its perspective toward her performances and her own self-image.

The shark says that it has appeared in Carla’s life because “I am what she needs…To be more in control…to be the best that she can be and stay in control…Me pumping my shark blood around through her blood helps her stay in control…” Here the shark is providing Carla with a specific recommendation: “When you want to feel more in control feel me pumping my shark blood around through your blood.” What doctor, therapist or coach has ever given such advice to a bulimic? It also recommended that Carla “imagine Ocean (a character from another interview) washing out the shark when Carla gets too hard on herself, when she realizes that she is doing things that are not the way they are supposed to be. When she needs to escape that part of herself. If she does so she will be happier, healthier, and more relaxed, less stressed…”

What did Carla take away from the interview? No interviewed character, including this shark, has all the answers. This shark will be helpful for Carla when she needs confidence. When she needs to accept herself she needs to shift and become Ocean. “This shark is in control and has the confidence that I need. I need it and it needs me. I need more confidence but I don’t need the shark taking over. But I let the shark take over! He has a very strong voice; he tells me it will be better; by the time I realize that it is too strong it has taken over my thoughts. This shark is interested in making me look better so I swim better so I get farther with coaches and competitions. The shark helps me in those ways.”

Does the expansion in self-awareness that Carla receives from her IDL interview cure her bulimia? No. However, what it does do is raise her awareness regarding those factors that maintain it. No expert is required to point out Carla’s secondary gains or motivations; she tells herself. She does so in ways that speak uniquely and appropriately to and for her. The advice of professionals and well-meaning friends often generates transference and counter-transference as well as parent-child dependency issues. These are avoided when Carla practices deep listening to her shark. Nobody is telling her what to do or not do; no one is telling her how screwed up she is or, on the other hand, minimizing her concerns with soothing, superficial nurturance and rescuing.

As a result of her interview, Carla understands more clearly how she keeps herself asleep, dreaming and sleepwalking, lost in the drama of her life script. It moves her out of an oppositional, conflictual relationship with her bulimia, her anxiety and even her self-criticism. That is to say, it moves her out of drama in her own internal dialogue. The shark provides Carla with perspectives that respect why and how she finds herself in her current predicament, moving her down the road toward recovery. Application of recommendations, combined with successive interviews, will continue the process. At some point Carla’s self-awareness will increase to a critical mass. When it does, she will outgrow her bulimia. What made crazy, dysfunctional sense in her life for years no longer will.

From Integral Deep Listening and Healing

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