Transforming Trauma Episode 030: Complex Trauma, Self-Sabotage, Diet Culture, and Eating Disorder Recovery with Iris McAlpin
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In this episode of Transforming Trauma, our host Sarah Buino interviews NARM Practitioner and coach Iris McAlpin. Iris specializes in eating disorder recovery, complex trauma, and self-sabotage. Iris also hosts a podcast called Pure Curiosity which seeks to facilitate nuanced conversations about the human experience and de-stigmatize mental health challenges. Iris shares that NARM has changed her life in being able to notice the ways that she puts pressure on herself and the ways that she tells herself that she ‘should’ be showing up in the world. Her intention for this episode is for listeners to also notice and be able to soften around the pressure that they place on themselves.
Sarah and Iris dive into how Iris began her work in eating disorder recovery, which began with her own healing and recovery from bulimia. Iris found that as she progressed in her recovery and was able to get control of the behaviors of her eating disorder, she began to turn her attention to her unresolved trauma, which was mostly relational in nature, that was at the root of the behaviors. NARM helped her to see this theme in a new way, as she came to understand that not only binging and purging, but “many other behaviors that we… throw under the umbrella of self-sabotage are really just coping tools,” for unhealed relational and attachment traumas. Iris saw that eating disorder behaviors are “a very ‘effective’ way to manage the dysregulation and… intense feelings that come up as a result of complex trauma.” Iris has been impacted by the emphasis in NARM not being on the behavior of a person, but rather on the inner-state that is underneath, driving the behavior.
To understand this more deeply, Iris takes the listeners through a deeper look at the trauma of diet culture, in which clients deal with intense self loathing and self hatred, shame of their bodies and body image, and obsessive thinking about food. Iris discusses the common understanding of eating disorders, and the misconception that they are driven by vanity. Iris sees this very differently, through the lens of complex trauma, and describes that “because we live in a culture with a lot of thin privilege and a lot of fatphobia, it has nothing to do with vanity… really it has to do with belonging.” She further specifies that even if there is a supportive community around the person struggling, the larger society still is not supportive. Iris shares that this desire for belonging is the key motivator for disordered eating, and until the client addresses this issue, the behaviors will continue.
Iris has found that NARM helps the eating conversations fade into the background, as individuals begin to place the emphasis on their relationship with themselves. She has found that to be true in her own recovery, sharing that “Anytime I was sort of trying to do a ‘frontal assault’ on the eating disorder, like trying to really focus on and dismantle that, it was kind of a trap for me.” Instead, she finds that by “working on other areas of my life, and examining those attitudes and beliefs and behaviors, it felt safer.” NARM has given her the context for this “ripple effect,” as she calls it, giving her a deeper understanding how, by attending to those deeper layers, we often find the behaviors organically begin to improve.
Iris and Sarah go on to discuss the Autonomy survival style in NARM, and how this adaptive survival strategy results in a lot of self-sabotaging behaviors. “There's a lot of pressuring of the self. There's a lot of negative self-talk. There’s a lot of efforting and rebelliousness… not only rebelling against perceived authority, but also rebelling against our own internal goals and agendas, which is part of the formation of a lot of self-sabotage behaviors.” These self-sabotaging behaviors can cause a range of behaviors from food issues, to toxic relationship dynamics, to procrastination, to fear of success. Iris expresses that NARM has helped her to ground her work in the utility and intelligence of these behaviors, rather unconsciously shaming her clients (as they shame themselves) for having them.
Iris shares several ideas of changes that she would like to see in the field of treating eating disorders. The first that she names is this shift away from focusing on eating behaviors, and getting to the deeper causes of those behaviors. Next, she would love to see trauma-informed models such as the NeuroAffective Relational Model, used in treating eating disorders. Finally, she is hopeful and interested in the re-emerging field of psychedelic-assisted psychotherapy, and feels that this treatment can have profound effects in supporting clients to recover from eating disorders when administered in a safe and therapeutic setting.
The two discuss the pitfalls and trauma that is inherent in seeing progress — whether it be client progress, our own healing, or our cultural progress — as a one-way, linear process. NARM has given both Sarah and Iris a broader understanding of what progress means, and as Iris shares, allows her to see that our healing often happens through “hidden paths that we're not able to see until much later.”
The two end their conversation discussing one of the biggest learnings that Iris has gathered in her work with complex trauma; she acknowledges that doing this deeper level of work can feel really scary at times. She shares about her own experience of confronting her triggers, and how NARM has taught her to work with her fear by using curiosity to guide her. “I really see those triggers as an invitation to open.” This ability to see that nothing is ‘wrong’ with our survival styles, and instead look at our growing awareness of ourselves as an opportunity to learn and make different choices is central to the NARM process.
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Iris McAlpin is a NARM Practitioner and coach specializing in eating disorder recovery, complex trauma and self-sabotage. She has both a private and group practice, and works with clients all over the world. Iris also has a podcast called Pure Curiosity, which seeks to facilitate nuanced conversations about the human experience and to destigmatize mental health challenges.