Hungry Wolves: False Self and True Self in Eating Disorder Recovery
By Dorie McCubbrey, PhD, MSEd, LPC, LAC, CEDS
You may have heard the Cherokee story about two wolves who are fighting. One wolf is evil and the other wolf is good. The legend states both wolves are within each of us, and the wolf that wins the fight is the one we feed.
The wolves could also be considered “selves” – one “false self” and the other, “true self.” Well-known psychoanalyst, D.W. Winnicott, is credited with coining these terms in the 1960s. The true self is the original sense of self at the time of birth, which continues to be “fed” throughout healthy development. The false self is “born” in an attempt to compensate for inadequate nurturing and is “fed” by adhering to other people’s opinions and demands.
Psychotherapist Stephen Cope explains, “The false self is born when the environment does not welcome the self to be as it is… When we are separated from our capacity to be with life the way it is, especially in our early development, our capacity to self-soothe is severely impaired. Our need for soothing and confirmation from external sources will be chronic and insatiable.” 1
Eating disorders are an example of this false self, obsessively seeking to self-soothe. The wolf of this false self has an insatiable hunger, which binge eating cannot satisfy, nor starvation deny. The wolf is “fed” through eating disorder behaviors but it’s never enough. Amidst the false self’s obsession, the other wolf is forgotten. It is as if there is no true self. The false self – eating disorder – becomes one’s identity.
Cope continues, “The false self, though initially an effective adaptive strategy, can eventually become a learning disability. It requires us to shut down our connection with the direct feedback from our bodies, our biocomputers. Our ideas about who we should be can be so powerful that they deeply impair our capacity to see who and how we really are. Over time, the ego becomes so invested in the false self that it begins to believe in its reality. Any threat to the false self, then, or any obstacle to the manifestation of its demands, becomes a threat to life itself. We will defend, to the death, whatever we consider to be ‘me.’” 2
No wonder our clients often resist treatment – and sometimes die as a result of their eating disorders. If their eating disorder is who they are, then who would they be without it? Having forgotten about their true self, the fear is that without their false self, there would be no self. They cling to their eating disorder like their life depends on it, even though their eating disorder is taking their life away.
It is essential to guide clients to realize their eating disorders are not who they are. It is equally essential to assist clients to discover their True Self, hidden beneath the false self of their eating disorder (note I deliberately capitalize “T” and “S” for emphasis). Recovery is about remembering and “re-feeding” one’s True Self.
On my own journey of recovery from eating disorders, I discovered five principles which provided nourishing wisdom to feed my True Self. At first, I thought that these principles were revealed simply to support my own recovery. But, as I honored the call to become an eating disorder counselor, I soon realized these principles were helpful for my clients, too.
I originally used the phrase “Intuitive Self-Care” to describe the practice of these five principles in eating disorder recovery. About five years ago, I coined the term Eating Disorder Intuitive Therapy (EDIT)™ to describe my comprehensive approach to the outpatient treatment of eating disorders. EDIT™ features evidence-based practices, with roots in Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, Dialectical Behavior Therapy, Acceptance and Commitment Therapy, Intuitive and Mindful Eating, and Transpersonal Psychology. EDIT™ offers clinical tools and techniques based on the five principles, which address the essential areas of eating disorder recovery.
EDIT™ involves guiding clients to make “thought edits” (ED-ITs), as the false self of their eating disorder (ED) is replaced by inner wisdom of the True Self – which I call the Intuitive Therapist (IT). The EDIT™ process gradually peels away the layers of the false self, to reveal the True Self who has been there all along. In addition, EDIT™ involves “feeding” the client examples of intuitive wisdom, modeling the voice of the Intuitive Therapist (IT), until the client can hear IT within themselves. Through ED-IT dialogues with our clients, we can facilitate the transformation from ED to IT – false self to True Self.
In my most recent book, entitled How Much Does Your Soul Weigh, I describe these five principles as “food for my hungry soul.” I believe these principles are a “diet” to nourish the True Selves of anyone in recovery from eating disorders. I emphasize, “We receive messages all the time, like breadcrumbs along our path, showing us the way. These breadcrumbs serve as markers, reminding us where we’ve been. And they serve as guideposts, pointing the direction in which we should proceed. The trick is to be open to the messengers and their messages. It’s up to each of us to find those breadcrumbs on our path, to pay attention to the messages that can help us on our journey.” 3
Below are the “breadcrumbs” from my path, now known as the five principles of EDIT™ – note what happens when the false self and the True Self “get the scent” of this “five course meal.” Which wolf do you want you or your clients to feed?
- Appetizer: Love Your Self
ED (false self) – “I’ll love myself when I look the way I should.”
The false self believes the body is its identity and self-love implies body-love. Therefore, the only way to have self-love is to have a body which conforms to ideal standards. However, these standards are elusive, and even if they are attained, somehow it is still not good enough. Ultimately, it’s never good enough.
IT (True Self) – “I love my whole Self, exactly as I am.”
The True Self has spiritual, emotional, mental, and physical aspects. There is an honoring and an acceptance of the entire Self – exactly as it is in the moment. There is no need to “fix” anything. There is freedom from the ideals of society and no effect due to opinions of others. The True Self is already “good enough,” always has been, and always will be.
Try this “taste” of EDIT™ – ED-IT Dialogue
Click on the link for a downloadable worksheet which clinicians can use to guide clients to see themselves as more than their eating disorders and more than their bodies. Discover Self-Love from this perspective of the True Self.
- Entrée: Be True To Your Self
ED (false self) – “I follow the rules and do what I should do.”
The “rules” involve eating, exercising, and other eating disorder behaviors, as well as countless expectations of others. The false self adopts these rules as one’s own, unaware they are being imposed from outside influences. Many rules contradict each other, which is a setup for the rules to be broken, followed by attempts to resume the rules with even more rigidity. The false self is adamant it is moving in the right direction, without realizing it is blindly going in circles.
IT (True Self) – “I trust my intuition, in all areas of my life.”
Intuition is an inner knowing, a gut feeling, an awareness which comes without any logical analysis – it is the “voice” of the True Self. Intuition is accessed to guide all decisions, including career direction, family, and relationship choices, as well as eating and exercise selections. The True Self may listen to the others’ opinions, then discern whether they are in alignment with one’s own values. The True Self has an inner compass, which always points in the right direction.
Try this “taste” of EDIT™ – Reasons WHY We Eat –
Click on the link for a downloadable worksheet which you can use to explore how the concepts of intuition can be applied to eating disorder behaviors. Discuss the three reasons WHY we eat, and guide clients to trust their INTUITION for the type and amount of food their bodies need.
- Side Dish: Express Your Self
ED (false self) – “Just put on a happy face, and try to fit in.”
The false self is very good at pretending everything is “fine” and acting in a manner to evoke acceptance from others. The false self may be compensating for past experiences where it was unsafe to show certain emotions. Eating disorder behaviors serve to keep emotions hidden. Any expressed emotions are “safe” masks the false self wears.
IT (True Self) – “I am grateful for my range of emotions, and freedom of expression.”
The True Self has insightful emotional awareness, healthy emotional expression, and safe emotional vulnerability. There is an ability to experience intense emotions, using a variety of coping skills as needed. All emotions are authentic expressions of the True Self.
Try this “taste” of EDIT™ – The Mask –
The false self is attempting to be an “ideal self” to please others and be accepted, while hiding a “shadow self” – any qualities which may result in criticism or rejection. Eating disorder behaviors are hidden in the “shadow,” but this is where the True Self has been hidden, too. Click on the link for a downloadable worksheet which clinicians can use to guide clients to uncover the “gold” in the shadow.
- Beverage: Give To Your Self
ED (false self): “Everyone else needs me; my needs don’t matter.”
Self-care is considered “selfish” by the false self, who will give to others in self-sacrificing ways. The false self doesn’t perceive any needs – except the need to engage in eating disorder behaviors.
IT (True Self): “I matter; nurturing my Self is my priority.”
Self-care is considered “Selfish” (with a capital “S”) by the True Self. This implies giving to enhance the Self – including others as Self. When “filled from within,” there is more than enough to share with others.
Try this “taste” of EDIT™ – Ways to Care for My Self –
Click on the link for a downloadable worksheet which clinicians can use to guide clients to explore the four aspects of the True Self – spiritual, emotional, mental, physical. Then, consider Self-Care activities to “feed” each aspect of the True Self.
- Dessert: Believe In Your Self
ED (false self): I’ll always be eating disordered.
This belief reinforces ED as one’s false self-identity. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy, ensuring the existence of ED indefinitely. However, the harmful effects of ED will eventually extinguish its own existence.
IT (True Self): I have a new life of freedom in recovery.
This belief affirms lasting recovery, with one’s Intuitive Therapist (IT) guiding the way. There is a sense of ease, as the True Self embraces ITs new life.
Try this “taste” of EDIT™ – Winning the War Within –
Sometimes the client is unsure which wolf they want to feed – false self or True Self, eating disorder or recovery. There can appear to be pros and cons to both. Click on the link for a downloadable worksheet which clinicians can use with clients, to shift their readiness for change.
Which wolf wins? By shedding layers of the false self, eating disorders (ED) weaken. By feeding the True Self, the Intuitive Therapist (IT) gets stronger. Ultimately, ED surrenders, and joins the winning side – the ED-IT transformation is complete, with false self in service to the True Self.
About the Author:
“Dr. Dorie” McCubbrey, PhD, MSEd, LPC, LAC, CEDS is a Licensed Addiction Counselor and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist with more than 20 years of clinical experience in the treatment of eating disorders, substance use disorders, and other addictions. She is the Owner and Clinical Director of Positive Pathways, which specializes in the outpatient treatment of eating disorders and addictions, with locations in Denver and Evergreen, Colorado. She is the author of two books, Dr. Dorie’s Don’t Diet Book (1998, Positive Pathways Press) and How Much Does Your Soul Weigh (2003, HarperCollins). Her expert commentary has appeared in numerous sources, including a recent interview about Drunkorexia which aired on ABC News. Her method of Eating Disorder Intuitive Therapy (EDIT)™ is an evidence-based comprehensive approach for eating disorders treatment, which has been used in a variety of clinical settings, from outpatient to residential. She is internationally acclaimed for her clinical expertise, including supervision, staff trainings, and keynote presentations. Dr. Dorie is passionate about providing mental health professionals with essential clinical skills for the effective treatment of eating disorders.
LEARN MORE: www.DrDorie.com
- Cope, Stephen. Yoga and the Quest for the True Self (1999, Bantam Books), p. 93.
- Cope, Stephen. Yoga and the Quest for the True Self (1999, Bantam Books), pp. 95-96.
- McCubbrey, Dorie. How Much Does Your Soul Weigh (2003, HarperCollins), p. 169.