Eating Disorder Personality Traits? Flexibility & Creativity

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Eating disorders are mental health disorders that affect all areas of the mind and body. Anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge eating disorder are the three types of most common disorders.

Often they are characterized as a multitude of factors such as restrictive or fasting diet changes, excessive or obsessive exercise, purging or laxative use and behaviors, and a desire for the ‘think ideal.’

Typically there are changes in cognitive function, mood swings, and maladaptive eating patterns. Often physical changes occur as well as weight loss or gain, damage to the internal functioning of the body, and nutrient and vitamin abnormalities.


In a study that looked at 112 women from an Australian University found that when the women were asked to look at a common object and come up with new uses for it, the researchers found remarkable results.

16 of the 112 participants had a prior diagnosis of eating disorders, and these women showed much less flexibility than non-eating disordered women but had similar scores to creativity [1].

This study was able to make a connection in those with eating disorders that they are typically less flexible in how they approach a task. This result was further validated through the person’s performance.

Poor performance was seen when the person attempted to switch tasks, but rigidity was not seen as severely in the way the person thinks. This outcome was consistent with poor performance when they change tasks, but may not have general rigidity in how they think.

Eating Disorder Creativity and Flexibility Explained

Within eating disordered sufferers, cognitive rigidity is typically defined as a general inflexibility and difficulty in divergent thinking. This suggests that those with eating disorders are less creative than the general population.

This means, according to research, that divergent thinking is the ability to generate new information or solutions from known information [1].

Based on these findings, those with eating disorders, have significant difficulty in divergent thinking, flexibility, and some difficulty with creativity.

Woman on the shore think about her Eating DisorderThere are four characteristics of creativity.

  • First fluency is the ability to produce ideas or problem solutions in a short period of time.
  • Secondly, there is flexibility which is the ability to suggest a variety of approaches to a problem.
  • Third, originality which is the ability to produce new ideas.
  • Fourth, the elaboration which is the ability to systematize and organize the details of an idea [1].

Many studies use these criteria to study the rigidity within sufferers.

Frequently, clients who battle with eating disorders struggle with response flexibility which allows a person to pause before responding to put a space between the stimulus and response and between impulse and action as according to Siegel [2].

Often individuals struggle with extreme rigidity and chaos and struggle with coping skills in situations that are triggering.

Is It Inherited?

Eating disorders are knowing to be partially genetic, partial environmental, and partial societal influences but it leaves the question of are the personality traits of flexibility and creativity included in these factors?

Typically with anorexia and anorexia, neuroticism, obsessiveness, and perfectionism are part of the motivating factor of this subtype of the eating disorder.

Research has shown that these traits are partially genetic, but individuals who have these characteristics are typically more prone to depression, anxiety, and perfectionistic and self-critical symptoms [3].

Individuals who have eating disorders tend to base their perception and sense of self from external influences rather than from personal beliefs and expectations.

Typically they have a self-defeating cycle of fear and dissatisfaction of self when they are not able to meet their externally based goals. There is hyperfocus on food, body weight, size, and shape are a part of rigid thinking and mental inflexibility.

If they ‘fail’ at their unhealthy goals it is then hard for them to accept or hear comments or suggestions from others about their symptoms.

How to Increase Flexibility and Creativity

One way is to practice mindfulness. This allows you to look at yourself and the world around you objectively and within each moment. It brings the ability to rhythmic breathing, awareness of all senses, and the ability to focus on specific thoughts [4].

Cross country skiing

Mindfulness allows you to be non-judgmental about your self and body. Often specific holistic activities such as yoga allow for mindfulness focus while providing awareness of your body and its connection to your mind.

Another way to increase flexibility and creativity is through traditional therapies such as Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Acceptance Commitment Therapy.

These psychological therapeutic options are able to help individuals learn how to think more abstractly, build up solutions to problems, discover and problem-solve around triggers, and learn new coping skills with the help of a clinical professional.

Overall eating disorders are commonly known to establish inflexible personalities and decreased the ability to be creative in various situations.

Through the use of both holistic and traditional therapies, a sufferer can learn how to broaden their thinking and reactions to eating disorder symptomatology.

Image of Libby Lyons and familyAbout the Author: Libby Lyons is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Certified Eating Disorder Specialist (CEDS). Libby has been practicing in the field of eating disorders, addictions, depression, anxiety and other comorbid issues in various agencies. Libby has previously worked as a contractor for the United States Air Force Domestic Violence Program, Saint Louis University Student Health and Counseling, Saint Louis Behavioral Medicine Institute Eating Disorders Program, and has been in Private Practice.

Libby currently works as a counselor at Fontbonne University and is a Adjunct Professor at Saint Louis University, and is a contributing author for Addiction Hope and Eating Disorder Hope. Libby lives in the St. Louis area with her husband and two daughters. She enjoys spending time with her family, running, and watching movies.


[1] Burns, B. D., Zhang, Y., Wieth, M., & Touyz, S. (2017, October 19). An exploratory study of creativity and eating disorders. Retrieved November 18, 2017, from
[2] Building Response Flexibility in Clients With Eating Disorders: Improvisation and Embodying Addiction. (2015, February 11). Retrieved November 18, 2017, from
[3] Causes Of Eating Disorders – Personality Traits And Skill Deficits. (n.d.). Retrieved November 20, 2017, from
[4] Greenberg, J., Reiner, K., & Meiran, N. (n.d.). “Mind the Trap”: Mindfulness Practice Reduces Cognitive Rigidity. Retrieved November 20, 2017, from

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.

We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.

Published on January 5, 2018.
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