Trouble Shifting Thinking Can Contribute to Shame & Disordered Eating

Shame and Embarassed

Contributor: Staff at McCallum Place

Shame is one key risk factor for body image concerns and eating disorder symptoms. When someone experiences shame, they may feel inadequate and fear that others think of them negatively. While everyone feels shame at times, difficulty shifting thinking away from shame and negative thoughts about the body can contribute to eating disorder behaviors.

The Role of Shame in Eating Disorders

Shame can be either internal, involving one’s own thoughts about the self, or external, involving how one thinks others see them. Those who experience shame for a long period of time may have negative thoughts about themselves, focus on their shortcomings, and view themselves as inadequate.

When an individual holds on to these negative thoughts about themselves, they become vulnerable to unhealthy actions like eating disorder behaviors. This behavior can also lead to more shame, causing a cycle that can be difficult to break unless the individual can shift their thinking.

What Is Psychological Inflexibility?

Psychological inflexibility refers to the inability to shift thinking and behavior to effectively face conflicts and achieve a certain goal [1]. This typically happens when someone wants to avoid internal discomfort. However, psychological inflexibility may contribute to worsened mental health symptoms.

One study linked psychological inflexibility to higher levels of depressive symptoms and difficulty sleeping [1]. Another study on adolescent girls found that psychological inflexibility was linked to worsened shame and, therefore, worsened eating disorder symptoms [2].

In the presence of psychological inflexibility, eating disorder behavior and feelings of shame and negative body image may emerge as part of maladaptive coping strategies [2].

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Maladaptive Coping Strategies & Eating Disorders

When someone thinks of coping strategies, they likely think of positive ones. However, not all coping strategies are positive. Maladaptive coping strategies occur when the individual struggles to understand their motives and values, become aware of their feelings, and adapt to the current environment.

Coping with uncomfortable feelings and facing conflict is a huge part of eating disorder recovery. Someone who does not practice positive, adaptive coping strategies may continue to turn to disordered eating during stressful events and while feeling negative emotions. This maladaptive coping can only worsen stress, anxiety, and other mental health concerns.

Replacing Maladaptive Coping Strategies with Adaptive Ones

Maladaptive coping strategies may worsen eating disorder symptoms. On the other hand, by developing adaptive strategies, those symptoms may lessen [1]. Adaptive coping can lead to relief from anxiety and stress, allowing for more chances for success in eating disorder recovery.

There are many different ways to practice adaptive coping strategies, including:

  • Cognitive reconstructing: This involves the ability to challenge one’s negative or distorted self-talk during times of discomfort and changing those thoughts to positive ones.
  • Distraction: This involves identifying the urge for unhealthy behaviors and instead distracting oneself with something positive, like listening to music or journaling.
  • Mindfulness: Mindfulness and meditation can help someone focus on the present moment to reduce anxiety and stress. Someone can do this by focusing on the breath and paying attention to sounds, smells, and other senses in their present environment.
  • Thought stopping: This involves stopping a negative or unwanted thought with a different mental or physical reaction. The goal is to replace the thought with something more positive. This can be as simple as saying “stop” to oneself when an unwanted thought arises.

If you are struggling with an eating disorder caused by shame and body image concerns, help is available.


[1] Kato, T. (2016). Impact of psychological inflexibility on depressive symptoms and sleep difficulty in a Japanese sample. SpringerPlus5(1), 712.

[2] Mendes, A.L., Canavarro, M.C., & Canavarro, M.C. (2021, August 1). How psychological inflexibility mediates the association between general feelings of shame with body image-related shame and eating psychopathology severity? Appetite, 163.

About The Sponsor

McCallum PlaceMcCallum Place Banner is an eating disorder treatment center with locations in St. Louis, Missouri, and Kansas City, Kansas. We provide comprehensive treatment for adolescents and adults. We also offer a specialty treatment program for athletes who are living with eating disorders. Our experienced treatment team works closely with each patient to ensure that they play a central role in their recovery process. We offer a full range of services to meet the unique needs of each patient and address all issues related to the treatment of eating disorders.

The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective on eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a 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 August 23, 2021 on
Reviewed & Approved on August 23, 2021, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC