From the outside, your life looks polished. You’re talented, successful, and strong. And your perfection safeguards you against suffering. Everyone assumes you’re fine, and you could hide in plain sight.
But the truth is that inside, you feel like a fraud. From childhood, you’ve been gaslighted by your own gifts and you suffer in silence. You use your own body as a canvas to screen your pain, shrinking in a desperate bid to be visible. In her debut memoir, Ghost, Iona Holloway explores lost childhood, identity webs, hot shame, emotional freeze, love, and lineage, to tell the story of how to change not just behaviors, but beliefs. How to ask for help. How to let go of perfect.
This memoir is haunting, vulnerable, blunt, and Ghost is a story of how Iona became her own guide on the hard journey of coming home to herself.
Drew Appelbaum: Hey, listeners. My name is Drew Appelbaum and I’m excited to be here today with Iona Holloway, author of Ghost: Why Perfect Women Shrink. Iona, thank you for joining. Welcome to the Author Hour podcast.
Iona Holloway: Thanks for having me. I wish I had a podcast voice like you. I’m going to try my best.
Drew Appelbaum: You’re doing great and you’re going to do great. But let’s kick this off. Can you give us a quick rundown of your background?
Iona Holloway: Yeah, sure. So, I’m from Scotland and I’ve lived in the US for the last 11 years. I ended up coming over the Atlantic when I was recruited to play Division One Field Hockey at Syracuse University. That’s how I got over this side of the world.
I grew up, very athletic, artistic, and also a real perfectionist. That is very much part of my story and this book. My background is in sports, it’s in creativity, and I’ve worked as a creative director for most of my 20s. I’ve really transitioned into that since I started a lot of my own healing journey, which started in my late 20s.
A lot of my life up until that point had been ruled by a pretty brutal relationship with food and my body. I’m very much a high-functioning, struggling woman, and no one really saw and just assumed I was fine.
A lot of my experience has been one of shining outwardly in my life and struggling internally with a lot of stuff that no one really saw. That’s really what brought me here, I guess today. It’s the reason why I wrote Ghost in the first place. It’s been a wonderfully cathartic, creative, and expressive, and really meaningful experience for me. So that’s me.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, why was now the time to write this book? Was there this moment of inspiration, an aha moment? Is it because you had the time because COVID hit the world?
Iona Holloway: The simple reason that now was the time to write this book was because I finally had something that was worth writing about. I also had the energy and emotional space to use my gifts to write a book. I never grew up dreaming about my wedding. I grew up talking about writing a book but never had any real understanding of what it would be about. It was something that I was going to do.
Throughout my life, and especially during my 20s, I lost all energy and drive to do anything creative for myself because a lot of my energy was limping in a lot of suffering.
Coming out of that into the other side of quite a long time of very dark years, I also feel like I emerged with a really powerful story to tell. I actually started my writing journey with Ghost–I was checking my emails. It was exactly a year ago, so mid-December, that was when I decided to write my book. I started in late January. And this is coming out in January. The short answer is, I finally had the energy and the space.
Drew Appelbaum: Who is this book for? Is this for women only? Can men read this and gain insight into that world as well?
Iona Holloway: Absolutely! But I would say that I wrote this–the book is called Ghost and I wrote this book for women who I call ghost women. So, these are high-functioning, struggling women who hide in plain sight, whose competence makes them almost invisible because the quality of their output is still high, but who internally struggle.
I wrote this book for women like that because that is the woman that I am and so often, my experience was invisibility. No one really understood what was going on, so that was the driver for Ghost. However, I think this book is a really powerful resource for anyone who thinks that they may know someone who is shining outwardly and perhaps invisibly and silently struggling internally.
I’ve had feedback from folks who have read it early, who have said, “My wife needs this. My daughter needs this.” I think it translates well to anyone who knows a ghost woman. If you don’t think you know one, you definitely do. They’re everywhere, they’re just invisible.
Drew Appelbaum: I think a lot of people come in with an idea of what their book is going to look like when they begin writing. But then end up having a lot of learnings and breakthroughs during the writing process. Did you have any of these learning or breakthroughs, maybe some research that you did or through that introspective journey of the writing process?
Iona Holloway: Yes. I mean, the whole concept of struggling invisibly and hiding in plain sight, and even the phrase ‘ghost woman’ didn’t come to me until I had written a whole manuscript and thrown it out. So, I wrote a very quick, fast, like six-week, maybe eight-week manuscript in late January and February. I remember reading it back and realizing that one, it wasn’t a book but two, it had like a couple of nuggets of goals about where I kicked on this creative vein of the ghost woman and all the invisible suffering.
I guess I am lucky that I am somewhat used to the creative process, having worked in design for many years. It didn’t feel like I was throwing away a manuscript. It felt like I’ve found my story.
I wouldn’t say that this was a formally researched book. It’s a book that was born into being through lived experiences. And actually, part of that was through writing it and my own experiences crystalized. I was able to gain a lot of insight into what I’d actually been working through all this time. I think even perhaps that being part of the creative process made this book special for me. It’s not that I wrote it for me, but I feel like I understood myself through writing it and I only hope that that can serve the woman and people who love Ghost Woman when they read it too.
You Are Not Alone
Drew Appelbaum: Now, you kicked off the book with a phrase, “Women like us.” Can you talk about that and your meaning behind it?
Iona Holloway: Yeah. Sure. I even think the fact that I say ‘women’ but it’s the plural is kind of striking. Because I think so many ghost women, so many women who are high functioning women who get through their life through their own strength, and tenacity, and sheer force of will often think that they are alone in their experience. That no one could perhaps understand what they’re going through or that there’s no one else on this planet who has quite the same tolerance for pain and suffering. And in reality, and this is my lived experience, and it’s one that has been proven to me over and over again, having worked with a lot of women through this now, is that ghost women–it’s not a singular thing, this is a plural experience. This is a collective experience of a certain type of woman.
I really wanted to start the book with that call. You are not alone. You may feel like you are, your experience to this date, and your life may present otherwise, but I see you. I know what this experience is like and here are all the reasons why I know–I don’t know your exact experience, but I know life experiences and I’m here to hold you and let this be a safe space for you to learn that you’re not alone–that you can rest on someone else, and that there is no shame in being a human being. That’s why I start the book with that statement.
Drew Appelbaum: You also mentioned that a ghost woman, or ghost women, the assumption is that, whatever they’re doing, they don’t need help. And being the one that no one asks about is not a good thing. Can you talk about that dichotomy between being perceived as not needing much, but in fact needing more, and why this pain is invisible to others?
Iona Holloway: Yeah, sure. In Ghost, I talk a lot about the evolution of the gifted child into the invisible woman. I believe very strongly that as human beings, our identities are really just an entangled collection of storylines written, first by others about us, in their attempt to understand who we are. And then we become the collectors of the evidence that we affirm and validate those stories. So, in my experience and the experience of the woman I’ve worked with, so many of the stories that we’ve had going up are, “She’s so perfect. She’s so talented. She’s good at everything. Everything comes naturally to her.”
These stories aren’t offered to us cruelly. They’re offered as compliments. But actually hearing that often enough as a young person, who is talented, sure, but no one is perfect. Perfect is not a construct that exists in humanity. It’s entirely made up.
Becoming a woman, first a child, and then a woman who is in pursuit of confronting the perfect is what we are, is a very destructive patch to be walking. And it’s a very, very fearful path. Because when your identity is, “I am perfect,” there is no wiggle room. There is no space to be human. There is no space to ask for help. Because if the assumption is that we are not just good but perfect at everything, who are we to put up our hand and say, “I need support”? It obliterates our identity.
That is why for so many young girls who grew up into strong, and capable women who are incapable of asking for help, ultimately end in kind of a lot of pain. Because the story of perfect is something that starts off harmless and becomes a noose. I’ve seen it. I mean, I’ve experienced it. It just tightens around your life as the years roll on, as it gets harder, and harder and harder to maintain the perfect façade.
Whether it’s your body, or your job, or whatever it is, your relationship. It starts to make you shrink in a lot of ways. That’s the pulling apart of yourself. You’re dying for help, you’re screaming silently for help. No one is hearing it because from the outside, it all still looks very polished and perfect and there’s no way to ask for help. That is the experience of so many women who are too good for their own good, and have grown up and lived their lives trying to validate the story of perfect.
It Is Impossible to Be Perfect
Drew Appelbaum: What would you say to women who would rather hold it inside because of the fear of opening themselves up, to being vulnerable and exposing their fears to the outside world?
Iona Holloway: I would be very honest. You’re going to break. I can’t tell you exactly the timeline that it will happen on, but you will break. Because it’s impossible to be perfect. And at a certain point–I called it the reckoning. I realized that ghost women have a very, very high tolerance for pain, far beyond what most people can imagine. Because our identity is dependent on our ability to work invisibly to maintain the façade of perfect.
You will have to be brought to your knees to pay attention. And it will happen. Again, I don’t love saying that, but the reality is that when you are as strong as the woman who needs to read this book are, sometimes it takes being brought to your knees to really pay attention.
If someone is saying, “I don’t want to be vulnerable,” I am telling you it’s not even a choice because at some point, you will be made to be vulnerable, and that’s actually the most valuable and important moment of your life. It changed mine.
Drew Appelbaum: In this effort in seeming perfect on the outside, appearance plays a major role. You mentioned that many ghosts go to war with their bodies. Can you dig into what going to war with your body means, and maybe some of the signs that women can and should look for to find out if they’re stuck in that cycle?
Iona Holloway: Something I realized a long time ago, and I think was reaffirmed through this book, was I never really cared about being pretty. It wasn’t anything to do with me being a beautiful woman. Going to war with my body was my attempt to be a strong woman.
The way that my body allowed me to do that is I was able to pour so much pain, so much of my own internalized self-hatred, so much of my emotional anguish into fighting my body. Into whittling it down into the smallest, most impressive little package that I could possibly muster. It’s not that I go swimming as a thin woman, it’s not even that I go swimming as a small woman. It’s the pursuit of shrinking and the ability to use your body as a way to scream your pain in a way that strengthens you rather than weakens you. I can’t tell you how many times I was rewarded for how brutally I treated my body, and actually when so much of my ease was otherwise assumed.
People didn’t assume how easy it was to have my body because it was so clear that it was such an extended effort and body of work that it took to create such a lean, muscular, tiny body that it was pretty much the only time where I felt human. And restricting my food was one part of it. Unfortunately, it also rebounded often into these monstrously large binges as a response to so many years or periods of time of restriction.
I often feel weird saying this, but it’s true so I’ll share it. I was one of these women that were so furious that I wasn’t anorexic–I viewed it as a character default. I wasn’t able to start the way that I wanted to. So, for me to be impressive, I had to use exercise. And because I was an athlete representing my country because I was an all-American division one athlete, it was appropriate for me to be behaving that way, or at least that was the silent implication.
In short, the shrinking, the pursuit of shrinking the body is an acceptable way for strong women to express their pain in a way that strengthens rather than weakens them. If you think that you might be doing this, it’s probably an indication that you are intentionally dieting, intentionally restricting, thriving off, feeling hungry, using exercise as a weapon rather than something that connects you to your body. I know, unfortunately, ghost women who purge.
The other thing I want to say about this is, there are plenty of women, ghost women who don’t go to war with their body in such an extreme way as I did. But it was a huge part of my experience of releasing internalized aggression and pain. I have met a lot of women that perhaps didn’t quite rise to this level. Some did but have definitely had this really torturous history of feeling unsafe, broken, and out of control with food and their body.
Learning How to Be a Human
Drew Appelbaum: Now, when you take steps to come out of the shadow and expose those vulnerabilities and weaknesses, which we all have, what can someone expect in the early days of bringing their true selves into the world? What’s the difference between a perfect healing journey and an honest one?
Iona Holloway: It’s a great question. I often think the answer to it is one that people don’t really want to hear, which is that healing, like healing work, learning how to be a human, practicing vulnerability, it can feel very beige and very average, and contrast to incredible highs and crushing lows of the roller coaster of fighting for perfection. I find that in choosing to let go of perfect, choosing to let go of dieting, choosing to allow myself to express why I was living way, it felt very dull and it felt slow and it didn’t feel particularly impressive.
In the book, I call this the thaw. And it really does feel like that. We just had a snow storm today and I’m looking outside and it’s beautifully white crisp snow. This is not that. The thawing of the perfect self and the surrendering of that is a bit more like that kind of muddy feeling of spring, where the snow is being trodden down and it’s merging with the grass a little bit. And honestly, the softness, and the slowness, and the gentleness of that experience is something that women like I was and women who will be reading this book, we are actually dying for that experience. To be gentle with ourselves. To be softer. It’s terrifying.
Don’t get me wrong, it can be terrifying but there is something to be learned. I talk always at the start of women’s journeys about acceptance and permission, acceptance of gentleness, acceptance of what we’ve done to ourselves all this time. And permission to try a new way. We can’t heal the same way we’ve been haunted. We have to change our tools and softness is one of them. But I won’t sugarcoat it. There’s a slight mediocracy to the feeling of healing, and that’s something that we all need.
Drew Appelbaum: Now, while you’re going through the process of healing, you’re bringing down fears, you’re becoming vulnerable, you’re breaking down that wall that you’ve put up. You might look back at your past and see that you might have betrayed yourself, and you might have hurt innocent people along the way. What would you say to women who look back and find themselves in the same situation?
Iona Holloway: You went to war with bad tools. I think that’s the only way to look at it. We only know what we know. And then when we know more, we have to be very kind to the version of us who is doing her best of what she knew. That’s the way that I look at my own lived experience.
Why I used my body, why I pursued perfect with such a maniacal focus. And I have a huge amount of compassion for that version of me. I encourage all women, as much as they can, to find compassion for the version of them that was trying her best to survive the only way that she knew how. And that’s not to say that we get to just wipe the slate clean and not take, perhaps, the emotional responsibility for some of the things we’ve done.
I have lists of women that I hurt along the way. I hurt my sister along the way. I reached a certain point in my journey of healing where I chose to actively apologize, but that’s not something that we need to be concerning ourselves with on day one of learning to be a human. This is a process. Everyone is in process–I will say that. I’m still very much in process, but we can’t heal shame by pouring more shame on top of it. We are not serving ourselves.
We say that we are now ready to care about ourselves. We’re saying that we’re now ready to do the work of letting go of perfect and finding a new way. We cannot build that on a foundation of shame because that is never going to work.
I always encourage a huge amount of kindness, a huge amount of compassion, and perhaps at a certain point, the emotional responsibility and choosing to right, perhaps, what you perceive as the wrongs along the way.
Drew Appelbaum: As you’re doing this work, you’re moving on, you’re becoming this new person, your real self. And unfortunately, with that, you might have to leave others behind. Did you leave people behind during your transformation, and how do you go about cutting people out of your life?
Iona Holloway: Yeah. I think that I don’t know if I would go as far as cutting out, but I think that often. I’ll say women because that’s the focus of the book. Often, so many women are bonded over our shared suffering. I didn’t have a lot of friends, I’ll be honest. But by the end of it, I was very much alone. But I still had acquaintances, people that I talked to. And a lot of those experiences were shared suffering. How bad our lives are, how horrible our bodies are, the next diet that we’re going on, and so on and so forth.
When you’re committing to do this stuff, I’m not saying cut out your loved ones, whatsoever, but I think you have to have your eyes open and a high standard for what’s going to support you in your journey and what’s going to hold you back.
I also had lots of beautiful evidence of people evolving with me in my journey. I’ve had experiences of friendships blossoming and blooming and deepening as a result of me becoming more of myself. Almost like they were ready to be my friend before I was ready to be theirs. I’ve had that experience with many women, which is a beautiful one. But I do think that there is some loss. There is loss of personal identity. There is loss of the shared comfort of suffering. And that might sound contradictory, but suffering is actually comfortable because it’s known.
Sometimes friendships, relationships, acquaintances, connections are built on that. And that is a very big energy drain and one that I would definitely invite people to really take a look at. And it’s the same even if we want to raise up to the level of social media. Choose the world that you want to see on there. I unfollowed pretty much everything that I was consuming because it did not support the life that I was wanting to live now. I actually see that as a really important step too. We can’t become what we cannot see. So, choosing to focus your attention on what you desire and seeing more of that rather than seeing what you’re living behind is actually, I think, is an act of self-love, and care and respect to do that.
Drew Appelbaum: You mentioned at the end of the book that the book is not a cure for women who feel like they’re shrinking. However, you feel like by sharing your story, that women could potentially see your story in themselves. For people who do see your story in themselves, what were the first steps or day one be like to start reversing the course of their life and coming back into the light with their whole self?
Iona Holloway: That’s a great question. The first thing I’ll say about that is, and I talked about this at the end of the book, the difference between knowledge and wisdom. I think it’s wonderful to read a book, but reading a book alone will not change your life.
How you bring your newfound knowledge to bear and allow it to cook a little in your lived experiences is how you create embodied wisdom. My clients I think are bored of how often I say this–integrate. You have to integrate this work into your life or else it remains knowledge on paper. That in and of itself, when you almost have seen what’s possible but you’re not choosing to integrate it, that in and of itself is self-sabotage and a lack of self-respect and love.
But for those who perhaps read this book and find a part of themselves or see a part of themselves in this work, and want to take a first step, I think I would offer two things. One is really taking an inventory of all the ways where you are shrinking in your life, or forcing yourself into a position of perhaps trying to be the perfect fill in the blank. And just let it sit there and let it be and acknowledge that it exists. This goes back to what I’m talking about with permission and acceptance.
Trying to bring a neutral gaze to what you have moved through and say, “Okay. Here we are, ground zero,” if you will. Then the next step–and this is the first step I like to take with all the women who work with me is, “Let’s imagine what we’re going to be living six months from now or a year from now. Let’s create a future self-projection of who I desire to be once I have healed even just a little bit.” This can take the form of a letter. I also love to do visualizations. I always encourage playlists, mood boards.
I am creative at heart. Anything that helps you really connect to a desired feeling and outcome is a really, really powerful first step, and it’s also a very important one because this work is not always easy. Just because you’re healing doesn’t mean it’s without pain. And the pain has to have a purpose.
You can’t just be rolling around in your pain being like, “Oh my goodness! This is what I’ve done, and this is what I did, and here are all the ways I’m broken.” You better be committing to creating the most compelling North Star that’s going to pull you through this work. Because through that, you have transformation.
If we’re shooting for the future self, if we’re shooting for me in six months from now, and imaging what that experience could look like on the days where you do not want to do this, on the days where you want to go back to the old ways, you get to borrow the visual of that wisdom and use your future self as your own inspiration. I think that’s a really, really important and powerful part of this work.
We cannot just roll around in our pain. We’ll stay there forever. We need to have something. Not a goal or a concrete set of lists of expectations that we’re working towards. More joy, more sense of freedom, safety, and my body, that kind of thing. You can’t fail with feelings. We can only feel more of them. So, establishing that at the beginning is a really, really important step in all of this.
Drew Appelbaum: That was such a great answer. In writing a book, especially like this one which will help so many women is such an accomplishment. And though we only really scratched the surface of the book today, it is incredibly vulnerable. It is so interesting. It’s such a great read. I just want to say congratulations on publishing your first book and memoir.
Iona Holloway: Thank you and I really mean thank you, because there were–well, most of the years of my life where I was not able to receive a compliment at all. I almost felt like I was waterproofed to them. I almost felt like I immediately had to say, “Oh, you don’t know what you’re talking about,” or, “Oh, it was nothing,” or, “Well, obviously, because I’m perfect.” But I really received that compliment and thank you for seeing me and thank you for letting me share this. I’m not ashamed to admit, I’m really proud of this book. It took a lot to write, but also, I was so inspired to allow other women, perhaps like me, perhaps not like me, to be seen in a way that perhaps they haven’t been seen before. I’m just so, so grateful that it’s here and I get to share it.
Drew Appelbaum: That’s so great. If we could just take away just one thing from the book, what would you want it to be?
Iona Holloway: Stop shrinking. The time has passed. Now is not the time to shrink. If your eyes are even open a little bit, do everything that you can to keep them open. It’s not a race. It’s not going to happen immediately. But once you see, you can’t unsee. And anything that you can do to stay open and aware of what is feeling honest, and true, and hopeful for you, keep your eyes on that.
In my work with my clients, I talk a lot about how we’re not just shrinking our bodies here. We’re shrinking our bodies, we’re shrinking our worth, we’re shrinking our power. And any work that we can do to reclaim these three elements are the things that will make us, not just human, they will make us who we were always meant to be before this world got its hands on us.
So, if you’re resonating in any way with anything that’s you’re reading, keep your eyes open. Do not let them shut again. Do not let yourself go back to sleep and believing that perfect is the way. We know it doesn’t work. We have new tools, use them.
Drew Appelbaum: Iona, this has been a pleasure. I’m so excited for people to check out this book. Everyone, the book is called Ghost and you can find it on Amazon. Besides checking out the book, Iona, where could people connect with you?
Iona Holloway: You can find me at ionaholloway.com. I have coaching offerings, I have an online course that is going to run alongside this book to help with my favorite thing, integration. You can check that out. Also, I’m most active on Instagram, again, I’m Iona Holloway there. It clearly pays to have a slightly uncommon name. So, I’m pretty easy to find, ionaholloway.com and Iona Holloway on Instagram are the best places to go.
Drew Appelbaum: Great. Iona, thank you so much for coming on the show today, and best of luck with the book.
Iona Holloway: Thanks for having me.