If you are a woman who has ever struggled with gaining or losing weight or you’re just someone who’s felt trapped by food then you’ve probably heard of Geneen’s work (@GeneenRoth). She’s written several books on this topic, including the number one New York Times bestseller, Women, Food, and God.
Geneen’s work has been endorsed by Oprah, Eckart Tolle, and her book was on the bestseller list for several months and sold more than a million copies. We talk about her newest book, This Messy Magnificent Life, and what it’s like to achieve success as an author, but this conversation is really about freeing ourselves from our own personal prisons.
Geneen and I explore some of our deepest and most painful beliefs, the effects of hidden traumas and the social pressures that shape our confidence and our relationships. This episode is your spiritual dose of self-love for this week so get ready to be more in touch with your life.
Geneen Roth: It was an evening in my late 20s, I was sitting on the floor of the book depot bookstore in Mill Valley. This is before the internet. I was looking for books that gave you the easiest way to kill yourself. There was no book called “How to Kill Yourself in Five Easy Lessons.”
I was desperate and suicidal and filled with self-loathing, disgust. I don’t know if I can use any stronger word to describe how I felt about myself and the despair of continuing to live the way I had been living which was in such acrimonious, warring relationship with my body, the size of my thighs, my appetite, the feeling of being utterly out of control with food.
I’d tried for the past 17 years at that moment to get it under control. Since I had been 11 and started my first diet. Every single one of those years, every single day of every single week and month and year, I believed that if I could only fix this thing with food then everything else that was wrong in my life would be right.
Equal and Opposite
Geneen Roth: I tried every diet there was. I did have some favorites, and my most favorite diet was the All Brown Diet. It was of my own making.
For three weeks, I ate nothing but diet cream soda, drank coffee. You can’t really call this eating, of course. Coffee, diet cream soda, and cigarettes. That was my diet for three weeks.
There was a one hot fudge sundae a day diet. In those days, it was calories, thinking if I just ate the calories in a hot fudge sundae but didn’t eat breakfast and didn’t eat dinner, I’d be fine.
I’d been addicted to diet pills, amphetamines, for four years. I had pretty much stopped sleeping. With every single pound lost, I gained twice as much in poundage on my body.
I used to say there was an equal and opposite binge. That was the law of the universe.
“I never went on a diet after which I didn’t binge. Never.”
Of course, I got better and better at restricting myself. I was anorexic for a while, I limited myself to 150 calories a day for a year and a half. I jogged four miles a day. It was sheer willpower. I weighed 82 pounds, and then after that, I couldn’t stand it one more second. Not one more second.
I went on a binge to end all binges. By that I mean, I never stopped eating except when I was eating. If I woke up in the middle of the night, I started eating again. There was such thrust to eating and feeling like I deserved it. There was this mean, harsh, verbally abusive voice in my head that felt like because I could not get it together with food, I just didn’t deserve to live.
A Decision to Make
Geneen Roth: That was the lowest moment. And there in the bookstore, I saw a book by Susie Orbach called Fat is a Feminist Issue.
I leafed through a couple of pages of it, and I felt like I had an epiphany. Although I didn’t subscribe to everything she said, something she said made me realize that I had been trying to get rid of this thing with food, thinking it was crazy and self-destructive, without ever considering what I was trying to express or get through to myself via my relationship with food.
Food was just the most outward expression of a much more significant inner process. In other words, it was a language that I was using, and I wasn’t interested in learning the language. All I wanted to do was cut it out of me. Sitting on the floor of that bookstore that night, I realized I had nothing to lose.
I was just going to drive off the cliff of a highway on in Big Sierra. Anybody who drove off the cliff died because it’s a big drop, so that was easy. I could do that.
“Or, I could give myself a couple of weeks to investigate, inquire, look inside myself and find out what was going on with me and food.”
By that point, I had gone from 82 pounds to 160 pounds, effectively doubling my weight in two months.
I must have been eating 20,000 calories a day.
I had nothing to lose really since I was ready to lose my life.
No More Dieting
Geneen Roth: A requirement for that process was to stop dieting. I understood that that voice in my head—which I now call the crazy aunt in the attic—that voice in my head was not my friend. A big part of that voice was shame, deprivation, guilt, fear, and punishment.
I stopped dieting and I’ve never been on another diet again. I started becoming interested in the language. It was sort of like braille, and I didn’t know braille. Could I find out what braille was?
“Could I learn that language? What did my relationship with food have to say to me?”
Was it a doorway into some pattern? Some beliefs, some feelings that I had about myself, about being alive, about what I was allowed to have and not allowed to have in terms of joy, nourishment, love, pleasure, delight that I didn’t even realize I had because I was so busy dieting and binging?
I became quite interested in what was going on beneath the food, and I started seeing as food as not the problem. My weight was not the problem, even though everybody else thought it was the problem.
At the beginning when I stopped dieting, it looked like I was binging because I told myself, I could eat whatever I wanted to eat. I have refined that greatly since then.
“When you say to yourself after you’ve been on diet for a long time, you can eat whatever you want to eat, your mind hears, ‘Good, I can go binge.'”
I did eat a lot of pumpkin ice cream for that first couple of weeks, in addition to raw chocolate chip cookie dough for a while.
I gained a little bit more weight, but not a lot. I was firm in my resolve, and I started asking myself, “Hey, what’s really going on here?”
After 17 years of dieting, it was like having been locked up in a prison cell for 17 years and never seeing the sky. Suddenly, I opened the door, there was no key, I could do it myself. I opened the door and went outside and saw the sky for the first time.
Geneen Roth: I wasn’t kidding around. Having a couple of days of pumpkin ice cream was not going to send me on another starvation diet. Forget it, that was over, done.
Then I started realizing how I felt about myself and the amount of internal loathing there was. This started way before food. It was my belief that I wasn’t allowed to take up space here.
Ironically, of course, I was always losing and gaining weight. But the food and the weight were more of a protection. Whenever I was fat, I felt like that was on the inside of the fatness, not my body itself.
People couldn’t see me by looking at my body because I knew I was hidden, but what was I hiding was the question for me.
“It turned out to be about my own lack of value, self-worth, feeling like what I deserved.”
Of course, I had mirrored in my relationship with food, a lot of the abuse I had grown up within my family.
I had to start working my way through that. It’s not as intense as it sounded but it allowed me to realize, “When I’m feeling like I want to eat and I’m not hungry, what simple questions, what am I hungry for? What do I actually want?” You know, “Do I believe that a feeling of loneliness or sadness or rejection is going to destroy me, and therefore I need to turn to food or drugs or alcohol?”
“Can I let myself just feel the sadness for a couple of minutes? Will rejection kill me or is it okay?”
Soon after that, I realized, I started developing a set of eating guidelines. Sort of intuitive eating and a process that went along with it that I was working with myself. I remember one time, in particular, I wrote a dialogue with fat.
A Pattern Shift
Geneen Roth: Every single time I was thin, I would throw myself at unavailable men. Men who didn’t want me. That would become my creative project. I would try to get them to want and love me.
And I was scared of writing. I’d been wanting to be a writer since fifth grade. So I finally decided this was it. I was going to write, and I really scared. So when I was using food, I was so obsessed with self-loathing that there was no time to write, except in my journal. And when I wasn’t using food, all that energy that would have gone into writing went into the creative project of trying to get men who didn’t love me to love me. I stopped that too.
“Soon after that, I started eating what my body actually wanted.”
I started losing weight. Not a lot, but you know, it wasn’t a never-ending cascade of more weight gain. So I decide to put an ad in the paper sayingccompulsive eating support group, a dollar a night.
If you want to join me, come. I just want to charge a dollar for Xeroxing these guidelines that I’d come up with and some questions that I had come up with. Although men were invited too, many women responded.
Your Hair Will Fall Out
Geneen Roth: Because I had no money and I didn’t have a job, I was working as a nanny in my friend Harry and Sue’s basement. I was living in their basement and working as a nanny to their two-year-old. They were very kind. He had been my organic chemistry professor when I was doing pre-med courses.
I asked them if I could do this first group at their house and they said “Fine.” They lived out in the very windy dark country road. I had to have everybody meet me in front of the only place that was well lit in their town, which was the liquor store in a tiny little shopping center. So I made a day to meet everybody in front of the liquor store at 6:30.
The day before—I was still much bigger than my natural weight—I wanted to spruce myself up. I only had one dress, a summer dress with elastic waist. The only thing I could do to look presentable as a group leader was to get a permanent for my hair because I figured I needed to look presentable.
Had to leave in the rollers in overnight. I was going to get them out on the day the group started. Went back to get them out and there was a sign on the saloon door saying:
“I’m sorry, I’ve had a medical emergency, I can’t take your rollers out today, do not remove them yourself, your hair will fall out.”
So I started my very first group, 40 pounds overweight, in a summer dress with rollers in my hair in the middle of the winter, standing in front of a liquor store, waving to everybody saying, “I’m your group leader, I’m going to tell you how to break free from compulsive eating.”
Two-thirds of them went tearing away as fast as they could. The ones who stayed with me stayed with me. We met every week for a couple of years and they were the first contributors to my first book, Feeding the Hungry Heart.
That was the beginning.
Questions and Judgement
Charlie Hoehn: What was your social group doing at that time?
Geneen Roth: When I was anorexic, the people around me were aghast. They tried not to show their concern, but they were really concerned because I was getting littler and littler and I wasn’t eating anything. Also, I was fasting at every change in the season, on water, for 10 days. I couldn’t get out of that.
“I was actually with a man then who would bribe me, ‘Let’s go to this lovely bed and breakfast inn for the weekend, but only if you eat.'”
I think people were actively concerned about me. Then it’s hard to know what to say to somebody who is gaining weight by the second as I was.
Any kind of judgment didn’t ever help. The first night I went out with some friends after I made the decision not to diet and to eat anything I wanted, it was probably 7:00 at night. We had dinner and then I had an ice-cream sundae after that, and one of the women at the table said, “You shouldn’t be eating that, you can’t afford to eat that, what’s wrong with you?”
My friends were not following me into the extremes. I took it to the extreme, and they were not following me into that. Occasionally they’d go on like Weight Watchers with me.
Mostly, I felt pretty lonely in there.
It’s All Connected
Charlie Hoehn: Was this all rooted, do you feel, in problems that began in your formative years or did this come from numerous sources?
Geneen Roth: Except for a few very rare individuals who seem to make changes overnight, there is no such thing as overnight. It’s an ongoing process.
I had lived in India for a while before this whole thing and had developed—I wouldn’t say an actively engaged spiritual process, but I had already turned toward realizing there was more to life than what could be seen. The problem for me was that I thought the food thing was utterly separated from everything else.
“I could sit for half an hour meditating, but I thought the food thing was keeping me from everything else, not an expression of everything else.”
What did change overnight was me realizing that I was a sane human being. That’s what changed. It was, “My god, I have been trying to take care of myself through this. I have been trying to get through to myself.”
This was ultimately sanity itself, parading in the guise of utter insanity.
The process of me investigating and the tools that I developed and that I’m still developing and that was over 30 years ago. Nothing was overnight.
There was one group where I had people come dressed as their mothers. For us to see what would it be like when you’re your mother and relate to each other as their mothers. I didn’t have a toolbox. I just kept on trying whatever I could think of.
At War With Yourself
Charlie Hoehn: Was it ultimately rooted in the shame and self-loathing that you experienced during your childhood or was it a number of other things?
Geneen Roth: I grew up in a family that had a drug addiction, a bit of alcoholism. I know that’s sort of odd thing to say, but a drink or two every single night, can’t really live without the alcohol, like that. Very unhappy parents who were cruel to each other.
I felt like I was born into the wrong family and I was born as the wrong person. But I know having now worked with tens of thousands of people, that many people feel like this.
There was the physical abuse part that was also very difficult for me. Just being hit a lot and there was also, I’ve written about this, having a covert, sexually distorted relationship with my dad. I wasn’t playing with the full deck, so to speak. There was a lot of healing that needed to happen for me, and I subsequently spent a huge amount of time on many different kinds of therapy.
Aside from that though, because I have worked with so many people, many of whom have come from loving families and have food issues or are obsessed about distracting themselves from themselves, not believing it’s possible to be themselves.
“Not even knowing what being myself actually looks like, feeling like feelings are intolerable, constantly being at war with yourself.”
That’s partly the culture we live in. I mean, you can’t help but be affected by the images, the commercials. Do this, fix this, happiness this, mindfulness this.
I’m leading the wrong life but if only I was doing those things, then I’d be leading the right life. And then you feel like you’re always coming up short, running around trying to do so many things with the belief that who we are is not right.
If only we could do those things then we would be right but we can never do them well enough and so we always feel like we’re not enough. There’s this constant push-pull going on with people and some of the ways that expresses itself is through the relationship with food.
Believing the Bullies
Geneen Roth: It’s teachers, it’s peers, it’s being bullied. I think it was in my ninth grade class, I had a round face and I was new to this school. People would make fun of my round face. They would blow up their cheeks every time I look at them and they called me pregnant-faced cow.
Nobody had a name for bullying. Even I, who writes about almost everything and writes it in an uncensored way could barely get those words out for the longest time because I was so ashamed.
“I believed that I was a pregnant-faced cow.”
I could have gotten addicted to drugs, I could have started stealing things, you know, a lot of different ways to mess up my life besides my relationship with food and/or killing myself.
You know, I can see that all of that really gave me the impetus, the flame to work it through, to see what was on the other side of it was very strong.
Being physically hit, addicted parents, abusive to each other, being bullied in school. I never would check those boxes for my life. But given that those were the boxes that I got, I can see that having had those served me well.
I find that the people who make it through are the most amazing individuals, the most caring, the most empathetic, compassionate individuals that end up helping so many others. That that trial by fire, the intense suffering that they go through really does end up serving you and giving you this superpower that helps other people. While you wouldn’t wish it upon anybody, it ends up being a very useful thing.
Kindness for Yourself
Charlie Hoehn: When you hit the point where you’re done eating the pumpkin ice and you started eating, you said, what your body wanted to eat, what did that look like?
Geneen Roth: I just started eating regular food. I started eating food that other people would consider food. I was really going for the sweets because those were the foods I was not supposed to have growing up. My brother was skinny and I wasn’t. He could have chocolate milk and donuts and you know, cookies, and he could eat a whole row of fig newtons at one time. I wasn’t supposed to have any of it. I wanted what he had, so I started eating those things.
After a while, I stopped. It took me a while to wean myself of thinking that that was the prize, getting to the point where I could eat as much of the sweets as I wanted.
“I just started eating regular food.”
I’ve been a vegetarian for quite a long time, and I stopped being a vegetarian maybe five or six years into this because I wasn’t doing so well on it. But just like regular food, a couple of times a day, eating when I was hungry. Eating what my body wanted, paying attention to the food, not doing other things while I was eating.
If I wanted to eat when I wasn’t hungry, to really take a moment, take a breath and ask myself what was going on. It didn’t have to be a big thing, it could be reacting to the fact that my friend didn’t call me back. I feel rejected and it’s hard to feel rejected. Just having a little kindness for myself, so yeah.
Charlie Hoehn: How do you practice mindfulness now?
Geneen Roth: Well, every morning when I first wake up, when I open my eyes, I spend maybe anywhere from 20 minutes to 40 or 45 minutes just breathing, sensing my body. First I open my eyes, I look around the room, I actually orient myself.
“Wow, I woke up today, it’s another day on planet earth. Yay! I didn’t die overnight, isn’t it great?”
I had such a pull to the negative, like a magnet to steel. Give me something to coagulate around that’s negative and I will go there. I will dismiss what’s good.
“The brain has a nine to one negativity bias.”
Once I caught on to this, part of what I do is a result of having watched my mind enough to see that I am so drawn to the negative. If you say to me, “How is your day, Geneen?” And five lovely things happened and one thing happened that was uncomfortable, I will tell you the uncomfortable thing.
I now have trained myself, and it is hard. It is like chewing nails not to tell you the negative thing because it’s like an itch that I need to scratch. Usually, the negative thing is a way of complaining. My purpose would be to get you to align with me on how horrible it all is, how awful that person is and what a victim I am.
So what I do in that first half hour or 40 minutes, or sometimes it’s only 10, is bring myself into the present moment.
Presence Not Performance
Geneen Roth: Anytime you give me something to do and I get a gold star for doing it, I’ll do it for a while because I am such an overachiever. I got straight As, graduated Phi Beta Kappa, blah-blah-blah but I don’t feel like I learned very much during that time because I was so intent on achieving and succeeding.
And that’s what started happening to me with meditation. I felt like this isn’t working, all I’m doing it for is to say I meditated for 40 minutes. Then I’d go and I’d live my life and my life would be the same, intent on the negative life.
So, I lay down and just sense my body. It’s my own, it’s what I’ve made up to bring myself into the present moment. Which I guess you could say is meditation. I don’t actually call it meditation but because I actually don’t like that word. Because it had so many years of negative connotations when I felt like I was failing at it.
“So I sense my body, I breathe.”
After I have oriented myself and in that breathing and orienting, I also ask myself what’s not wrong to get my mind off its track. Because even in breathing and sensing, even after that, “Huh, it’s another day I woke up, I can see, I can feel, I can do this!” My mind will go, “Wait here’s what I have to do, here’s what I’m overwhelmed by, here’s what I don’t really want to do.”
The barrage begins, so then it’s about catching my mind. I would say that’s my main, if I want to call it, practice, is kindness towards myself. My thoughts, my beliefs, the different parts of my body that ache the amount of cruelty that I’ve shown to myself.
I don’t think anybody would ever call me cruel, but as you are with yourself there is some little bit of it that leaks out. Every time my mind wanders during that 40 minutes or 10 minutes say, “Okay come on back.” I know this sounds very much like meditation, but still then I just say, “Honey, you don’t have to do anything about this now.”
A New Practice
Geneen Roth: The reason I stopped the formal kinds of meditation I was doing is that I found that when I got up from my meditation cushion my life had not changed. How I was living was exactly the same. All of those years of meditation, formal meditation were somehow not being integrated into how I talk to myself, how I treated myself, how I talk to other people. There was still a basic dissatisfaction and discontent with me, with my life.
And I wanted to work on that. That was the whole reason I started in my relationship with food, thinking that that was the major thing and if I fix that so to speak, it would fix everything but it didn’t and so then I found myself many years later no longer have a food shtick, and I don’t.
You know I am at my natural weight now, just cooking along here with food. I changed what I eat according to the information that I am getting from my body and my health and what I am learning from the medical people I am working with. But it was the most basic fundamental levels of what being alive, what it was like to be me in this form right now and how mean or harsh I was to myself and how that somehow filtered out to other people around me.
“How could I talk to myself in the middle of the night when I couldn’t sleep, when I was sick, when I was holding grudges?”
When I tripped, when a friend said no to me, how can all this translate to daily life? How can what I learned about food translate to my day to day non-food life? That’s what I became really interested in. I would say that’s my practice now.
If you have an agenda, if your goal is, “I’ll do it to be more productive at work” and to get enlightened, then you’re already telling yourself, “In this moment I am not okay, and if only I could do that then it would be okay.”
“You’re putting yourself at a disadvantage right there, not letting yourself see the ways in which you are okay.”
Because unless you are taking that in, my experience is there is no ground of goodness. There is no foundation. Why do you even want to do everything you want to do?
Freedom in Writing
Charlie Hoehn: How many books have you published?
Geneen Roth: This Messy Magnificent Life is going to be the 10th. At one point I thought, “Okay when I hit nine books,” because I love the number nine, “that will be it.”
Well I’ve done what I came to do and that would be it, but I find that I love writing so much that I didn’t want it to stop. I have still apparently a lot to say.
I wanted to write since I had been in fifth grade. Nobody actually encouraged me to write. When I was in 5th grade, I wrote a story about this little girl being in a flight, and the pilot and the stewardesses, which was they were called then, were sick and she had to take over. Of course that was me.
“I remember the freedom I felt when I wrote that inside myself.”
It was something else that happened. I wasn’t that unhappy kid. I didn’t try when I was in high school, but I tried again when I was in college. My teacher did not actually encourage me. I took a couple of writing classes, nobody really liked my writing very much.
Nonetheless, I decided at some point that we were talking about me deciding not to diet anymore that I committed myself to writing. So I modeled myself on my then writing teacher, Ellen Bass, who is now a pretty well-known poet.
I was in a group with her for a couple of years, a weekly group, it was called Writing About Our Lives. Again, she felt like there were two or three other writers in there who were stellar writers. I was not amongst them, but I loved it and I kept going at it because of what it did for me in me. Because I kept feeling like I had something to say. She wrote an anthology at that point. It was a poetry anthology, and so I did everything Ellen did.
Geneen Roth’s First Book
Geneen Roth: It’s really important to have models. Ellen wrote an anthology, I decided I could write an anthology. Ellen led the weekly groups, I decided I could lead weekly groups. That’s how my groups got started. So I put together this anthology, somebody in my group helped me put it together. We had a lot of submissions, and I wrote to 27 New York Publishers, got 26 rejections.
One wrote back and said, “I’d love to see your book.” And I didn’t have a book at that point. I just had a lot of pieces of paper with people’s individual stories, but I was going to New York the next week because my family is there and I somehow bamboozled my way into seeing her.
And so I bought my first suit at Sims Department Store. I think it was $25, and my father lent me his briefcase into which I put nothing but a brush and showed up at Peg’s office. She had a stuffed pencil over her desk. We had a fabulous meeting, went home, and she said, “Okay.”
“I lied through my teeth and said, ‘I have the book,’ and she said, ‘Good, send it to me next week.'”
Oh and she said to me, “You need to write half this book. Anthologies don’t work.”
“No, problem. I already did that.” Lied again.
Got home, tried to do it, didn’t seem very hard. I could not write a word. She called me. She sent me snail mail letter, she called me the next week, “It’s coming, it’s coming. It’s almost done.” After a month of that, I thought, “No, done. I am never going to be a writer, can’t stand the pressure, this is not worth it.”
I called Peg on the phone and said, “I’ve been lying to you this entire time. I don’t have a book, I don’t care if I ever have a book. I am not living with this kind of pressure. Goodbye.”
“And she said to me, ‘I believe in you.'”
She was the angel of my writing life, “I believe in you. You can do this, here’s my home number. Call if you need help.” And I didn’t need help, as it turned out. Not the kind of help she was offering when she gave me her home number.
See I told you if somebody tells me what to do, I do the opposite. I don’t like being told what to do. Then I sat down and wrote my part of it in three weeks. I sent it to her and she loved it. And so that was that.
The Second Book
Geneen Roth: She accepted it and it was wonderful, and then she called me a couple of weeks after that book came out and said, “Okay, it’s time for you to write your next book, and I want you to write a prescriptive book about people’s relationship with food.
I said, “No I’m done. I’m a poet. I want to write poetry. I want to write fiction.”
“And she said, ‘You’re not done. You need to write this book.'”
And then she called me every other day and just badgered me and badgered me and badgered me. I saw myself as this very esoteric mystical poet just like Ellen, and finally a friend of mine said, “Look if Michelangelo can be commissioned to paint the Sistine Chapel, you can be commissioned to write a book.” And so I did. I sat down and wrote that in very short order.
It usually takes me five or six years to do a book, but this book I knew so well because I had been teaching that material for six years by then. So I wrote that book. That book was Breaking Free from Compulsive Eating, now called Breaking Free from Emotional Eating.
Writing When You Don’t Want To
Charlie Hoehn: So you had written two books at that point and when did your break out bestseller, Women, Food and God, came out?
Geneen Roth: I wrote Women, Food, and God – That book was due in 2007, and I was two and a half years late on that book. Maybe it was due in 2006, I can’t remember. It was like getting blood from a stone to get me to write that book because again, unlike the process of writing Breaking Free, I’ve been teaching. This was about the retreat work I do and I have been teaching those retreats for a while.
I wanted to write about what I didn’t know, not what I did know. And I knew a lot because I have been teaching this material.
“Every writing venture takes me into what I don’t know, because the act of writing itself is letting go of who I think I am and giving myself over to the process.”
It took me a long time to get myself over to the process of that book, but when I did do that, it took maybe six months. At the end of that six months we had lost all of our money to Bernie Madoff.
At the very tail end of I was putting the last period on that sentence on the lessons when I found out that we had now no money. So I sent the book in and then I went through my own process with having no money, which was terrifying.
People think that only rich people could have invested in Madoff, but that wasn’t true. We had a friend who was very generous and was willing to take anywhere from $2,000 to $20,000. And then it kept making money and you could keep using it as a bank, and that’s basically what my husband and I did.
We used Madoff as our retirement savings account, and then it was gone. Completely gone. So I had to come to terms with that. When I did, I wrote a piece for Salon which became number one on there, and it was called, “What Bernie Madoff Couldn’t Steal from Me.”
So a publisher wanted a book about that, and Woman, Food and God hadn’t come out yet and I started writing another book and you know, that’s how the process went.
Living the Success
Charlie Hoehn: Can you describe what happened after Women, Food and God came out?
Geneen Roth: Well first of all it was wonderful. It was deeply, deeply satisfying. I’ll tell you the good parts first and then I’ll let my trend towards the negative mind tell you what the shadow side of that is.
The good parts were the thrill of it. The thrill of being called on the phone by Oprah, the thrill of hanging out with her for a couple of hours. She had a radio show then, and to do a couple of radio interviews with her and a little tiny studio. Of meeting this icon. Of falling in love with her and aside from anything else, that was a pleasure of being picked.
As my publicist said to me, “It was like being kissed by the Pope.” You know it was the stuff that a writer’s dreams are made of, and there I was with the brass ring and it was thrilling before one book got sold. You know it didn’t even occur to me in those early days that this was going to translate into making money. I mean it was just the thrill of it for me because that had been a dream. It was to feel like I really had something to say.
Images and Perspective
Geneen Roth: One the things that I write about in my new book, This Messy Magnificent Life, is that we all have about three things that we keep going back to in our lives. Three main things or identities or self-images, and one of my main images is of being the little match girl. I don’t know if you know who she is, but you know, there are old stories about this.
People talk about a little match girl as an archetype of this girl standing out in this cold, bare feet, ragged clothes on, looking at a family on the other side of a picture window, loving each other, kissing each other, dressed in little velvet dresses.
“It’s Christmas time, gorgeous tree in the back, roasting turkey and all loving each other, and I am on the outside all the time.”
There is the sense of I don’t belong, I am not lovable, I’m never going to make it, I did it wrong. Peter Meyer called me. He wanted to do a film about Women, Food and God, and then he didn’t called me back. Okay, so up comes the little match girl, “Oh he didn’t go with it.”
But for the most part, I was astonished and thrilled and it was gloriously happy. What I then started seeing was that I had wanted to be on the Times list. My personality and ego got very involved in this, the main thing I wanted was for more and more people to read what I was saying and for their lives to be affected by it so that they too could be kind to themselves.
They too didn’t have to live in the hell realm of their relationship with food or addiction any longer. That was the truest form of that longing.
“I thought that being number one was going to give me value.”
I thought the places in me that were still shaky and doubtful of my value, I thought those would get filled by that. Nobody could have asked for it, and I got it.
It didn’t touch those places. Something from the outside won’t ever fix what’s on the inside. It’s impossible.
“It’s like sticking ice cream on your arm. You’re not going to taste it.”
I’m telling you I am going through it again because of having already had it that kind of major success and being in the eyes of most people in the world very successful.
I mean there are different levels of success, and I can always compare myself to more successful people than me. So if I want to go there I can easily go there, and sometimes I can’t help myself to go there. I didn’t do it right, I wrote the wrong book, I’m not as successful as Brene Brown, Annie Lamont who is a close friend of mine, Elizabeth Gilbert.
There are 1200 people more successful than me, and then I get on that train and it is a bad train to get on. I only go there because I think that if I had that success then I’d feel differently inside, What’s so amazing to me now is that I’ve already had that success and I still get caught in the jaws of that false wanting of something that I think is going to fix what isn’t even wrong.
But now I have gotten to the point where I’m able to be aware, most of the time, not all the time. But most of the time be aware, “Oh I am going there again, do not believe this. This is not your friend. This is not true. Stop.”
When I hear myself complaining, when I hear other people complaining, I recognize it’s a chance to align with the dark side, so to speak. It’s a chance to get on the train of being a victim and getting other people on my side and getting them to agree with me, ain’t it awful, and I stop.
“I will stop in mid-sentence or I will say to my husband, ‘This is me just being in bitterness, rage, hatred and envy sweetheart. Forgive me for one moment.'”
So I’ll be aware of it. As far as I can tell right now, that’s the most I can do and then start questioning, like draw it back to the question. “What do I think this is going to give me? Oh I think this is going to give me what I’ve already had. Sweetheart,” and I try to talk to myself in very kind terms, otherwise I am just beating myself up all the time.
“Do you think actually having a week or two or three or four on the New York Times list is going to give you that? No, is that what you want the most?” What I want the most is to become comfortable in my own skin.
What I want is peace and clarity and sanity and a big open heart and that is not going to give that to me. So I have to keep saying to myself and asking myself, “What really matters?”
The Message in This Messy Magnificent Life
Charlie Hoehn: What would you say is the main problem that This Messy Magnificent Life helps with, or solves for the reader?
Geneen Roth: I started writing it after the success of Women, Food and God when I realized that all the things I believed were going to do it for me didn’t do it for me. I’m in a loving fabulous relationship with a man, we’ve been together now for 31 years. I couldn’t be happier. I am doing work that I love, I’ve had success. I have everything a girl could want, basically.
We have enough financial security now for me to know that our house isn’t going to get taken away from us, which I thought was going to happen after we lost our money. So I started writing this book because I realized that what I thought was going to give me what mattered most was not going to give that to me. So I wanted to get into the day to day nitty-gritty of how a mind works and what trips me up on a daily basis.
When I was sick for four months during the process of writing this book and everybody was like, “Oh I’m so sorry. That must be so terrible.” Now I wasn’t in a lot of physical pain there so that’s a different category of being sick, but I had to contend with cancelling the things that I was supposed to teach, my trips, pretty much anything external. And man, did I go through a lot of stuff for that.
Inner complaints, and then there was a sense of, “Okay, here it is. What am I going to do? Am I going to rail against this or not?”
I just came back from being in Hawaii. I was the wife in a conference with my husband and it rained every single day and everybody was complaining about the weather. Every time I heard them I wouldn’t respond because I wasn’t thrilled about the weather either. It wouldn’t have been my preference, but on the other hand it was the way it was.
“What was there to do about it? Align in the complaining or not.”
Now it’s nice to know every once in a while that we have friends and we are bonded in our wounds or in our lack of preferences.
So when I got sick, and I was so sick, I really had to come terms with it. And I used that time instead.
I saw that there was a long list of complaints that I had and a long list of people against whom I have been holding grudges for years because they’ve done me wrong. It was beautiful. I just started using it to come to terms with this heaviness in my heart, and so I did that in the writing with sleeplessness with sickness with grudges, with blame, with the tilt towards negativity, with how to train my mind to really focus on what wasn’t wrong instead of what was wrong.
After the Book
Geneen Roth: I did that with aging, and you know the fact that gravity is having its way with my face and having to come to terms with, what do I want to do about it? Do I want to look in the mirror every day and say, “Oh my god look at how awful that is”? What, what’s the option here?
“Every obsession, every addiction is about, ‘How can I comfort myself when I am uncomfortable?'”
Oh I will eat, I will shop, I will watch YouTube videos of cute little puppies. That will take my mind off things.” Distraction is a great thing sometimes, but not if you are living on top of yourself all the time, the things that are really keeping you from being sane and clear and open and peaceful are getting in your way. So that’s what this book is about.
“When I am in the middle of writing, I am not there. So those patterns aren’t there either.”
It’s after I’m done. I love writing the process. It is worth it.
You know if somebody says something I don’t like or does something I don’t like or the politics of the community I am living in are just headed in a way that I don’t like, anything. It’s that, it’s the way I get irritated and anxious and start really thinking negative thoughts.
It’s those moments that I am interested in. The moments of when I am alone and it’s the middle of the night or I am sick. It’s how do I work with myself in those moments.