Exploring her relationship with herself after decades of eating disorders and therapy has made author Geneen Roth an expert in her own right on why we don’t want to know what we know and all the things we do to avoid knowing it.
Roth’s provocative reflections in her 2009 book, Women Food and God, untangled the connections between compulsive eating and perpetual dieting and the deeply personal and spiritual issues that go far beyond food, weight, and body image.
The intrepid writer’s books, videos, and workshops proceed from the notion that our actions and beliefs make sense and that the way to transform our relationships with food, our bodies, and our thoughts is to be open, curious, and kind to ourselves rather than punishing, impatient, and harsh.
Written in her trademark humorous, yet wise voice, Roth’s latest offering, This Messy Magnificent Life, is a compelling exploration into how women’s beliefs and traumas combine with social pressures to shape their ideas about their bodies, choices, and relationships.
In addition to sharing personal stories, Roth offers seven touchstones for living a magnificently messy life. These are not rules, she notes, because rules quickly become instruments of shame and punishment.
Instead of adding these practices to your to-do list, she advises, “use them to break the trance of everyday discontent, anxiety, and lack.”
Q&A With Geneen Roth
Experience Life | In your book, you write about the power of feeling your feelings rather than thinking about them. Why is this difference important?
Geneen Roth | I once thought I was very in touch with my feelings, and at some point I realized that I was just spoofing about my feelings. Instead, I went over and over the stories I was telling myself about my feelings. What somebody did, what I was going to do, what I shouldn’t have done that I did do, and what I would say to them the next time I saw them.
So, we think about or repress the feelings rather than feel them, because we have judgments about them or are frightened that if we actually let ourselves feel — sadness, joy, loneliness, or anger — then we’ll be overwhelmed. We also might act out our feelings, which isn’t feeling them either.
A simple way to begin feeling them is to say, “I feel.” For many people, it’s scary just hearing about it, because we don’t really understand that it’s not feelings that kill us — it’s not feeling the feelings that’s harmful.
What you feel, you heal. What you don’t feel gets shut away in a corner of yourself, and you become more afraid of it. So, there’s a liberation that comes from turning toward yourself and welcoming those feelings.
EL | How does not feeling our feelings manifest?
GR | Many women, for example, give away their power through their bodies in terms of carrying weight. They let their weight speak for or protect them. It’s a method of saying, “No, don’t come near me” or “Go away.”
But after years of disordered eating and dieting, I realized that the power didn’t come from the weight. The power came from what I ascribed to the weight.
The first step to change is to stop judging and shaming yourself about your weight and food, because they are serving a purpose. Then the next layer down is to realize that food and weight are not ominous; they’re not sentient beings. They mean whatever you want them to.
I think it’s really important for women, in particular, to take that power back. Otherwise we’re relying on something external to say no rather than setting our own boundaries.
EL | How can someone take that power back?
GR | A couple of practices, or touchstones, are helpful. The first one, which I call “Stand in your own two shoes,” gets you out of your head and into your body.
Focus on feeling your feet on the floor, the breath in your belly. Feel yourself grieving. This helps you disengage from the thoughts and judgments you have about yourself, which moves into a second touchstone that I call “Disengaging from the crazy aunt in the attic.” That’s the voice of judgment and shame that keeps the lid on any kind of change because you take that voice to be you and to be telling the truth.
Finally, practice noticing what’s not wrong. As neuroscientists tell us, our brains developed to be on alert for what’s wrong because it was an adaptive mechanism for survival.
But we’re not very good at taking in what’s right and letting ourselves deeply experience it.
So, set aside time daily to notice and experience what’s right. For example, I have this beautiful teacup that I’m drinking from. Taking it a step further, I’m noticing and experiencing that I’m alive and can even drink morning tea.
EL | A lot of the stories in your new book are about the “noise machine in your mind” and your struggles to pull your attention away from it. What helped you disengage from that noise?
GR | I’ve had a lot of support and therapy. I’ve done 30 years of spiritual practice, and I’m still practicing. I wouldn’t ever say that I’ve arrived anywhere. I don’t think that’s the goal, because we’re alive until we’re dead, and there are always new challenges to meet.
Looking back, [I realized] there was so much suffering during the first 18 years of my life and that I had internalized what happened in my childhood. At some point, I felt a flame, a longing to work with the trauma and get clear of it. I wanted to overcome it so badly that one day I was willing to do whatever it took to not let it possess me.
And “whatever it took” meant practicing. It meant meeting people who I felt were wiser than me and applying the practices they gave me. It’s like starting out as an alloy of a metal and being willing to show up for the fire of transformation.
Now my life feels like it has a balance. When a thought or feeling arises, I might be thrown for a couple of minutes, hours, or a half a day, but I know how to work with it.
I’ve learned that it’s not the things themselves that change; it’s the way I’m able to be in relationship with them that changes.