Exploring her relationship with herself after decades of eating disorders and therapy has made author Geneen Roth an expert in her own directly on why we don’t want to know what we know and all the things we all do to avoid knowing it. 

Roth’s provocative reflections in her own 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 in the notion that our actions and beliefs seem sensible and that the way to transform our relationships with food, the body, 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 really a compelling exploration into how women’s beliefs and traumas match social pressures to shape their ideas regarding their bodies, choices, and relationships.

In addition to sharing personal stories, Roth offers seven touchstones for living a magnificently messy life. These aren't rules, she notes, because rules 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 emotions rather than thinking about them. Why is this difference important?

Geneen Roth | I once thought I was very in touch with my feelings, and also at some point I realized that I only agreed to be spoofing about my feelings. Instead, I went again and again the stories I was telling myself about my feelings. What somebody did, things i was going to do, what I shouldn’t have done that I did do, and just 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've judgments about them or are frightened that if we actually let ourselves feel — sadness, joy, loneliness, or anger — then we’ll be overwhelmed. We might act out our feelings, which isn’t feeling them either.

A simple way to begin feeling them would be to say, “I feel.” For many people, it’s scary just listening to it, because we don’t really understand that it’s not feelings that kill us — it’s not feeling the emotions that’s harmful. 

What you feel, you heal. What you don’t feel gets shut away inside 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 doesn't 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 “Disappear.” 

But after years of disordered eating and dieting, I noticed that the power didn’t range from weight. The power came from what I ascribed to the weight. 

The initial step to change is to stop judging and shaming yourself regarding your weight and food, since they're serving a purpose. Then the next layer down would be to realize that food and weight aren't ominous; they’re not sentient beings. They mean anything you want them to.

I think it’s vital 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 | Just how can someone take that power back?

GR | A couple of practices, or touchstones, are helpful. The first, 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 can help 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 type of change because you take that voice to become 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 instance, 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 large amount of the stories in your new book are concerning the “noise machine in your mind” as well as your struggles to pull your attention from it. What helped you disengage from that noise? 

GR | I’ve were built with 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 satisfy. 

Looking back, [I realized] there was so much suffering throughout the first 18 years of my entire life and that I had internalized what happened in my childhood. At some point, I felt a flame, a longing to utilize the trauma and get free from 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 individuals who I felt were wiser than me and using the practices they gave me. It’s like getting started 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. Whenever a thought or feeling arises, I would be thrown for a couple of minutes, hours, or a half a day, but I know how to use it. 

I’ve learned that it’s not the items themselves that change; it’s the way in which I’m able to be in relationship with them that changes.