The Shift Network Blog

Freedom from Self-Loathing (and Who Doesn't Want That!)

By Geneen Roth

Last month, as I was walking along a beach in Monterey, CA, I came upon a lone seagull making a huge amount of noise. Then I noticed that he was standing beside another gull - a dead one - and I thought, Oh, he's crying seagull tears because he lost his mate. His cherished partner. The love of his life. Maybe gulls are like swans; maybe they mate for life and when they lose their one and only, they are bereft, desolate, inconsolable.

So I stood there saying soothing birdy things to him as tears rolled down my cheeks. Love is so challenging, I thought. It turns you inside out, breaks your heart, leaves you alone on a deserted beach at 6 A.M., crying. As I stood there weeping loudly for love, for the gull, for me, I couldn't help but notice that when other gulls approached, the grieving gull cried even louder. How protective he is of his love, I thought. How kind he must have been to her when she was alive. But then I noticed one tiny bit of behavior that, in the unfolding drama, I had been ignoring: The desolate gull was eating the supposed love of his life. Eating her! I realized then that his shrieking was not about his sadness but about his belligerence. What a bum, I thought, as I stalked away.

From cherished spouse to cannibal louse in one split second -- and nothing had changed about the gull's behavior. Nothing objective, nothing external, nothing real was any different from one moment to the next. All that had changed was my interpretation of what he was doing.

What does that have to do with emotional eating? Everything.

Years ago, my friend Kai was walking down a street feeling rather cheeky about herself, her svelte curves, her flat stomach. Gazing at her reflection in the store windows, she felt proud of her body, happy to be herself. So happy that for lunch that day, she treated herself to french fries with her turkey sandwich. She even ate dessert. Then she went back to the doctor's office where she worked and decided to weigh herself. To her horror, she'd gained six pounds in a month, and suddenly, all those kind, loving feelings she was having about her stomach, her thighs, her life turned into disaster scenarios.

Oh no, she thought. I am out of control and I don't even know it. I can't even trust myself to know when I am feeling good and when I'm not. When my body is at its natural weight and when it's busting apart at the seams. I have to diet immediately!

The next day, when she walked into work, the doctor told her he'd discovered that the office scale was off by seven pounds. Which meant, of course, that not only had Kai not gained six pounds, she'd actually lost a pound. And suddenly, she felt fabulous again. From fabulous to horrible to fabulous and nothing external had changed except her interpretation of a number on a scale.

There are two take-home messages from these stories: One of them, the easiest one, is to throw out your scales. "Gulp" you say. "I can't. How will I know what I weigh?" The same way that Kai knew. Because it's your body. Because you live in it. Because you know how you feel in it. Because your clothes feel different when you are different weights. You don't need a lifeless piece of machinery to tell you whether you are allowed to have a good day or a bad day, whether you are allowed to feel proud or ashamed of yourself. You get to decide. It seems to be built into the weight-loss drama that a high number of the scale translates to misery and a low number on the scale translates to euphoria, so a first step to self-worth is to stop engaging in what makes you feel bad.

But throwing out your scale doesn't address the root of the problem - the mistaken way we interpret events. And that brings us to the second take home lesson: We must recognize when our behavior, thoughts, and feelings are utterly determined by our interpretations of what we see.

Most of the time, we are telling ourselves fantasies and then acting as if those fantasies were true. Most of the time, we are so caught up in believing that our interpretation of reality is fact that we don't even realize it's an interpretation.

Consider how different your life would be if you altered your interpretations. Consider how you feel when you look at your thighs. They are just thighs. Made of flesh and bone and muscle and -- sigh -- fat. In the split second between when you look at them and what you end up feeling about them, you've interpreted what you've seen, judged it, and created a negative self-image that you then swear is The Truth.

The real truth is that all self-loathing is an interpretation. All reactions to your body size are interpretations. All worrying is an interpretation. Every time you lapse into feeling worthless or fat or wrong, every time you imagine disaster scenarios and then you get yourself worked up about the horrible outcomes, you are interpreting a set of circumstances, twisting them in a particular way, and reacting to the way you twisted them, not to the way things actually are. It's not that bad things don't happen. It's not that carrying excess weight doesn't burden your joints or keep you from fitting into skinny clothes in the back of your closet. It's just that when you interpret reality according to your fantasy, you get so worked up and so frantic that you are less capable of seeing clearly and dealing with objective facts. The next time you find yourself sloshing around in the melodrama of your life, reel yourself back to reality by asking yourself three questions:

  1. What are the facts of this particular situation?

  2. What is my interpretation of those facts?

  3. What am I feeling that is based on my interpretation -- rather than on what actually happened?

If necessary, ask a trusted friend or family member to help you determine what's true and what's a figment of your imagination.

You will soon discover that most of your feelings are based not on the facts, but on how you've interpreted the facts. And what a blessing it is to discover that your anguish is self-created! Because when you begin discerning fact from fantasy, your life becomes lighter, freer. You're less likely to allow emotions to lure you to the kitchen where ice cream, cookies, or a bag of cheesy chips is calling your name, because that crazy tsunami of dark feelings just won't be there. You'll no longer live at the mercy of the numbers on a scale or the drama they inspire you to stage in your head. Instead, you'll be able to stop overeating and take more pleasure in food, because there will be no bad feelings to stuff.

And that is a fact, not a fantasy.


Geneen Roth’s pioneering books were among the first to link compulsive eating and perpetual dieting with deeply personal and spiritual issues that go far beyond food, weight and body image. Rather than pushing away the “crazy” things we do, Geneen’s work proceeds with the conviction that our actions and beliefs make exquisite sense, and that the way to transform our relationship with food is to be open, curious and kind with ourselves — instead of punishing, impatient and harsh. In the past thirty years, she has worked with hundreds of thousands of people using meditation, inquiry, and a set of seven eating guidelines that are the foundation of natural eating.

Geneen Roth is the author of the #1 New York Times bestseller Women Food and God. She has appeared on many national television shows including: The Oprah Show, 20/20, The NBC Nightly News, The Today Show, The View, CBS Early Show, The Dr.Oz Show, and Good Morning America. Articles about Geneen and her work have appeared in numerous publications including: O: The Oprah Magazine, Cosmopolitan, Time, Elle, The New York Times, The Chicago Tribune, and The Philadelphia Inquirer. She has written monthly columns in Good Housekeeping Magazine and Prevention Magazine. Geneen is the author of nine books, including bestsellers Lost and Found and When Food Is Love. For more information on her programs, visit: www.GeneenRoth.com

Copyright: 2014, Geneen Roth and Geneen Roth & Associates, Inc.