The Tootsie Roll Trap

 By Geneen Roth

 There are so many new things to worry about these days that I can’t keep track of them (and I worry about that): worldwide financial collapse, dirty bombs, supergerms.  And then there are the old fears: cancer, Alzheimer’s, what gravity will eventually do to my neck.

It’s enough to send a girl straight to the candy jar – which, according to a New York Times article (“When Economy Sours, Tootsie Rolls Soothe Souls”), is just where a lot of us are heading.  The candy business is going strong despite the recession – or, rather, because of it: People are turning to Sugar Daddies and gummi bears to ease the pain of watching their 401(k)s disappear, their houses lose value, and their children’s college funds evaporate.  They’re reaching for the fastest, easiest, most literal version of sweetness they can find.

One of my retreat students recently wrote me a letter:  "I am worried sick. My husband lost his job six months ago and while I have a good job, the economy is so bad you never know what will happen.  My youngest son is applying to college and my daughter wants to go to graduate school, and I’m terrified that we won’t have enough money to help them.  When I go to bed at night, all I can think about is losing our house.  I live in such a state of anxiety about what might happen in the future that all I can do is hit the sugar – I buy chocolate kisses, a dozen donuts, and Fannie May Pixies to eat in my car on the way home from the store."

These are tough times.  But the problem with turning to Tootsie Rolls to soothe the soul is that their sweetness lasts for only 30 seconds – and then it turns into self-flagellation.  Before the Tootsie Rolls, you were worrying about your job and your future.  After the Tootsie Rolls, you’re still worrying about your job and your future – only now you’re also worrying about your weight and the fact that you’ve just spent dwindling funds on candy.  You haven’t made yourself feel better; you’ve made yourself feel worse.  As my retreat student poignantly put it:  “After the food is gone, I feel like the blob of the universe.  The ultimate failure.”  Not a good way to get through a day.

In the moment before the chocolate kisses go in the mouth, it seems as if you’ve discovered the answer to everything that ails you.  But eating candy out of worry is not an act of kindness.

I know this territory well.  I spent 17 years of my life diving into candy corn as if it were my last, best hope for salvation.  And I’ve spent most of my life waiting for the other shoe to drop.  When my parents went out on Saturday night and my brother and I stayed home with Mrs. Josephine Peck, our babysitter, I’d bombard her with concerns about my parents’ safety:  Had they been in a car accident? Were they OK? Could she call the restaurant and find out? Even at 8 years old, I expected catastrophe.  Eating treats erased the imagined disasters – for about 30 seconds.

After having devoted a lot of my life to being anxious about things that never come to pass, I’ve finally realized that worrying is like sitting in a rocking chair all day and thinking you’re actually going somewhere.  One reason we worry is that we believe if we get there before life does, if we confront an event before it happens, we won’t be knocked over by adversity.  If we prepare ourselves for the worst, we think, we’ll know what to do when it occurs.

But just as eating candy doesn’t sweeten our lives, worrying about the future does not prepare us for it.  Worrying does, however, make the present utterly miserable.  As we recite the mantra of what could happen, we are creating misery over and over – and suffering because of our conjuring.  Every time I worry that Matt, my husband, will be in a car accident, I see the crash; I see him lying there; I see the ambulance, the emergency room.  Because imagined events can trigger the same physiological responses as real ones – the racing heart, the rush of adrenaline, the surge of stress chemicals – I live the worst-case scenarios again and again.  And while I am busy creating suffering for myself, I am ignoring what is in front of me that is whole, beautiful, and healthy.  I leave my life as it really is and enter a nightmare world of my own making.

In a true emergency, you know what to do.  If your house is burning down, you get out.  If there’s a flood, you move to higher ground.  If you’re diagnosed with cancer, you research treatment options.  I’ve lived through three car accidents, one major earthquake, a near-death experience, and a financial disaster.  Not one of them has ever been part of my Things-to-Worry-About litany, and yet in each circumstance, I knew exactly what was required of me, and did it.  That’s how I came to realize that I needn’t have spent so much time and energy mentally rehearsing for things that might not happen – that I could have been using that time and energy to take in all the wonderful things right in front of me that I didn’t see because I was too busy worrying.  Which led me to begin my Antidote-to-Worrying practice:  noticing, on a daily basis, everything that I don’t have to worry about.  Everything that is already fine, vibrant, thriving.

This is what I told my student: Every time you catch yourself worrying, ask yourself if there’s a danger you need to take care of immediately.  If there isn’t (and usually there won’t be), gently direct your attention to all the things you don’t need to worry about.  Begin making a mental list – and if you find yourself still worrying, write it all down.  The length of the list will astonish you.

Even – or especially! – in these challenging times, try to spend at least 20 minutes a day focusing on what you do have instead of what you don’t.  Allow yourself to see and appreciate the wind in the trees; a breathtaking sunset; your lively, loving family; the good friends offering support.  In so many important ways these are still the good old days.  You still have food to eat, clothes to wear, and kisses (of the non-chocolate variety) to give and receive.  The more you notice the unceasing supply of goodies that really matter, the less you’ll need the kind that give you a 30-second lift, then leave you miserable and wanting more.  It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.

 We invite you to leave a comment below.


42 responses to “The Tootsie Roll Trap

  1. The Tootsie Roll Trap is what I needed. Geneen, you always remind me of what ‘s important. And that is never leaving myself because that would be a very unkind act to do to myself.

    1. Funny how we would not consider being unkind to others yet being unkind to ourselves has become a habit for so many of us. We really do have to learn how to be kind to ourselves in some way that involves “sweetness” beyond that provided by food.

  2. This morning in my journal I wrote that if worrying worked, I would’ve seen what I wanted long ago. The most important thing I’ve learned from Geneen’s work is that kindness is what I needed. It’s simple to understand but not easy to do. Whenever I find myself numbing myself with sugar, I get curious. When I approach myself and my actions with curiousity, I always realize my mind has taken over with worry about something that isn’t even true. Thank you Geneen for telling the truth so I get free of the lies I’ve bought into.

  3. Dear Geneen,

    Thank you for the healing that is happening through your work. My progress is slow but something is starting to change inside me. Your blog today prompted me listen to this old Carol King song. Every word astonishingly fits what you say about being “present” vs “anticipation.” I had tears streaming by the end of it. We’re about the same age, so I think you’ll remember it, too. Here’s the link.


  4. Thank you so much for present there is so many HUGE things happening in my life right now, My soul mate had to move back to the states,
    we dont know when we will see each other again, my house is being repossed by the banks, I am not living and working my passions…are just a few…
    I move from moments of compassion for myself, to complete frustration that I am still doing the same thing 20 years later…that I still have not found the peace within me around food….
    But, here is what has changed, In the mist of all this chaos there are MORE moments when I can stop myself right before a binge…and sit with myself and be there for myself…I also know slow deep breaths soothe me and I cant do them when my tummy feels likes its going to explode..

    I like you, am trying to bring in softness into those moments when there is panic and anxiety within me…knowing that it always passes..

    I wish you all many blessings on your journey..

    love Orlagh

  5. I’ve been stressing all morning over what ifs. My head stuck in a Ferris wheel of negativity. Thank you SO MUCH!! Once again Geneen for your kind, insightful advice that always seems to come to me just when I’m forgetting living in the moment & appreciating all that’s good. I just love you so much❤️

  6. Thank you for this timely article. My first response to “Not one of them has ever been part of my Things-to-Worry-About litany,” was mild panic about what disasters for which I hadn’t made contingency plans. Then I caught my Voice, took a deep breath, dispatched my hypervigilent superego and read the rest of the article. Taking in the good instead of focusing on what I don’t have or can’t control leads me to peace. Thank you!

  7. Geneen, when I was in high school, I saw a poster that said,

    “Half the things I worry about happening never happen,
    and half the things that I DON’T worry about happening, DO.
    Which all goes to show: Even if I’m not worrying about the right things,
    I’m doing just about the right amount of worrying.”

    Of course, this poster was meant to be humorous, but I took it pretty literally, and have spent a lifetime feeling like I had to be ever-vigilant. I’m just barely learning to “drop the rock.” Your article really hit home with me, as your writings always do. I’m a big fan and have learned a lot from your wisdom over the years. I need a refresher course!

    Jody Gittleman

  8. Focusing on what I “do have” has definitely changed my life! It took a little effort in the beginning, but after a few weeks of doing this, I truly feel better, each and every day! Thank you!

  9. Geneen, What if you can’t determine what causes the anxiety or the fear…? I have a Great Faith in God and I know that He’s always provided for me, so its not anxiety about money, or stuff, or of my loved ones dying, or being alone… but I do know it’s SOMETHING!!! What steps can you suggest to get to that “SOMETHING”? I believe the healing is getting there first!

  10. Geneen, this is EXACTLY what I needed to read today. I have tremendous anxiety and I worry constantly – I’ve been that way since I was a child and it seems to be getting worse. I’ve been trying to figure a way out of this and reading your article has helped me a great deal. THANK YOU!! 🙂

  11. This beautiful line: “just as eating candy doesn’t sweeten our lives, worrying about the future does not prepare us for it. ” was worth the whole blog. I have always been SO sure worry served a higher purpose. I love seeing worry this way. Thanks Geneen, you’ve done it again!

  12. Just thought of something. In a pinch, in a disaster, when the going gets tough – I am the resourceful, go-to girl. I always find a solution of some kind and land on my feet. I need to have more faith in myself and my abilities and less faith in tootsie rolls.

  13. Extremely well put Geneen….and of great value to the many sufferers of emotional eating scattered across the globe. Let us all help each other to remember the inherent sweetness in life itself and cease to soothe ourselves with false substitutes. Thank you. xxx

  14. I was taught to worry from the word go. It’s all my parents knew how to do, as well as most of society, and everyone still does. I do my absolute best to NOT worry, and catch myself when I go into worry mode. I think to some degree I always will because there is that belief that it keeps me on my toes and I do feel ahead of the game if I’m on top of things and ideally can prevent some kind of fallout, but the reality is it does all work out in the end, no matter what 🙂

  15. I love all the books, Geneen has written.I listen the books in my car and every morning, as I drive to work, my day is already better.The Tootsie Roll Trap is a “hand”that grabs you and put you on the needed direction.

  16. Very insightful and I appreciate your following the thread to such a full experience of worry. And I’m a resentment/hater. I wake up in the morning and the first thing I do is go to the hatred. It’s dressed as a wound–some wrong I need to avenge. to make myself feel powerful, too show I’m not touched by their hatred. So I experience stuckness,cause I don’t want to be hateful.
    I quite loved your revelation of “none of what I worried about happened”.
    So here I am asking for someway beyond the “Hagen Daze Vanilla Ice Cream in the convenient single serving size. 1 Quart”. syndrome which is clearly linked to hating my mother and a longing for the perfect tit.
    What do I do with all the sickley sweetness that’s so hard to digest.
    I appreciate the opening your article creating for me.

  17. You’ve hit the nail on the head-I spend my life worrying about what can go wrong and trying to prepare myself for the eventuality that I don’t enjoy what is actually happening in my life that is good. Wake up and smell the roses everybody!!!

  18. “Try to spend at least 20 minutes a day focusing on what you do have instead of what you don’t. Allow yourself to see and appreciate the wind in the trees; a breathtaking sunset; your lively, loving family; the good friends offering support. In so many important ways these are still the good old days. You still have food to eat, clothes to wear, and kisses (of the non-chocolate variety) to give and receive. The more you notice the unceasing supply of goodies that really matter, the less you’ll need the kind that give you a 30-second lift, then leave you miserable and wanting more. It doesn’t get much sweeter than that.” Amen, Geneen. AMEN!

  19. Like so many of your writings, this really touched me. I’ve pretty much spent my whole life worrying. I honestly can’t remember a time when I wasn’t stressed and anxious. Once, when I was 6, my Mom was more than two hours late coming home from somewhere. I stared out into the dark, stormy night, and prayed and prayed, trying to ease my fears. When I had worked myself into a sobbing, hysterical mess with my mind full of “what ifs?” I finally went out to tell my Dad what I was worried about, and he just yelled at me and said, “what’s wrong with you? Worrying like that will just cause something bad to happen! Go back to bed!” Well, my Dad wasn’t an evil monster or anything, but obviously he could be completely cold to my emotional needs, and his belief in the raging power of bad thoughts was horrifying to me. I went back to my room, not only terrified of losing my Mom, the brightest, most loving person in my world, but now even more terrified that my fear would go on and cause horrible things to happen. I guess it’s no wonder that I spent the next 30 years battling a raging binge eating disorder and continue to struggle with it to some degree today. Anyway, THANK YOU for your beautiful, uplifting words. I could not agree more with what you said about focusing on the things that are going right now. I have so many wonderful things in my life right now, and I believe that if I can focus on them and stop worrying so much about what might happen, I will be empowered to turn away from my unhealthy eating patterns.

  20. Wonderful article Geneen. The relief of sugar is so short lived and often when we eat due to anxiety, we get all the calories without the bliss, because we are too anxious to really savour the experience.

  21. What a beautiful article, Geneen. And the re-framing to ‘what I have to not worry about’ is brilliant! Your words took out the sting of (you?) your staff not responding to my request, due to adversity, for a fee reduction to your upcoming workshop. Not even a sorry, but we can’t, would have been better than no response at all. I won’t eat tootsie rolls or any sweets over the rejection, though, and, as I said, your article above sweetened the rebuff. From a long time admirer of your way with words and of your work, Marlane

  22. I use this philosophy when I find myself in what I call “fantasy food land.” When I’m obsessing over food and eating lots of it, I ask myself, “if I wasn’t obsessing over food and eating, what would I be doing? What would I be thinking about, listening to, watching, or just doing?” Then I focus on the answer and respond accordingly! It has helped me stay in the present and see it as a gift.

  23. Thank you, Geneen! I love the truth behind all that you say. I love the simplicity of your words and the power behind them and how just one of your sentences turns night into day. You are the “wind beneath my wings!” Aside from the weight struggle, I lost my left hand in a car accident some years back. What you’ve taught me is that even a bird with a broken wing deserves to fly!

    Much Love,
    Norma Davids

  24. Thanks for sharing that! it’s always good to remember how to live the present moment no matter what and indeed worrying for the future just invite us to feel anxious and with the suger desire what makes us feel more anxious at the end!!

  25. God bless you, Geneen…as you get funnier and cuter and clearer about the distractions and detours we can so easily use to block our vision and path on the way to our own best life, each day.

  26. I just love this post. I’ve gained and lost the same 50 lbs more times than I want to admit and have never been at a healthy weight. This time around, I’m determined. I’ve realized that I never appreciate myself if I’m a certain weight . . . so this time around, I’m practicing gratitude for my body at every weight as I go through this process. You have helped me more than you know!

  27. Geneen,
    My mother used to say “I worry from the time I get up in the morning, until it’s time to go to bed.” I used to wonder what she was so worried about, After all, she was relatively happy, had a warm place to live, and have all the creature comforts she ever wanted. I am learning not to live my life like that. Doing what I’m doing right this very minute is all I have. It is what I should, need, want to be doing. The future will take care of itself. I think for me, it is clearly about choices. We can choose to worry or not. We can choose to put that piece of candy in our mouth to fill up what we see as emptiness, or not.We can hide behind all that fat, or not. We can choose to make ourselves healthy or not. We must learn that it is not either or. There is a lot of gray area we must wade through to get to the point of not having to worry or be scared of the future. I am still learning that the choices I make are in the here and now, and not based in some distant childhood experience that traumatized me. I love my life, love myself, and love others. I have made the choice to do that. That’s what fills me up now.

  28. This has truly been a day of revelations! I was reading Women, Food, and God this morning and things started clicking. I feel the area that I struggle the most with, inquiry, was clicking this morning. I was able to question things I was doing and why I was doing them. Then while reading this article I saw myself in your response to worrying about Matt getting in a car accident. My husband is a farmer and when I don’t hear from him for a while I fear that he has had some terrible farm accident, with limbs severed, bleeding to death or already dead. I play out the ambulance being called, arriving, the emergency room, just like you. Now I can use the Antidote-to-Worrying practice, to calm myself and to realize that I am stronger than what I worry about that hasn’t happened. My husband will be a lot happier as well! And to think, I did not think I was a worrier! Now that I see that, I have the tools to deal with it-notice what I don’t have to worry about (what you can’t hear at the end of this is a huge rush of relief air escaping from me!) Thanks.

  29. I love this! It is so true for me, I spend so much time worrying and always have. And I miss so much! My husband is the opposite, he enjoys every moment and has been telling me for 39+ years that I miss so much!
    I’m inspired by Geneen now to at least try to live in this moment, just as I was inspired by her to stop binging 20 years ago (and have not binged since). Thank you Geneen and God bless you.

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