The million-dollar answer to the question …

that most people aren’t asking about why weight loss is so difficult to maintain, is that along with the exaltation come less positive feelings. The lightness that accompanies an unencumbered body feels vulnerable. And if we’ve used our weight in any way, even unconsciously, to keep us safe, the joy of weight loss can be overlaid by a wash of terror. In my experience, the unspoken reason that people don’t maintain their weight loss is that they might not want to be thinner more than they want to stay protected or hidden.

In my twenties, a few days from suicide, I realized that I’d been speaking to myself in a language — eating uncontrollably — that I hadn’t bothered to learn or understand. I decided — and this was the most radical and decidedly counterintuitive part — that I would trust the longing at the root of the compulsion rather than believing I was a self-destructive maniac. And once I took a leap and began trusting myself with food — my friends looked at me in horror when I ate whatever I wanted those first few weeks — everything changed.

The ongoing question was no longer what I could do to control my insanity, but what wisdom the eating could teach me. I saw almost immediately that every time I lost weight, I flung myself at unavailable schmucks and then got consumed by the drama of convincing someone who didn’t and would never want me to want me — which, being an impossible task, took up quite a lot of time.


Because I felt so unattractive at eighty pounds over my natural weight that flinging my body hither and thither was out of the question I joined a writing class and started to write daily—something I’d longed to do since fifth grade — and quickly understood that if I got involved with yet another unavailable man, my creativity would focus on inventing interesting ways to capture he-who-had-no-interest in me. I decided to pour that creative energy into writing instead. When I figured out that I could do for myself what eating had been unconsciously doing, I felt quite moved that I’d been attempting to get through to myself in such a dramatic way, and vanilla fudge ice cream lost its allure. Even when I gained weight those first few weeks (because I didn’t quite believe I wasn’t going to punish myself with food again so I figured I might as well eat as much as I could before the ax fell), I never went back to dieting or believing I was out of control — and, as I’ve written before, the sixty pounds I soon lost stayed forever lost .

When we don’t either understand or believe that the weight has served a crucial purpose, we can feel as if having a thin body is like being shot into the open sky without a space suit. We are supposed to know how to breathe without a mask, move in a body that is no longer weighted down, relate to people without layers of padding. And we are supposed to feel thrilled about the whole process even when the pounds we shed served us in oh so many ways.

If you ask a group of people who want to lose weight whether they’d find being thinner threatening, you would hear a unanimous NO. But you would be asking adults, and that which wants to stay hidden is young. The proof is not in what people say they want, but in what they do. Not in their wishes, but in their actions, which consistently lead to the spectacularly dismal results of maintaining weight loss. And while it is the adult who decides to limit her food or eat the Paleo diet or substitute good fats for trans-fats, it is the Ghost Children — the ones who hid in the closet when our parents were fighting, or whose breasts our uncles fondled, or whose mother died when we were ten--who sabotage the results. If even just a part of us is constellated around a painful story from the past, if we haven’t named or allowed the feelings that accompany that story their due, then losing weight is like telling a small child that everything on which her survival depends has been ripped away. Not exactly a recipe for success.

The heart of any addiction — drugs, alcohol, sex, money, food--is the avoidance of pain coupled with the unwillingness to acknowledge that both the behavior and its consequences serve us even as they destroy our lives. They keep us distracted from the original pain by creating another, possibly life-threatening situation. When we have to focus our attention on not driving while drunk, or having an operation to limit the food we eat so that we can walk, we have little time or interest in naming and meeting feelings we’ve been exiling for thirty or forty years.

Losing weight may indeed bring up fear of being overwhelmed by the very feelings you’ve used food to exile. But fear isn’t a monster, it’s a feeling. And like any feeling, it passes. Fear can be felt, held, dissolved by naming it, feeling its location in our bodies. Instead of avoiding fear we can do what is counterintuitive: welcome it and notice that the part that allows the fear is much bigger than the fear itself.

Maintaining weight loss isn’t about what we eat, not really. It comes back to what we want from our brief time here on earth. …


Excerpt from This Messy Magnificent Life by Geneen Roth, publishing March 6, 2018.  For more about Geneen's upcoming book tour and to pre-order your copy, CLICK HERE.


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