Photo by Amy Paulson
If you haven’t heard of Glennon Doyle or her #1 New York Times bestseller Untamed, consider it a sign that you landed on this article. Doyle’s spiritually transformative book has been heralded as an emblem of female empowerment since it was first released in March. Untamed was met by an outpouring of praise for being an accessible and inspiring feminist text that illuminates the power structures and patriarchal ideologies that people are indoctrinated with at birth. “Women are in a collective moment of reckoning,” says Doyle, who turned Untamed into a series of thoughtful vignettes, each one ending with a powerful takeaway: encouraging readers to step into their power, trust their inner knowing, and be mindful of social conditioning.
But who is Glennon Doyle? The author and philanthropist first garnered attention when she released her New York Times bestseller Carry On, Warrior (2013), followed by Love Warrior (2016), two unfiltered memoirs which detailed her journey with a serious eating disorder, depression, anxiety, alcoholism, sobriety, an unplanned pregnancy, and her ex-husband’s infidelity.
Untamed is her manifesto and her reckoning. In it, she recounts the lead-up to leaving her husband for Olympian soccer star Abby Wambach in 2016, as well as a treasure trove of life-changing wisdom. It is the toast of Reese Witherspoon’s book club and even Adele has been singing its praises (“This book will shake your brain and make your soul scream,” the singer has said). Doyle is also the founder of nonprofit Together Rising, which has raised nearly $30 million to help people in need around the world.
Doyle sat down with W over Zoom to discuss what it means to be untamed, her thoughts on New Years resolutions, and why everyone needs to have a mental health crisis.
The holidays are supposed to be a time of winding down and taking time to shut off. But people tend to busy themselves, and it reminds me of this quote in your book: “We're like snow globes. We spend all of our time, energy, words, and money creating a flurry, trying not to know, making sure that the snow doesn't settle, so we never have to face the fiery truth inside us… We keep ourselves shaken up because there are dragons in our center.” Why do you think we are so afraid of our inner stillness?
God. Well, because the truth of everything is in the stillness. Stillness is the scariest, hardest thing in the world. Men have been starting wars for centuries because they can't deal with their stillness. It's interesting that at the one time of the year where we pretend we're shutting down, is when we try to create the most flurry. Christmas is like having another part-time job. Christ, the amount of things that I have made lists for each day to get done for Christmas. So that, what, we can relax? It’s insanity. I think one of the reasons Untamed has resonated so hugely during this time is the snow globe concept—Covid-19 was a forced settling of the snow globe. I have so many friends who are telling me that for the first time, they are looking at their life with intention because all the stuff that they used to distract themselves with—work and outer drama—has been stilled. All of these little dragons at the center are coming forward. And we're seeing that in relationships too.
Covid-related divorce rates are skyrocketing in every country, but so is therapy. People are dealing with their relationships for the first time. And it was so easy to ignore all the brokenness, but now the brokenness is sitting next to us on the couch for six straight months so it’s very hard to ignore. So, while we will do our damnedest not to feel our feelings at Christmas, all of these “supposed to’s" of the holidays—we’re supposed to feel, we're supposed to be connected with our families, we’re supposed to like the holiday commercials—it's too much. If everything is not perfect, we feel the losses more deeply and the loneliness more deeply because we're supposed to feel. So I don't blame anybody for keeping the snow globe shaken up.
I find this idea of setting expectations to feel things we’re "supposed to feel” so on point, because I find we get upset at ourselves when we don't feel things we want or expect to. I remember that Christmas feeling when I was young; I lost the cozy holiday vibe—the Hallmark feeling—in my early 20s, and I’ve been trying to recapture it ever since.
My entire family spends months obsessing about the fact that the coziness is about to come. The Christmas commercials are going to start, the carols are going to start. Then we spend a lot of time walking around our house being like, is it happening? Do you feel it? Are we having it yet? Because mostly I'm sitting on the couch wishing [my kids] would stop arguing and everything feels the same. Except there's a layer of pressure on top that we should be feeling a different way than we're feeling. And I had a really interesting experience recently where I was watching this freaking Starbucks commercial and they had packaged the feeling I was supposed to have. There were the sparkles, and there was a scarf wrapped around the cup. They are nailing it? So my daughter wanted to go on a Christmas outing. We go to Starbucks, and we do the thing, but it never feels like the commercial. Is it all capitalism? That's my question. This is how love is supposed to feel because we've seen so many commercials where the ring pops out and her problems have all gone away. But when we actually get the ring, we’re like, “Oh, shit, I'm the same as I was four minutes ago. I did not turn into a princess.”
They’re selling us the feelings we are told we're unable to feel ourselves—unless we buy X, Y, or Z product.
And that's such a brilliant way to run a culture and an economy. And then we stay on the hamster wheel because you can’t ever get enough of what you never really needed. So there's something revolutionary about just being like, “I guess this is it. This is good enough. This is freaking Christmas. This is freaking Chanukah.”
I feel like they’d have good psychologists on their marketing team.
Of course they do! This is what I try to tell women. Every group of marketers are a bunch of psychologists. Thats why we feel like shit all the time—because there's a bunch of people who sit around tables whose entire job is to try to make us feel like shit. Women who feel less than, buy more.
What is the first question we can ask ourselves to help us take the step toward becoming “untamed?”
One of the most subversive, freeing questions a woman can ask herself is, “What do I want?” And it feels simple, but it’s not because we have been conditioned through religion, family, institutions, through all of it, to not trust what we want. Men don't think that way. I don't know any freaking men who sit at home all night writing in their gratitude journals wondering if they're grateful enough. If men want more, they assume it's because they were meant for more. Patriarchal thinking keeps us in our place and makes us feeling ashamed of our desire. It’s all desire-based—whether that's desire for money, food, better sex, power. All of those things we’re supposed to be ashamed of, so that we stay small in every region of our life and don't rock the boat. The reason we think that women can't follow their desires is because they're bad and we are trained in the patriarchy to believe that women are inherently bad.
So we just have to examine those desires until we get to the place where, as women, we think, what if my deepest desires are good? When I began to learn through Gloria Steinem, Betty Friedan, Shirley Chisholm, bell hooks—it's not a mystery why we don't trust ourselves! I can show you the campaign that has been put out through religion and politics to make sure you don’t trust yourself. So if a woman can be conditioned to doubt herself, that can be undone.
Despite all the burning and unlearning you've done, is there something—whether it's a deeply ingrained habit or a belief—that is still difficult for you to unlearn today?
Yes—but there is no “untamed,” there’s only constant momentary untaming. I don't want any girl to read the book and think, “I need to find this untamed self.” The best we can do is not be blind consumers of patriarchy—we can be critical observers and be conscious of our taming. However, there are ways that we can live freer. For example, if you are a human who thinks your faith is bigger than the religion that's been handed to you, and you decide to live out this weird faith that can't be named, that's pretty untamed. Or if you realize your relationship is not meeting your needs. You don't have to leave your husband for an Olympian—although I recommend it—but maybe your untaming is just saying the hard thing that you need that you've never said before. Every time you tell your inner truth, that is untaming.
I will say, that I haven't in any way to rid myself of the compulsive thinking around food and exercise. Sometimes I feel like it’s worse now than it was before. There are times when I’ll tell Abby that I think 50 percent of my thoughts in a day are about fucking food, exercise, and my body. And that is so infuriating to me. First of all, it's humiliating because I'm supposed to be this untamed feminist so that’s just very off brand! But it’s also infuriating because that's the opportunity cost of this conditioning. If I had 50 percent of those thoughts back, I think about the art I could have created, the activism I could have unleashed, the articles I could have written. And that is the cost women pay. But I think men have that, too. I think they also have such strict conditioning that they are not allowed to unleash their whole humanity. Maybe the opportunity cost of toxic masculinity is all of the articles that could have been written with compassion, with emotion, with whatever men can't do because they are shamed out of their humanity.
I completely hear you! I was a binge eater for years. And it was pretty far down the line that I realized many of my friends had food issues too. And I was like, how haven't we all talked about this? I know the intricacies of their personal lives, seen them naked—but we never talked about our psychic narratives that play out as we sit at a restaurant because it’s so shameful.
One of the biggest issues in my relationship is that I can't order my own cheeseburger or my own milkshake or French fries, so I eat all of Abby’s. Every time she's like, “Just order a milkshake!” and I'm like, “I don't know why I can’t!” We think we're dealing with our food and body issues because there are 49 million, trillion groups and apps helping women perfect their bodies. I don't want that. I want someone to help me stop thinking about working on my body. I want to work on my brain and I want to care less, not more!
And that’s why I didn't put anything about body image in Untamed. I'm telling you, it's one of my biggest struggles and probably always will be. I refused to include a chapter about it because I needed there to be one woman's book about what life is like as a woman that didn't have a sob story about your body. I wanted a 17-year-old girl to read this book and not put body issues in her brain, so she didn’t think that it’s a struggle. I see little girls wearing t-shirts that say “little girls can do anything,” and I'm like, they didn't know they couldn't until you gave her that t-shirt!
What your views are on New Year’s Resolutions? I feel we often set ourselves up to let ourselves down with formidable promises, like, “I'll go to the gym five times a week.” Why don’t we just start with a ten minute walk outside?
Everybody is making these New Year's Resolutions, like, I'm going to read War and Peace, I’m going to run a marathon. No, you're not. You're tired already. Saying things like I need a new job, need a new religion, need a new family, need a new home. I need to do all these big things. It's like, no, I need a glass of water or to walk my dog for ten minutes or go to the beach and think. Truly, those are the things that change my life. None of the things that other people or commercials tell me will change my life ever do. It's always and forever the simplest things.
I’m a staunch advocate of micro-steps, which is something I learned when I was in a treatment center dealing with my OCD. The therapists encouraged us to set realistic, attainable goals.
I feel bad for everyone who hasn’t had a mental health crisis because that's when you learn how to be human. That's why the people who are in recovery from something are always the wisest people—the rock bottom place makes you learn how to be human.
The small goals I set always have to do with water. It's either drink a glass of water, take a bath, sweat on my elliptical, or if I'm feeling too lazy for that, I get into my infrared sauna because I can sweat without moving. And then things clear up. That is how I have survived: that's how I've gotten sober, how I do my career. It’s about the next tiny thing. So I can tell you, New Year’s resolutions make absolutely no sense to me. I've been living one day at a time since I got sober at twenty-five. I no longer think I'm one calendar month away from starting a new me. My New Year's resolution is: New Year, same me, for the rest of my life.