Is author Glennon Doyle the woman to help us navigate life in 2022? Her books have sold millions of copies and women around the globe – including Oprah and Adele – preach that she’s changed their lives forever. Stylist investigates.
Adele calls Glennon Doyle “an absolute don”. Oprah raves: “It’s as if she reached into her own heart, captured the raw emotions there and translated them into words that anyone who’s ever known pain or shame – in other words, every human on the planet – can relate to.” Reese Witherspoon preaches: “This book spoke to me so loudly and clearly… I swear I highlighted something in every chapter.” And Doyle can now add this former self-help cynic to her devotees, although I’m not sure I’ll make the book cover.
I started reading Untamed by US author Glennon Doyle recently, specifically to write a feature unravelling why it sold more than 1 million copies in just 20 weeks, why its author has 1.9 million followers on Instagram and how she’s raised more than $25 million for women, families and children in crisis through her charity Together Rising. I was tasked with understanding how one woman has people across the globe following every word on her blog Momastery, why her 2013 TEDx talk Lessons From The Mental Hospital has been viewed more than 3 million times and whether she might just have the secret to genuine happiness.
Seven days later, as I pinball from one profound realisation to another about how I live, how I parent and why I fear the things I do, my husband laughs: “God, that bloody book again?” And it is that bloody book. But before I tell you why that book and its message is so powerful, here’s some background: Glennon Doyle was born in Burke, Virginia, in 1976 to loving parents, yet became bulimic at just 10 years old. By 13 she’d had her first alcoholic blackout. At 25 she fell accidentally pregnant, at which point she decided to get sober, get married and get happy – and ended up writing her blog, then a book (Carry On Warrior) about it. Her USP was truth. Pure, unflinching truth about her “rock bottom” – and how she dug herself out of it. That book sold and sold and women everywhere began to tell her about their rock bottoms, their failures and their secrets too.
But then, after the birth of her third child, her husband confessed he’d had affairs during their marriage. So she told the world the truth again in her second book, Love Warrior. More fans followed, addicted to her message of honesty, forgiveness and resilience. In March 2020, as Covid-19 sunk its claws into the world, her third book, Untamed, came out. Untamed was her whole truth. Despite trying, she couldn’t make her marriage work, in part because she’d fallen in love with a woman, the gold-medal winning US football player Abby Wambach. After performing happiness, she wasn’t going to be caged by expectation anymore. She was unwilling to be “tamed”. So she did what was right for her and left her husband for Wambach, even if it meant hurting her family and her followers.
Her story is powerful and messy and raw and relatable. Because aren’t we all hiding something? Don’t we all want more than we have? Haven’t we all been quieted – by society, by men, by ourselves? The past two years have been one hell of a bender, one we’re still enduring. From global lockdowns and national uprisings to a mental health crisis that gripped the world and now a new war on European soil, the recent past has shaken us to our core. Optimism is in short supply. But if anyone can offer up hope, it’s Doyle (if you don’t believe me, believe Oprah).
Her philosophy is less about chasing positivity and more about acknowledging that being human means feeling every emotion. When she says, “We can do hard things,” it feels like a mantra for life right now. “You are not supposed to be happy all the time. Life hurts and it’s hard. Not because you’re doing it wrong, but because it hurts for everybody. Don’t avoid the pain. You need it… let it leave you with the fuel you’ll burn to get your work done on this earth,” she wrote in Love Warrior. Here’s what she has to say about reframing our mindset.
Moving past the idea that happiness isn’t in our reach until we’ve ticked all the boxes
In recovery, this is called “destination happiness”. I have moved homes and towns so many times in search of that ‘happiness’. But wherever you go, there you are; the thing I’m constantly trying to escape is me. That’s why destination happiness doesn’t ever come to fruition because you’re always bringing yourself with you.
The destination happiness that we’re currently experiencing – because we can’t go anywhere – is “click, click, click”. “I’ll be happy when I have those jeans, those countertops”. And that’s down to living in a capitalist culture. There are people in boardrooms figuring out how to put things in front of us that make us think the reason we’re depressed and sad is not that the world is depressing and sad, it’s because we just need these jeans. They attach a product to a human need. So if the need is belonging or happiness then we equate those things and that’s what makes us “click”. Women who feel “less than” will always buy more. That’s the way our economy runs. I don’t know how to beat that – I sure as hell haven’t managed it. One of the reasons that we do it is because we are uncomfortable with discomfort of any kind, and so the click or the buy or the move is the fix. One of the things we learn in recovery is becoming more comfortable with being uncomfortable. Unlearning the idea that we’re supposed to be happy all the time.
In a world that values relationships, how can you feel enough as a single woman?
I believe we’re going to start moving away from the idea that the most important relationships in our lives are the marriage-based relationships. The most important ones for me have been with women – regardless that now my wife is a woman. I’m talking about my relationship with my sister, my best friends. Those relationships are all soul-filling, need-meeting relationships. Whereas once every book, poem and song was about romantic love, now we see friendship love, sister love, community love. All love should be celebrated and we should put romantic love in its place. Also, we aren’t used to being cut off from our friends like we were [last] year – when you’re cut off from everyone but “your person”, you quickly realise that you need a lot more.
Comparison is the thief of joy and yet we can’t help comparing ourselves to others — how do we stop?
Whenever I see someone’s perfect meal or house I know what it takes to get that perfect shot so I always try to make myself think of the moment before. That person stopped her entire family, she made sure everything “looked” perfect, she put six filters on it. When you think about the effort it takes to look perfect, it takes the smoke and mirrors away. Part of me has been released from comparison because I’ve been writing so honestly for so long. One day, a decade ago, I told people they could start sending me their stories because everyone was reading my story. At night I’ll sit and read people’s stories and you know what? Everybody’s life is a beautiful, glorious shitshow – and no one escapes that. Parenting is excruciatingly difficult for everyone, marriage is unbelievably complicated for everyone and finding your purpose and dealing with loss is the same for everyone. We need to read stories, memoirs, books that bring us back to humanity rather than a highlight reel.
The pandemic pressed pause on our achievements — why do we feel we have to live to a timeline and how do we deal with that sense of wasted time?
We are like snow globes in that we just do whatever it takes to keep shaken up so that we don’t need to see the truth in the centre of the snow globe. This addiction to doing, to achieving more, to starting this business, the new relationship… it’s just more snow. And we’re addicted to “doing” because it’s so hard to be a human being. Right now, everyone reminds me of people in early recovery, which is like a forced settling of the snow globe: all the things we reach for to keep us shaken up are taken from us – the food, the booze, the drugs, the sex. We have been forced to look at what’s at the centre of our snow globes… “Oh shit, I’m drinking too much.” “Oh shit, my relationship doesn’t make me happy.” The irony is that, while it [the pandemic] stopped us from our timelines of “doing”, I also think we’ll find that it was the greatest time of personal transformation we’ve ever had.
We’ve been taught to count our blessings — but telling ourselves to be grateful when we’re actually feeling miserable just makes us feel guilty
We can dismiss the mandatory gratitude for women right now. This idea that women should just be grateful for what they have and never want more has been ingrained in us from when we were born: in fairytales, religion – the whole story of Adam and Eve is about women not wanting more. All of it is to keep us in our place. Telling someone to be grateful never works – it shames people into being quiet; it doesn’t shame people into being happy. I absolutely do not believe in mandatory gratitude. You know who doesn’t write in gratitude journals? Men. Ever. It’s gendered.
I have a necklace I wear every day that just says “MORE”. Because I feel like “more” is the most subversive word that a woman can claim. I want more love, more justice, more power. When a man wants more he’s considered ambitious, whereas a woman is considered a shrew. I also don’t believe in the suffering Olympics: 70% of letters I get from women start with: “I know so many people have it worse than me but…” There’s always a disclaimer of shame in even expressing their story. Whenever I hear the words ‘should’ and ‘grateful’ in a sentence it’s taming, it’s indoctrination – reject it completely.
When it comes to making brave moves in our lives, it’s easy to obsess over why they could go wrong — how do we shake off this self-sabotaging habit?
We know that women have a huge list of requirements for ourselves before we step into any new venture. A job description will go out to the same company and women will self-edit or take themselves out of the running because they feel they have to be so overqualified and over-prepared, whereas men just think they’re ready and qualified instantly. It’s because over time we have seen and learned that when men do the bold and brave thing, they are accepted. We are used to governments, communities and companies being run by imperfect men. The mistakes we allow them to make – you’ve seen the former American president – while still calling them leaders is insane. Women are not allowed to make a mistake; when a woman comes out as a leader she is scrutinised to death and the crucifixion comes.
One of the most subversive, necessary things for women who are committed to being bold is to say to that voice, “Yes, I might fail but how powerful will it be for me to try? To allow myself to fail and then to refuse to go home?” I don’t think the way to silence that voice is to lie to it; I think what we say to the voice of fear is: “It’ll probably go wrong – but we’ll keep showing up anyway.”
The pandemic pulled the rug out from under us — how do we approach this year optimistically if we’re still feeling the after-effects of what’s come before?
Firstly, this answer is coming from a clinically depressed motivational speaker; optimism is not my default. The single most important lesson I’ve ever learned came during my fifth or sixth recovery meeting. I stood up and said: “My name’s Glennon. I’m a recovering everything. I feel like absolute crap and like there must be some secret to life that everyone else has that I don’t because being a human being seems to be much harder for me than it is for everyone else.” At the end of the meeting, this woman said to me: “The reason why life is so hard for you right now is not because you’re doing it wrong, it’s because you’re doing it right. Feeling all your feelings is really hard. But all feelings are for feeling, even the hard ones. Being human is not about feeling happy, it’s about feeling everything.”
So, what I would say is to forget about mandatory gratitude and mandatory optimism; don’t feel committed to feeling happy or positive. Just commit yourself to feeling everything. What if we become less obsessed with toxic positivity and instead become committed to feeling alive. That means being committed to feeling the full range of human emotions: anger, joy, love, loss, pain, envy, doubt and uncertainty. What if we were just OK with all of it?
The 5 self-help books that’ll actually change your life
Power Hour by Adrienne Herbert
A habit-forming work of genius that will ensure you don’t waste the first hour of your day. It’s all about building the dreams and pursuing the passions that have eluded you until now.
Some Body To Love by Alexandra Heminsley
In 2017, Heminsley discovered her husband was about to transition. This honest memoir explores the shock and evolution of their family while looking at what our bodies mean and how we can love them.
The Fear-Fighter Manual by Luvvie Ajayi Jones
From a woman who nearly left a TED talk because of imposter syndrome, this read underlines why facing your fears is crucial to changing the status quo – both personally and politically.
The Joy Of Being Selfish by Michelle Elman
We’ve all heard about boundaries, but putting them into practice is a whole other thing. This book is a practical guide that will reclaim your time, energy and self-belief.
The Child In You by Stefanie Stahl
A bestseller in Germany, this is a fascinating insight into how our childhoods can cause us problems now, but simple exercises can give your inner child back the confidence and clarity that we all want.
Images: Brian Smith, Getty Images