Elise Loehnen, ON OUR BEST BEHAVIOR: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good

Elise Loehnen, ON OUR BEST BEHAVIOR: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good

Zibby is joined by New York Times bestselling author Elise Loehnen to discuss On Our Best Behavior: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good, a groundbreaking, stunning exploration of the ancient rules women unwittingly follow in order to be considered “good.” Elise explores how the deadly sins continue to circumscribe women’s behavior, including her own (for example: a fear of gluttony drives women to ignore their appetites). She also talks about her fascinating research, her podcast, and her hopes for this book.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Elise. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books” to discuss your latest instant New York Times best-seller, On Our Best Behavior: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good.

Elise Loehnen: Thank you for having me. Thank you for your great service to readers everywhere. I’m such a fan. Like you, all I want to do is talk about books and talk to writers and push books into people’s hands.

Zibby: Yes, amazing, and a podcaster. We have all this stuff. If only we could all just talk about books and learn about people more every day. It’s the greatest.

Elise: It is a great privilege. I feel very fortunate to have worked my way towards my job.

Zibby: Let’s start with the book. Then let’s talk about your whole job. On Our Best Behavior, tell listeners what it’s about, when you started working on it, why you started working on it, and all of the good stuff about the book.

Elise: When people look at it, they might at first think that it’s a book about religion, but it’s not. It relies on the seven deadly sins as a superstructure, but it’s really about how religion, in many ways, particularly in our Judeo-Christian world, is culture. It is in all of us regardless of our beliefs, conscious or unconscious. To that end, the seven deadly sins, interestingly enough, they’re not gospel. They weren’t in the New Testament. They came out of the Egyptian desert in the fourth century. Then Pope Gregory turned them into the cardinal vices and assigned them all to Mary Magdalene in the same homily that he also turned her into a penitent prostitute. That all happened in the sixth century. That’s my main disclaimer because I think a lot of people are like, I don’t believe in any of this. This isn’t me. What I try to do in the book is delineate that it is in all of us, these ideas about goodness and what it is to be a good woman in our culture. I’m making the argument that women are coded for goodness and men are coded for power. Although, the book isn’t really about men. It’s tangentially about men. Men should really read this if they’re interested in the psychology of women, in ways that I think we wouldn’t choose or own or claim. As we know, reputational damage to women, that she’s bad, lazy, unkind, uncaring, slutty, lazy, fat, these are the worst things that you can do to a woman, whereas these make no dent in men. Really, a man can do any and all sorts of terrible things, and if he’s still perceived as powerful, we still revere him.

I got the idea for the book in part because I wanted to understand what was alive in myself. I’ve ghostwritten twelve books throughout my career. I was a magazine editor, digital media executive. I’ve been very comfortable in my whole life standing behind other people and brands. I didn’t really think much of this until my agent was like, “What are you doing? What is this about?” I was like, “I don’t have a book in me.” She was like, “I beg to differ because you’ve written twelve.” I had to really think about that. What is this tendency in me to hide? I recognized that I was scared, quite simply, of being seen and drawing attention to myself and that I’m not alone in that, which was interesting to me. Then the other animating impulse at the beginning was feeling like I was at the apex of my career, married. I have two young children. I have sort of done it. I’ve made it. Yet I was still chronically breathless and chased by these feelings of not being enough. I could intellectually recognize that that was “crazy.” Yet these voices inside of me were so persistent driving me. I realized I had never sat through a movie at home. I’d never spent more than twenty minutes watching TV without doing something else or getting up to do something else. I had this compulsive cattle prod in me that was driving me. I really had to turn and face and start to tease apart, what is this in me? It was really interesting. It was kind of wild to recognize that this — there are great books about women and anger, women and food, women and work, women and being a mother. Then to recognize that, actually, this is all a system of goodness — these are all interrelated. Yes, we should examine each of them on their own. They’re all worthy of really incredible books and thought and research, but these are all part of a system. They’re all overlapping. They crash into each other in interesting ways.

Zibby: The compulsive cattle prod, it’s not really your fault. It’s a systemic response.

Elise: Yes. I haven’t met a woman who seems sort of post-patriarchal. Patriarchy’s such a bogeyman word and a “what does it even mean?” word. We throw it around. It’s this system. It’s this internalized patriarchy that I think drives us about how we police ourselves and then in turn, how we police each other and the standards and norms that we establish and then the way that that impacts other women. What also happens is that compulsive doing, cattle prodding. I’m not a good enough mother. I’m not a good enough employee. I know I spent all week doing late nights at my law firm on this brief, whatever it is that lawyers do, and now I need to compensate. I can’t say, oh, wow, I’m empty. I am tapped out. I need to rest. No. Women are like, now I need to compensate by doing two intensive, packed days with my kids. I’m going to just kill myself for them so that they realize that they’re equal in terms of my attention. Instead of doing what men do, which is saying, I’m wiped, I need a break, women sort of feel like we have to override that need for rest, for example. The good women prioritize other people’s needs over their own wants and desires. It’s our job. There’s nothing worse than being called a bad mother, a bad employee, whatever it is. There’s no time for rest. We sort of enforce it in our own behavior with each other. Then you look around, and you’re like, shit, I’m really dropping the ball on my kid’s birthday party, or whatever it may be. It’s very hard to resist.

Zibby: What is the answer? First, there’s the deep sigh of relief of being seen and being like, okay, yes, that is me. I see why perhaps — not just perhaps. I buy the argument that it is not just me as a person. It’s not my family’s influence. This is a part of a greater fabric, but then what?

Elise: I think a huge step is just consciousness, awareness, conversation. What I love about the book, as much as I want everyone to buy it, even just for the bibliography — I’m a wide reader. My secret sauce is distilling lots of disparate sources of information and putting them together. You can almost not read the book and be in conversation about it. I’ll list the sins to remind people because most people are probably like, I don’t know what they are. Sloth, pride, envy, gluttony, greed, lust, anger. Then I included — originally, they were eight thoughts. The eighth thought was sadness. I wrote about sadness at the end in the context of men making the argument that I think severing boys and men from feeling and these ideas of weakness, the primary symptom of that is toxic masculinity. I’m more concerned about our boys and men than I am about women. Women are incredibly durable, have learned how to survive and often thrive. I have no doubts that as we sort of get over ourselves, we’ll be fine. We’ve been outperforming boys in school for a century. We’re incredibly hardworking, clearly. We tend to prioritize other people, etc. I’m not so worried about women. As frustrated as I am with the lack of equity, I think we can overcome that quite fast if we can get out of our own way. I am worried about boys and men.

For me, it’s recognizing that this is in me. Envy is in me. This inability to identify what I want — women are conditioned that they don’t have any wants, that they really are here to serve other people’s needs first. We don’t have great models for, this is what I want, and I’m going to go after it. We obviously police women who we perceive as ambitious or driven. We’re very quick to put women in particular back in their places. That’s what the chapter on pride is about. Again, they’re all very overlapping. With envy, for example, my thesis, which started with a conversation with psychotherapist Lori Gottlieb in Maybe You Should Talk to Someone where she says that she tells clients to pay attention to their envy because it shows them what they want — that was a groundbreaking idea for me when I talked to her, I don’t know, five years ago. I realized that what I think is happening with me — this is my thesis. I am so unused to thinking about what I want. I’m so not practiced in even identifying that emotion. Envy is so gross. When we suppress or repress this emotion, this feeling that we think is “bad,” we project it on the object who is inspiring us. I think a lot of this women-on-women hate, particularly when it’s generalized — I just don’t like her. She rubs me the wrong way. Who does she think she is? I thought her book sucked. I don’t understand why people think she’s so great. All of that condemnation and criticism that is very sanctioned — it’s this, women are women. Women are catty. All of that, it’s not who we are. I think it’s just how we’ve been culturally conditioned to behave. It’s accepted. It’s, in the moment, more comfortable to do that than to say, what is she doing that’s making me so uncomfortable? and recognizing that she is pushing on a dream that we have for ourselves. I want to write a book. I want my body to look like that. I want my kids to be well-behaved readers. Whatever it may be. It might be really small, but it’s so full of information. We’re just not conditioned to even acknowledge it because we repress it. That’s we do with our envy.

With my fear of sloth, for example, it’s just making myself sit and move through the feelings of discomfort that start to rise in me when I have that feeling that I should be “doing something productive.” It’s an internal battle where I am just like, stop, you are not allowed to start another book proposal until August 1st. I have to sort of retrain myself. It’s an internal conversation of just being conscious of what’s shooting up in me and taking the time to stop. It’s interrupting myself when I start tugging at my stomach or saying that I should go on a diet or saying that I’ve been bad. I should be “good.” All familiar language for all of us, right? It’s so unconscious. It’s just stopping. It’s uncomfortable. I’m not saying that it’s easy. I think on the other side, there’s a promise of liberation. The book isn’t — I could’ve written it as sort of a stunty, let’s be lustful and greedy. It’s not saying that. It’s saying that our extreme self-denial and repression is out of balance and that we have to let the fullness of our humanity — we have to own our wholeness. We have to let it come up. It’s okay to have hunger. It’s a beautiful thing to experience pleasure. We need to make it safe for each other to be seen and celebrated for our gifts because at this moment in time, we all need to show up. Women’s anger is often righteous and needs to be heard and articulates what our needs are and where our boundaries are.

I didn’t want to write an anthem where you would just feel really pissed. It’s not easy to do that, but I could’ve done that. I didn’t want to. I wanted it to move. It’s not a how-to, tactical, “here are your exercises” book, but it’s a hopeful book. At least what I’m seeing in the comments from people who have read it, it’s validating. You are saying all the things that I felt that I thought were just me. Now I see it in culture, and I understand it. Hopefully, then it becomes shorthand for us, a checklist. Oh, I’m feeling envy. We can do it with each other. We can stop each other and just say, do not talk about your body like that. I don’t want you to talk about your body like that, etc. I don’t know, maybe I’m a Pollyanna. I think most of us had no idea that these voices were running our lives in that way and/or we attributed them to our parents or our partners. That was part of it for me too. I was like, wait, this is not coming from — my husband, in no way, is telling me that I should be paying bills while we watch Succession. This is not from my parents. As fun as it is to blame parents for everything, this is much deeper. This is bigger than any single point of influence.

Zibby: Wow. First of all, where are you reading the comments? Does this mean you read reviews? How do you feel about that?

Elise: On Instagram. These are people who typically are saying nice things and are therefore tagging me, and I’m seeing them. I’m sure the people who are not saying nice things are not tagging me. I haven’t gone deep into Goodreads or Amazon. It’s not that I don’t care. In some ways, I feel really good about the book. I’m like, I did my best. I worked really hard on this book. I worked so hard. You understand. I worked so hard on this book, clarifying, researching, compiling, clarifying, clarifying, clarifying. If it doesn’t suit everyone’s needs, I’ve done my best. I think criticism can be full of really useful information. I try to understand where I’m triggered so that I can sort of take what’s useful. I just haven’t allowed myself to — the team has pulled out some Goodreads reviews, etc. What’s really interesting is the first reactive feedback that I’ve seen that’s negative on Instagram has been, this is anti-God. I’m like, learn your history before you defend Pope Gregory I. I think these people think that this is gospel from the mouth of Jesus or Moses. I’m like, no, this is not.

Zibby: No, this is a very contemporary movement to learning —

Elise: — This is all made up by men.

Zibby: So interesting, oh, my gosh. Do you feel comfortable starting a movement? Do you feel good about…?

Elise: That would be amazing. I write about myself in the book far more than I thought that I would. That’s not how I sold the book. Ultimately, it became necessary. I needed to bring myself into it. I like to be clinical and abstract. My editor, rightly, was like, “You need to bring people through this experience to make it land and make it something that other people feel comfortable examining in their own lives.” In some ways, it’s a very vulnerable, revealing book. Then at the same time, I feel like I don’t see myself as — I think the book stands on its own. I want to be one of those writers who can comment on culture and pull together other people’s research and scholarship and history and not have it be about me. I don’t, also, want my life to become like, well, I better blow up my life so that I have interesting things to write about. Yes, I would love to be a coparticipant, if that makes sense. I like standing with the readers. I like being part of it in that way, less like, I’m an authority. I’m an expert. Does that make sense?

Zibby: Totally, yes. Ultimately, are you relieved that your agent suggested you write a book on your own?

Elise: Yes. I’m very grateful. I’m grateful to her because she took me on when I was a baby. She is an agent that’s definitely well beyond me. I’m grateful that she kept me all these years even though I was just ghosting. I don’t know what that was in me. I’m sure anyone listening feels the same. I think part of it — I don’t know if you feel this way. I have such a deep reverence for writers. I grew up, primarily, reading. That’s still how I function. It’s very scary to see your name on the binding of a book. Part of it was I had to use my envy again to be like, if her, why not me? The upside of envy is to use it, identify your wants, and then use those people as “expanders.” It’s pushing past all of the scarcity mental that affects so many of us. If she can do this, I can do this too, not because she has this, I can’t also have this. For me, it was this, oh, wait, this person wrote a book that seems like it didn’t take that long. I’ll say that kindly. I could do this. Why am I holding myself back?

Zibby: You are a master branding person. You’ve worked on a million magazines and content. You’re just a genius, obviously. From listening to you for a second, anyone could be able to identify that. Are you going to take this framework and turn that into almost like a Gretchen Rubin-esque life-changing set of tools? Are you examine something else? Are there going to be workshops and classes and workbooks? Where are we going?

Elise: That’s a great question. I have a podcast and a newsletter called “Pulling the Thread,” which I feel like is sort of my umbrella because that’s what I’m doing, just pulling the threads of these stories that we tell about who we are. On a meta level, On Our Best Behavior fits into that world. I would love to do workshops because I think it’s perfect, and even, ideally, with the women and other people in the book, like bringing in Harriet Lerner and doing anger, Melissa Febos and talking about lust. There are so many amazing thinkers in these spaces who I would love to collaborate with. I think there’s part of it that’s a mental model. How do we get into our bodies and really in touch with ourselves? I would love to do that, but I don’t think that I will go in the Gretchen Rubin — it’s not that I’m not that focused and capable, but my interests are so wide. Like Gretchen, I like tidy packages. I like superstructures. I think it’s nice for the reader. We all have that experience of being in a book, and you’re like, where is this person going? There’s just that line between recognizing that all things can’t be pat and then also that things are archetypal and collective and that these structures exist if you look. I think I will continue in the vein of examining some of these ancient ideas and how they have us in their grips, but I don’t think I’ll stay, necessarily. I don’t know. I would love to do a workbook, but no one has offered me a workbook, Zibby. We’ll see what happens.

Zibby: Putting it out in the universe.

Elise: It’s funny. As you know, these books, I think we all put a lot attention on press. How much attention are you getting out of the gate? Really, what sells books is primarily women, as you know, reading them and telling their friends and creating these word-of-mouth network effects. I’m about five weeks in. I’m in the early days of, will there be an infectious curve of word of mouth? We’ll see.

Zibby: I also think part of what makes books really resonate is when they end up changing your own life for the better. They change the way you see , whether it’s finding joy in a round-shaped lamp because Joyful, the book, tells you to buy that. You examine, okay, I’m looking at this Instagram post and hating this woman because I’m jealous. Oh, wait, maybe I should have a martini and post it. No, I’m kidding. There’s so much from your book and your whole platform that is highly helpful in the day-to-day, making life better for everyday women. That is something that people will, of course, adopt, as they have already.

Elise: I just want women to stop carrying around these feelings of badness and not enough-ness and then either internalizing them deeply or projecting them onto other people. The book is so much about, also, nature versus culture and our inability to ever satisfactorily tease them apart. Who are we versus who are the stories we tell about who we are? I think women and men — but for women, these pernicious stories about how a woman behaves — her place is in the cave. She’s deviant if she doesn’t have these qualities. Even that women are gossipy, alliance building, backstabbing jerks, it’s like, no, that’s how we’ve been cultured. That’s just culture. This isn’t nature. This is how we’ve been taught to handle our aggression. This isn’t who we are. I think the more that we can get closer to who we are, the more we can show up in the world. Women are amazing, ultimately. Watch out. I also feel like we’re like boxers who’ve been training at high altitude. If we can get out of our own way and more importantly, get on side with each other, I really think the world will be in a better place.

Zibby: Elise, you are such a rockstar. Oh, my gosh. I have eight trillion more questions and threads to take this conversation. I hope we can continue this in some other —

Elise: — Yes, love to.

Zibby: Congratulations on your book. It’s amazing. You’re amazing. Wow, fun just to listen to you speak, really. You’re a genius.

Elise: Thank you.

Zibby: Thanks, Elise.

Elise: Bye. Let me know when you’re in LA.

Zibby: Okay. Bye.

ON OUR BEST BEHAVIOR: The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good by Elise Loehnen

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