Life coach and longtime columnist at O, the Oprah Magazine Martha Beck joins Zibby to discuss her latest book, The Way of Integrity, and how the root of all psychological suffering is a loss of structural integrity in our lives. Martha shares her personal story of losing and learning to regain her own integrity, as well as a handful of self-help steps readers can use to rebuild themselves and achieve the lives they were meant to live.


Zibby Owens: Welcome, Martha. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.”

Martha Beck: It’s my pleasure. Moms barely have time to make podcasts, yes?

Zibby: That’s true too. Very true. I was so excited to get the chance to interview you having read your column in O, The Oprah Magazine for so many years. It’s such a treat. Now we’re going to talk about your new book, The Way of Integrity: Finding the Path to Your True Self, which was amazing. I read it with a pen in hand. I took all the quizzes. I was pulling everything out. Oh, my gosh, it was so much fun. It felt like it was the best women’s magazine thing ever.

Martha: Thank you. A woman’s magazine article that’s three hundred and fifty pages long, just what everyone wants when you’re trying to raise kids.

Zibby: No, it was great, though, because you gave such specific feedback. Why don’t you tell listeners what this book is about? What inspired you to write this one, especially how you linked it with Dante’s Inferno? which was a genius way to structure a book. I was like, wow, hats off.

Martha: Thank you very much. After thirty years of writing self-help and coaching people and everything, I came to the conclusion that the single cause of psychological suffering is a loss of integrity. What I mean by that is structural integrity, like an airplane when everything’s aligned. All the parts are in their places. It can fly. If it falls out of structural integrity, it crashes. This is not a moralizing thing. This is about unity and alignment with yourself. I’ve been working on this since I was — when I was twenty-nine, I took a vow not to tell a single lie for a full year. I didn’t. I do not advise that in the book. If you want to just jump off a cliff naked, that’s a really good way to go. If you’d rather walk, perhaps use the techniques in this book. What I realized when I came into full integrity — I was really out of integrity. I’d been raised very fervently, dogmatically Mormon. Then I’d been educated at Harvard, which is not fervently, dogmatically Mormon. I don’t know if people really get that, but yet, it’s not. I had these cultures. I was trying to get approval in both of them. They were completely dissimilar, so I was split in half. Also, neither one of them had anything to do with me and what I thought was true.

When I went for a year without telling a single lie, all my truths came up. Included among that was the truth that I’d been sexually abused as a child, the truth that the way people did things at Harvard gave no respect and honor to my child with down syndrome, all these different things. I either walked away from or lost, during that year, my home, the place where I’d grown up; my entire community of origin, my huge extended family; my marriage; my home, as in my house; fled the States — I was living in Utah at the time — left the career I’d chosen and the job I was in. Everything went into the furnace. I had also been chronically ill for twelve years. As everything fell apart around me, everything healed inside me. Psychologically, physically, in this chaos of loss, everything came together. I felt happier than I’d ever felt. I felt more whole. Periodically since then, I’ve done these integrity cleanses where I get really rigorous. The last one started about seven years ago. I was like, oh, my gosh, this is really working. I was getting closer to real, pure integrity. Everything in my life started to be so wonderful. I thought, I got to write this down. It’s a big challenge, but people are ready for it, especially during a pandemic. That’s why I wrote it. Thank you very much.

Zibby: Wow. One of the many things I loved reading about, and now I want to go back and read the memoir that you referenced in this book which you wrote during your pregnancy with your son Adam who was born with down syndrome, is how you included that throughout this book and what it felt like to have the community at large kind of dissuading you, trying to get you not to do what in your heart — and all of your anxiety about it and your thoughts about it and then that moment that you came to when you were like, I can’t do this, I can’t do this. Then you were like, maybe I can. Are you sure? I just loved that, how you have to question all of your beliefs about something. That’s what informs how you approach it. Tell me a little more about that.

Martha: The suffering you go into when you split from yourself is based, virtually always, on socialization. We don’t leave ourselves. We’re born with our true nature and integrity. Then our culture hits us, and it starts to pull us away, condition us away from integrity immediately, even before we can talk. Then we lose ourselves. We go off to try to please people for the rest of our lives. When my son Adam was born, this was at Harvard, not only did people dissuade me, the five doctors on the staff at Harvard University Health Services strongly disagreed with my decision at twenty-four weeks along to continue the pregnancy. By the way, I’ve given people the advice to maybe not continue such a pregnancy. I’m very pro-choice. That was not the deal. It’s just, I looked inside myself for the first time. I’ll tell you a story that isn’t in the book. When they called me to give me the news — I’d had an amniocentesis because I was caught in a fire and inhaled a lot of smoke. It was a really fun year. I was only twenty-five, so it wasn’t like I was at any kind of high risk. They did an amnio. They called me back. I did not expect this news. I picked up the phone. The nurse said, “I have some not-so-good news for you.” I heard a voice say, don’t be afraid. I think that was my true self or whatever you want to call it. It was really distracting. The nurse said, “The fetus you’re carrying has down syndrome.” I said, “What?” But I wasn’t talking to her. I was talking to the voice. It was like, where’d that come from? The voice said, Martha, are you happy? I was like, “What?” The nurse said, “Down syndrome, trisomy 21.” I was like, not you, shut up.

I’m listening to the voice. I thought, am I happy? No. None of the doctors that I see at Harvard appear to be completely happy either. I said, “I’ve heard that people with down syndrome can be happy.” The voice said, that is right. The nurse said, “I don’t think so.” That shook me up. Again, I’m not saying that’s what everyone should do. That was the voice of my integrity. It was bringing me to the truth that these people didn’t have children with down syndrome. They didn’t know what that would be like for me. For me, it felt like part of my life’s mission. I went back to Utah where everyone would approve of my choice. Now I’ve got this little baby. Everybody told me I’d get extra stars in my crown for keeping him. I was like, that does not float my boat. The whole Mormonism thing just blew up. I’m like, this does not feel true to me, so I left. Mormons believe that’s the sin worse than murder. You’re going to be separated and float in outer darkness completely isolated for all eternity. I got strongly pressured. I was like, nah, I don’t think so. It was two decisions, and there were more in my life, too, that were similar, that had just gotten a whole culture oriented against me. Through that, I found where I stood. It wasn’t where anyone around me was telling me I should stand, but it was my truth. The only way to be whole was to follow it, was to stay in my integrity. With two steps forward, one step back, that’s pretty much how I tried to live my life.

Zibby: Then you ended up coming out as gay and saying it on the Oprah show live. The way you describe it in the book was hilarious. You’re like, oh, yes, there I was. Yes, live TV, I just decided to say it. It wasn’t planned. What was that moment in your life like? Oh, my gosh.

Martha: Oh, my gosh. They give you a script. They’d written out a script. I was doing a live webcast with Oprah. I forget the topic. I talked to the producers beforehand. I said, “Should I talk about being gay?” They were like, “No, no, no, she’s in the middle of dealing with the Ellen DeGeneres thing. She doesn’t need that issue on the webcast, so don’t talk about it.” I was like, okay. Then we get into it. There’s a live audience. A woman in the audience raises her hand. Oprah called on her. She said, “I am married with three children. I’ve realized I’m gay. I don’t know what to do and how it will affect my children.” I thought, I could stay from my ivory tower and say, from what I’ve observed among my clients… I could’ve been there or I could go completely off script and do what they hadn’t told me to. Now, it is intimidating to be at the Oprah machine, all these producers. Oprah herself is so powerful. I just thought, I can’t stay honest and tell this woman that I haven’t been through this. I said to her, “Well, your experience is exactly like mine, so let me speak to it from there.” I started talking. Oprah kind of reared back and said, “Wait a minute, you’re gay? You’re gay?” in that beautiful voice of hers. I was like, “Yes.” It was live. It was national. There were millions of people watching. Coming out is always hard, always scary. You feel very exposed to all kinds of people who — again, the culture may not like you, but I had to. I had to. I’m not sure what the crowd thought of it, but I knew what I had to do. It was a refining fire moment for me, to be sure. Because I’d been practicing integrity for so long, I knew what my path had to be.

Zibby: You do have this whole part about secrets in the book. Let me see if I can find the quote. Basically, having secrets — oh, here, I found it. Wow, it’s a miracle.

Martha: Wow.

Zibby: I know. I have like fifty-seven things dogeared, but sometimes I actually find the things I need. Let me just read this little thing. You said, “Speaking of science, solid research shows all sorts of links between living in harmony with our truth and maintaining good health. There’s a whole field of medicine, psychoneuroimmunology, that focuses on the way psychological stress, including the stress of lying or keeping secrets, contributes to illness. Studies have linked deception and secret-keeping to elevated heart rate and blood pressure, increased stress hormones, higher bad cholesterol and glucose levels, and reduced immune responses. The more significant our deceptive behavior, the worse the effect on health,” which I found so fascinating as so many people are out there keeping secrets of one kind or another. I feel like most novels and memoirs are based around this corrosive effect of secrets and their impact on their lives. That is fascinating research.

Martha: Comedies too, they’re always based either on a misunderstanding or a secret someone’s trying to keep. Hilarity ensues. We feel in our psyches that lying is destabilizing for ourselves and everyone around us. Wherever you get to the edge of uncomfortable, that’s where laughter happens. That’s where drama happens. That’s where we’re all focused. Anthropologists actually think that the proclivity of humans to gossip is related to the fact that there are psychopaths, sociopaths in the community. Psychopaths and sociopaths, they live in secrecy because they’re doing whatever, serial killing, smoking pipe cleaner, I don’t know what. Whatever they’re doing, they keep secrets. There is nothing more dangerous to a human being than another human being who is keeping secrets. They think that’s why we evolved with so much white in our eyes unlike other animals where it’s mostly brown or whatever. When we lie, there’s a jitter in the eyes.

We don’t even know that that’s what we’re seeing, but we pick it up. We start to feel uneasy because the single most dangerous thing to us is another human being who is lying or keeping secrets. We sort of compulsively gossip about what’s really going on. What’s really going on? What’s the cover-up? We’re always looking for the truth, for our own truth, for the community truth, to stand in our truth. The way it corrodes health is instantly visible, instantly. I do stuff with clients all the time where I say, you’ve been holding onto this secret or this lie. Tell me about a time when you were keeping it inside. Tell me what it does to you. Immediately, they lose energy. They lose muscle strength. It’s instantaneous. People who just promise researchers that they’ll lie a little less for three weeks have fewer doctor visits, fewer illness, their relationships go better, their careers go better just because they sort of try not to be so deceptive. The research on this is overwhelming. The relief when you get your secrets out and you don’t have to carry that burden, I can’t even describe it. It’s so much better.

Zibby: Your book is basically perfect for anybody’s who’s just, and as you position it yourself, I’m not making this up, but just people who feel unfulfilled. Things are fine, but they’re not great. I feel like there’s so many ways people and experts have come after this issue which is so pervasive. How can we make life better? You give all sorts of skills. Tell me why you did this in the context of Dante’s Inferno and how you did purgatory and all the different stages and how you take the reader through all of this. How did you come up with that idea? Were you just like, this is perfect? Tell me about that.

Martha: When I was eighteen, I read The Divine Comedy for the first time. I thought, this is weird. This is fourteen-century European politics. Why am I reading it? Then I got to the place in Dante’s famous Inferno where he’s going down through hell. It gets worse and worse and worse. At the center of hell, which is the center of the Earth because they knew the Earth was round, they get to the rock bottom, which is the monster Lucifer. He’s locked in a lake of ice. His guide tells Dante, we have to keep going down. Dante’s like, there’s no more down. He says, no, you have to. They climb on the body of Lucifer the monster, and they lower themselves by his moldy hair to the point where his hips are encased in ice. At that point, they have to turn 180 degrees because they’ve passed the center of the Earth and what was down becomes up. In other words, if you’re going through hell, keep going. When I was a depressed eighteen-year-old, this really spoke to me. I kept going into the depression I was suffering. I went in. I went in. I went in. As Carl Jung said, he who looks out is dreaming and he who looks within awakens. If you get past your worst point, your rock bottom, and keep going — the AA people have stuff to say about this too. You’ve gone through hell, but you’re headed toward paradise. The beginning of Dante’s Inferno, the first lines say something like, “Right in the middle of my life, I came to myself in a dark wood, for the true path had been lost.” He said, “I don’t even know how I got here. Everything’s foggy. Everything’s murky. I’m afraid of everything. What am I doing here?”

That rang true to me as a young adult. I was like, what? Why am I not happy? I’ve got a lovely family. I’ve got a prestigious degree. I have a job track laid out in front of me. I didn’t feel good. It wasn’t working right. People who come to me to be coached, the number-one reason is they just feel purposeless and meaningless. The reason is they’ve allowed themselves, unwittingly, innocently, to be socialized away from their true nature. You just end up wandering in what Dante calls the dark wood of error. I started going back to The Divine Comedy. I believe it is the first great self-help book, all in metaphor. He’s in the dark wood. He meets a teacher. They say, you’ve got to go through hell to get out of this. It’s kind of entering therapy and going inside yourself. Then the third part is purgatory. That simply means cleansing, so my integrity cleanses where I cleanse away everything but integrity. It’s a mountain that Dante has to climb where every lie, he untold in himself. Any lie that culture tells you, like, rich people are better than poor people, that’s a lie, so you have to unsee all that. Are you sure? Are you sure? You go through hell by questioning those. Then you get out on the other side. You’re in a situation where you’re with rich people, and you’re poor.

Now you have to walk your talk. Now you have to walk steady in the belief that all men are created equal, and women too and everybody of every gender. You have to hang in there. It’s really hard at first. You climb and you climb, and it gets easier. When you get to the point where you’re really clear and you’re really in full alignment with yourself, or integrity, you just start to rise magically into paradise. I really went through this system while I was writing the book. When I got to the paradise part — people talk about The Secret and magic and miracles. Yeah, all right, I kind of believe in it. It turns out that when you do intentional thinking from the perspective of perfect or near-perfect clarity, what you want manifests so fast. It’s crazy. I came into peace, and everything I ever wanted was waiting for me there, which was interesting. Everyone I’ve ever coached feels the phrase “I am meant to live in peace,” as a home, as something that’s deeply true. My theory is that when we beg for something from the universe, it sends it to us. The answer’s always yes. It’s always sent immediately, but it’s sent to our real home address, which is peace. Everything’s waiting for us there. Dante basically lets us see how that works. I wanted to sort of decode it for everybody.

Zibby: Wow, the image of a mailbox of all this unopened mail of your perfect life just sitting there waiting for you.

Martha: Boxes and packages. There’s a pony over there.

Zibby: A pony.

Martha: Everything.

Zibby: I love your idea of these soul teachers. Is that what you called them? Let me make sure. A soul teacher and who that is in your life and having guides who you find. Maybe they’re not who you expect, but they’re out there waiting for you to take you out of the woods.

Martha: I used to hear the phrase, when the student is ready, the teacher appears. I’d look around and go, I don’t have any teachers that I can see. I’m very much an introvert. What I found is that the student being ready simply means coming into full integrity in the dark wood of error. All you have to do to make that is to say, I’m lost. I’m really lost. I can’t get out by myself. I’ve tried. I don’t know what to do next. Then maybe you call a therapist, and that’s the way the teacher shows up for you. Maybe you start reading self-help books. That’s how I did it. I started reading self-help books. Then I moved on to books on spirituality. My whole life unfolded through book teachers. Sometimes it’s a situation that comes to inform you. It seems perfectly designed to show you where your blind spots are and push you through hell. The teacher does appear. The way you make the student ready is deeply acknowledge the truth, I am not sure where I am. I don’t know how to get out. I don’t like it. The moment you’re in integrity, what you look for manifests.

Zibby: You have written many best-selling books and a novel. Yet you say on your website that writing, for you, is just a means to communicate the information. You’re astounded that you’re a best-selling author. Is that really true? Tell me about that.

Martha: I wanted to write about my experience with Adam because it was so weird at the time. Nobody had a diagnosis of a cognitive disability and then kept the baby when I had him. Many people have since. I was like, I’m just going to do this to talk about how weird it was and how I had all these magical experiences around it that made it a good experience. He’s still like that, a really magical dude. That was the only book I wanted to write. I wrote it. I wrote the first version, got it rejected by every one of the dozens of agents I sent it to. Wrote another book just to kick the door open saying, I have a PhD from Harvard, you want to hear my research? Everyone was like, yeah, and I wrote a book that sold like no copies. Then the publisher was like, “Okay, we’ll take another look at your memoir.” I had written it as a novel because it was so weird and magical. They looked at it and they said, “This is all true. Why don’t you write it as a memoir?” I wrote that, and they said okay. I wrote the true story. They took it. It became a New York Times best seller. Then they came back and said, “What’s the next book?” I’m like, I don’t have a next book. I’m not writer. I’m a sociology professor. Leave me alone. People had started asking me about my philosophy of life. I wrote everything they asked me about in a book. I’m like, here, take it. Leave me alone. It really backfired because the book became another best seller. People just started flocking. I thought once they had the book they would literally have no reason to think about me or talk to me or remember my name, but not everyone thinks that way. Then it basically launched my career. They just keep asking for the next book. It beats working.

Zibby: Wow, you are definitely the first person who considers their best seller to be a bummer, or not a bummer, but a negative side effect of what you were doing. It’s so funny.

Martha: I loved selling books. It was like, why are you coming to me when you have the book?

Zibby: No, I get it. I get. Now you’ve built this whole empire. You have courses and podcasts and books and coaching. How do you manage all of your time? How do you fit all this into a given day?

Martha: Fortunately, one of the things that happens when you come into integrity as an individual, even partially, is that there’s a phenomenon called fractaling, a geometrical phenomenon. It’s everywhere in nature. It’s a shape that repeats itself at different sizes. If you look at a river delta from the air, it looks almost exactly like the nerve branching and the veins and arteries branching in your system. If you look at the rings on a tree, they look almost exactly like your fingerprints. All these patterns in nature replicate. I believe that whoever you are as an individual — have you heard it said that the five people who you deal with the most or think about the most, that’s a three-dimensional self-portrait of what you are? You pick people and they pick you based on what you’re living. One of the incredible blessing of trying to live this way is that you attract people who are similar. That means that as I got too much to do — I was trying to do a one-woman show, entrepreneurialism. People started to show up to help. I was like, I never meant to be an entrepreneur. I never meant to have a company, all these things I never meant to do. I just wanted to be happy. Now I have this incredible, beautiful team of people who really live their integrity as well. We run this company. It just keeps going. Miracles never cease. They literally never cease.

Zibby: That’s amazing. How old is your son Adam now, by the way? I know you have three kids.

Martha: He is 33, and I am a 1,012.

Zibby: What advice would you have for aspiring authors?

Martha: You know what? Write. I know everybody’s heard this. Write like a fountain and not like an oil well. An oil well, they put the plunger in and they suck things out of you because it’s going to be worth money. If you find a spring that’s bubbling out naturally, it gives people what’s really necessary. What we do without oil is stop ruining the Earth. What we do without water is die immediately. If you go out suctioning to try to make money, especially today when everybody can read everything they want on the internet, it’s not going to make for a good career as a writer. Go to the place where your own integrity has a story to tell. Peel away everything. Believe me, if you start living in integrity and not telling lies and not keeping secrets, the reaction of the culture around you will give you so much material to write about. I think that may be part of what happened with the Black Lives Matter movement and the Me Too movement. People, they calmed down. They had to go to their houses because of the pandemic. They sat quietly in a room.

Pascal said the reason we’re miserable is that we’re unable to sit quietly alone in a room. Their truth came up. They had things to say, some nonfiction like anti-racist books or anti-sexist books, some fiction. Here’s a novel that will really drive this home, this point. There’s fire in it because it’s the author’s truth. That comes from peeling away culture and getting to the true nature of you. Then writing the story of claiming your truth in the middle of a culture that pressures you to leave your truth. That is the central story of human psychology. Dante knew that. There are eight billion ways to write it, as many ways as there are people on the planet. You can write it as Glennon Doyle writing Untamed, exactly that. You could write it as Liz Gilbert, memoir, Eat Pray Love, or as The Color Purple, Alice Walker. All of these come from that central dynamic and make for absolutely spectacular reading.

Zibby: Wow, amazing. Martha, thank you. Thank you so much for coming on “Moms Don’t Have Time to Read Books.” Thank you for helping so many people in the world, that must feel amazing, and for sharing all of these great, great tips and the way to self-actualize. It’s amazing.

Martha: How cool is it that you now have a podcast? Maybe somebody will listen to this that gravitates toward it and never knew I existed, but they’re into you. Your fractal, my fractal, we meet each other, and the fractal keeps getting bigger, more people, more minds, more lives coming into harmony. That is super cool, I have to say. Thank you.

Zibby: That is super cool. Awesome. Ooh, that gave me the chills. Thank you. Have a great day.

Martha: Thank you so much. Lovely to meet you.

Zibby: You too. Bye.

Martha: Buh-bye.



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