On Our Best Behavior

The Seven Deadly Sins and the Price Women Pay to Be Good

About the Book

NEW YORK TIMES BESTSELLER • A groundbreaking exploration of the ancient rules women unwittingly follow in order to be considered “good,” revealing how the Seven Deadly Sins still control and distort our lives and illuminating a path toward a more balanced, spiritually complete way to live

Why do women equate self-denial with being good?

We congratulate ourselves when we resist the donut in the office breakroom. We celebrate our restraint when we hold back from sending an email in anger. We feel virtuous when we wake up at dawn to get a jump on the day. We put others’ needs ahead of our own and believe this makes us exemplary. In On Our Best Behavior, journalist Elise Loehnen explains that these impulses—often lauded as unselfish, distinctly feminine instincts—are actually ingrained in us by a culture that reaps the benefits, via an extraordinarily effective collection of mores known as the Seven Deadly Sins.

Since being codified by the Christian church in the fourth century, the Seven Deadly Sins—pride, greed, lust, envy, gluttony, wrath, and sloth—have exerted insidious power. Even today, in our largely secular, patriarchal society, they continue to circumscribe women’s behavior. For example, seeing sloth as sinful leads women to deny themselves rest; a fear of gluttony drives them to ignore their appetites; and an aversion to greed prevents them from negotiating for themselves and contributes to the 55 percent gender wealth gap.

In On Our Best Behavior, Loehnen reveals how we’ve been programmed to obey the rules represented by these sins and how doing so qualifies us as “good.” This probing analysis of contemporary culture and thoroughly researched history explains how women have internalized the patriarchy, and how they unwittingly reinforce it. By sharing her own story and the spiritual wisdom of other traditions, Loehnen shows how we can break free and discover the integrity and wholeness we seek.
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Praise for On Our Best Behavior

“An engaging work that offers an opportunity for pause and reflection regarding our daily choices.”Kirkus Reviews

“A deep dive into my own psyche of questioning everything.”—Sara Haines, The View

“What if women finally found freedom—because we gave it to ourselves? Elise Loehnen brilliantly reframes our toxic cultural programming and helps us to see that what we thought were our sins are actually our greatest virtues. This book is the gift we have all been waiting for.”—Lori Gottlieb, New York Times bestselling author of Maybe You Should Talk to Someone

“A stunning, big, and bold encyclopedia of how to live—the first post-pandemic book to take our latest measurements and provide something fresh to comfort, embolden, enlighten, and enrich who we are today . . . On Our Best Behavior is nothing short of a tangible necessity in our new intangible world.”—Lisa Taddeo, New York Times bestselling author of Three Women

“A raw cri de coeur, penetrating social analysis, and revealing personal reflection . . . Elise Loehnen deftly deconstructs one of the central ideological buttresses of patriarchal society: the shaming of women for having human desires, strengths, capacities, and strivings of body, mind, and soul. Doing so, she provides a guide to liberation and a return to the authentic feminine self.”—Gabor Maté, MD, New York Times bestselling author of The Myth of Normal

“With equal parts wit, wisdom, erudition, and warmth, Elise Loehnen guides us on a journey through history, culture, and our own psychologies to not just investigate the limiting effects of patriarchal thinking in women’s lives but to free them. Loehnen is half historical docent, half big sister with a hot cup of tea. Read this author and change your life.”—Terrence Real, New York Times bestselling author of Us
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On Our Best Behavior


A Brief History of the Patriarchy in Twenty-one Pages

To understand how the Seven Deadly Sins influence our lives, even to this day (even if we don’t consider ourselves religious), we must understand the system that produced them: the patriarchy, which has defined Western culture for millennia. Its forefathers adopted and shaped early Christianity to enforce behavior in ways that continue to affect us. I struggled to understand how someone like me, even with all my privileges—white, cis, heterosexual, upper middle class, agnostic/spiritual—still feels prisoner to these Judeo-Christian ideas of “goodness.” Why do I feel bound to keep from committing these “sins”? To answer that question, I’d need to examine the story about who we are, a story we’ve been telling each other through history. A warning: This chapter is the book’s densest and most academic—skip it if you’re inclined—but to imagine something new, it’s important to understand where we’ve been.

Originally Partners

While we tend to think of the patriarchy as an inevitable reality, this conception is wrong. For most of human existence—from 2.5 million years ago to 10,000 b.c.—we were nomads, ranging across the planet in small collectives that were partnership societies, dependent on what many disparate bands thought of as the “Great Mother,” the creative force behind all life. In these partnership societies, women were revered for their generative powers—after all, birth is a miracle.

This is not to say early tribes were matriarchies—that would have still insisted on an arbitrary hierarchy, where women were perceived as superior to men. Paleolithic societies were primarily affiliation based, rather than predicated on continual oppression. In these first millions of years of our existence, there was no private property in the way we’d define it today—no resources to hoard, no generational wealth to sock away under the mattress, no land or titles to pass to biological children. Our ancestors were focused on the collective—a “we” rather than an “I,” where all would have been dependent on the group, and nature, for survival.

Throughout the Stone Age, our ancestors planted small gardens and foraged for fruit, vegetables, and small animals like snails and frogs, with only the occasional big game prize; anthropologists assert we were gatherer/hunters, not the opposite. As much as 80 percent of our food supply was generated, and processed, by women. And though hunting has been significantly overstated as the way of life, where it did occur, some women participated. In settlements like central Turkey’s Çatalhöyük (7500–6400 b.c.), men and women were the same size, received equivalent calories, and spent an equal amount of time inside. I can’t be the only one who was startled to read in The New York Times that a recent examination of nine-thousand-year-old graves in the Andes revealed that ten of the twenty-six bodies buried with hunting tools were the bodies of women, or when I discovered that a recent reassessment of prehistoric cave drawings, long held to be hunting scenes painted by men, concluded that the handprints were primarily female.

There are many theories for what changed some ten thousand to twelve thousand years ago, when we started practicing agriculture on a wider scale, and between 8000 and 3000 b.c., when farming became the norm. Most historians seem to agree that resource scarcity or opportunity—changing temperatures around 5000 b.c. revealed uber-fertile lands around rivers throughout Eurasia—pushed humans to migrate, bringing discrete groups into conflict with each other. Waves of Proto-Europeans invaded the existing “Old Europe” planting culture—overwhelmingly male Indo-Europeans from the North and Akkadian and Semitic tribes from the Syro-Arabian desert in the South. These warring tribes raped, pillaged, and subordinated those they conquered, creating hierarchical cultures that elevated some and oppressed others. While Paleolithic and Neolithic societies had acknowledged their dependence on nature, those in agrarian society thought of nature as something to dominate, control, and order. When we became agrarian—over a protracted period, variably around the globe—everything changed, particularly for women, children, domesticable animals, and whoever and whatever could be marginalized, co-opted, and enslaved for the benefit of others.

If conflict begat chaos, the fallout demanded a reorganization of society into structures through which order could be imposed. Between 3000 b.c. and 1300 b.c. we see the advent of such systems; a broader array of rules and laws became essential as society became more complex. Yet power almost always perverts, particularly when scarcity and security are in play.

Women as First Property

Women and children conquered in conflict and taken as slaves, servants, and concubines were the first property of the patriarchy: Men practiced their dominance on them and learned its possibilities. This became the foundation of slavery, the economic engine for many cultures. Over time, the oppression of women came to seem natural, normal, the way it had always been. “Otherization,” creating socially acceptable power distinctions, has been used broadly since—against Jews, Muslims, Black people. Women simply went first.

One of the mechanisms of the patriarchy was to force adherence to a vertical family structure. Because strong, even primary bonds between women had persisted over time in communal-living cultures, the push toward vertical family structures was intended to shift women from interdependence among each other to dependence on men. Even married women were essentially enslaved. While we think of marriage now as a mutually elective (and ideally romantic) partnership, that’s a very modern interpretation. In marriage’s earliest incarnations, women connected families, concentrated assets and status, and produced children; effectively, women were owned by their husbands, purchased through marriage or sold into the arrangement.

Before monotheism became standard (it appeared first in 1300 b.c. in Egypt, though millennia later in the Greco-Roman world), women did maintain active roles in temple life as priestesses, prophets, and healers—the goddess, and her power to give life, continued to be worshipped among other deities, perhaps as primary. But in civil society, day-to-day, there was little reverence for mortal women. Even women who were more proximate to power were in permanently tenuous positions: A wife could easily, without warrant or reason, be demoted to concubine or slave. This ever-present threat coerced dependence and good behavior and ultimately was codified into law.

About the Author

Elise Loehnen
Elise Loehnen is the host of Pulling the Thread. She has co-written twelve books, five of which were New York Times bestsellers. She was the chief content officer of goop, and she co-hosted The goop Podcast and The goop Lab on Netflix. Previously, she was the editorial projects director of Condé Nast Traveler. Elise lives in Los Angeles with her husband and two sons. More by Elise Loehnen
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