Do You Know Your “Tell?” And the Comfort Food for Your Brain?

My new book about habits, Better Than Before, comes out one week from tomorrow. It’s hard to believe that publication day is so close.

I don’t feel particularly anxious, but I realized that actually I am pretty anxious — because I recognized my “tell.”

Self-knowledge is one of the greatest challenges for happiness and good habits. Why is it hard to know that I’m feeling anxious — don’t I feel it? Why is it so hard to know myself? It seems like nothing should be easier and more obvious than to know myself– but it’s not.

Because I find it hard to know myself, I’m always on the look-out for indirect ways to gain self-knowledge. For instance, I ask, Whom do I envy? What do I lie about? My envy and lies reveal a lot — including things I’d otherwise try to keep hidden, even from myself.

And I’ve also learned to look for my “tells.” In gambling, a tell is a change in behavior that reveals your inner state. Gamblers look for tells as clues about whether other players are holding good or bad hands.

This is my tell: a while back, I realized that when I’m feeling anxious or worried, I re-read books aimed at a younger and younger audience. The more worried I am, the simpler the book. Under all circumstances, I love children’s and young-adult literature, and read it often, but when I’m reading these books as an anxiety tell, I inevitably re-read instead of reading books I’ve never read before. I want the coziness, the familiarity, the high quality of a book that I know I love.

For instance, when I was writing Better Than Before, I went through a stage of a major editing. Not just little changes here and there — massive re-organization, massive cutting (I went from 140,00 words to 80,000 words without losing any ideas), massive line edits. It was exhilarating, but also very stressful and intellectually demanding.

And during that time, I re-read the entire Harry Potter series.

What book did I pick up yesterday, without quite realizing I was doing it? J.R.R. Tolkien’s The Fellowship of the Ring.  Frodo and company were already at The Prancing Pony before I recognized, “Oh, hey, I’m anxious, and so I’m reading this now.”

Once I first recognized my tell those years ago, I realized that I can use children’s and young-adult literature as “comfort food” for my mind. When I want some comfort, when I want to know that I’m going to enjoy something whole-heartedly, and get a distraction from my thoughts, I now deliberately turn to those books.

In this case, though, part of my brain realized that I needed comfort food before I consciously grasped it, myself.

One reason I’m anxious is that these days, a book’s first week of sales has a very disproportionate importance. If a book sells well that first week, it gets a big, big boost.  So next week really matters.  (Which is why, if you’re inclined to buy the book, it’s a big help to me if you pre-order it now.)

But at this point, with one week to go there’s not much more I can do to affect my book’s fate. I told my husband, “It’s like knowing that I’m gong to take a major exam, but I can’t study.”  He gave me a patient look and said, “Gretch, you’ve already studied.”

Hmm. Well, I don’t know what will happen to Better Than Before, but I do know what happens when the Nine Walkers enter the Doors of Durin. And I love reading about it, again and again.

As any lover of Tolkien would agree:  once the story of the One Ring begins, there’s no stopping: you’re going there and back again. And then I’ll want to watch the movies, too, like as not. So, depending on how much free time I have in the next week, I may be set until my publication date on March 17.

How about you? Do you have a “tell” that shows that you’re anxious?  And do you have a “comfort food” for your mind — some activity or subject that soothes you?


  • Grethe

    I am having some health issues at the moment and I guess I am slightly worried as I too just reread the Harry Potter series, the Hobbit, Little Women and Anne of Green Gables… :)) Books can be a great comfort and rereading favourites is like visiting a dear old friend. Best of luck with the book launch (I am eagerly awaiting delivery here in Norway – preordered it on Amazon long before Christmas). 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! thanks. I hope you’re feeling better soon.

      Ah, all the Anne books! Maybe I’ll start those after I finish with Tolkien. So many, so good.

  • I also re-read books when I’m anxious or could just use a little ‘comfort food.’ Books can be a world unto themselves and being able to go to a predictable world you know and love is very comforting. A good read, I hope your book does well!

  • Natalie

    I do the same, but rather than YA it’s more just books I have read many times before. I particularly favour old-fashioned books like the Anne of Green Gables series. But also, for some reason, all of Agatha Christie’s crime novels even though I don’t read that type of book by any other author! Knowing what happens next (and in a simpler time, maybe) is very comforting. And doesn’t take any brain power.

    • gretchenrubin

      Oh, I should try Agatha Christie. I haven’t read most of them yet, so won’t have the comfort of re-reading, but from the few I have read, I think they’d do very well as comfort food for the brain.

      • jsg

        Just a heads-up that they vary quite a bit.I prefer her earlier ones.

      • Klara Furuberg

        My favorite comfort reading! I know that you liked Tey and Agatha Christie & Ngaio Marsh can be similar. Looking forward to your book! Have preordered 🙂

  • Ali PJ

    Yes, Harry Potter, Anne of Green Gables and Jo March have been good friends to me too. There’s a strong pattern here! In other times other old friends from Jane Eyre to Scarlet O’Hara have been good to me too. I also find your books to be great comfort reads and have pre-ordered accordingly! Best of luck with your first week. PS Loving the podcasts!

    • gretchenrubin


      I’m due for a re-reading of Gone with the Wind.

      Just re-read Little Women, Little Men, Jo’s Boys, Eight Cousins, and Rose in Bloom not long ago…will have to leave those alone for a while, to let them get fresh again.
      I’ve worn out Narnia for a while…need to stay away for a year or so at least. This happens to my favorites periodically.

      • Ali PJ

        I know exactly what you mean. I hover endlessly over my bookcases thinking ‘Nope, too soon’, ‘Not the right weather’ or ‘Maybe one more month’. I can recommend the Delirium trilogy for YA or the Cazalet Chronicles for a more adult frame of mind!

  • theshubox

    hmm, I’ll admit I’m more likely to go with wine or trash tv 🙂 or online shopping. (window shopping, usually. thankfully!)

    • theshubox

      ps: preordered and am very much looking forward to the delivery!! i have a feeling your release will be smashing!

  • Sandy B.

    I do this, too — rereading favorite children’s literature, especially a few beloved series — Sammy Keyes, the Roman Mysteries (Caroline Lawrence), Beany Malone, Harry Potter…. I’m making an effort to read new books, and thanks to your recommendation, I have been reading and absolutely loving Elizabeth Enright’s books, especially those about the Melendy family! I also recently read Where the Red Fern Grows on your recommendation, so thanks! Try not to worry about your new book’s release — it will be GREAT! I’ve pre-ordered it and can’t wait to get it! Oh, and thanks to you and your “sage” sister for the podcast! 🙂

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! Thanks for your kind words, and so happy to hear that you’ve been enjoying the reading suggestions.
      Elizabeth Enright is one of my FAVORITE writers, so good.

  • Jane D

    I do this! Paddington is my reading material of choice when I’m feeling low or particularly stressed. Narnia also does the trick.
    I just wanted to say thank you so much for the work you do. I’m re-reading the Happiness Project and it’s funny how many things I must have absorbed first time round and now find myself doing, e.g. weekly weights training which I started in January. It’s expensive but I love how much better I feel.

    • gretchenrubin

      Terrific! I’m so happy to hear that —

    • Trixie

      Jane, I adore Paddington, too, and still have my book collection. I need to reread the Happiness Project. I have a tendency to read and take notes but, unlike you, I have failed to put anything into action.

  • Dianne Ochiltree

    Comfort food for my mind is easy: meditation, yoga class, writing and working in the garden. Finding time for it all, not so easy. But worth the effort. Thank you for always giving us the best sort of ideas to think about in your daily posts, Gretchen!

  • I have shared this widely, pre-ordered the book, will tell everyone to get it before the 17th.

    Now, when you’re done with Harry Potter, it’s really time for “where’s my sanity?” There really is no comparable book written (from a psychoanalyst!) on how to get to know your unseen thoughts!!

  • Lorna

    C.S. Lewis’ comfort food for the brain was ‘The Wind in the Willows’ so you are in good company looking to children’s literature.

  • Holly

    I’ve pre-ordered your book to Gretchen!

    For some time, I’ve gone straight to food for comfort. I’ve been working on finding substitutes over the last couple months.
    I also, read exclusively non-fiction because I love personal development, and it seems, that is the more productive thing to do.
    But, I remember when I was young and read exclusively fiction – how I”d get caught up in books and not want to put them down.

    Perhaps I need to try a little fiction brain food! Thanks for the thoughts.

  • Cindy V

    As usual, you’ve pointed out something that I do also but didn’t realize! I’m sure I’ll be thinking about my “tell” and it will help me as I continue to learn about myself. Thanks for another great post!

  • Penelope Schmitt

    I always say that I’ll be reading The Hound of the Baskervilles on my deathbed. Sherlock Holmes stories and other British mysteries seem, oddly, to be my comfort reading of choice. The arc of the plot is so familiar, and there’s always a solution to the problem.
    Comfort FOOD is, alas, another ‘tell’ for me.
    I am so glad to see you bring up this idea of your ‘tell’ again, Gretchen. It really is a good way for us to try to see our behavior from the outside, and imagine what we are showing to others. This is an example of the sort of subject you can go back to again and again, learning new things about yourself every time.
    I have recently noticed that when I find myself getting angry in a situation where I have the ability to just leave, I ‘run away.’ There’s a tell all right! It works for me–spares me from saying things I ought not to say, though I suppose it leaves the other party frustrated.

  • Maxi

    I have a “tell”- when I find myself wanting to sleep later. That is, when I wake up and I’m no longer tired but have no enthusiasm or desire for the new day and pull the covers over my head and go back to sleep.

    I should say that I work from home and have no set time I must get up so I seldom set an alarm. Still normally I do wake up about the same time with a few minutes eager to go.

    That’s a sure sign I am depressed or am avoiding looking at something that is off kilter in my life and needs addressing. Just today it happened for the second day in a row and as soon as I read this post I said to myself: OK this is my tell (I’d never used the term before). What’s going on?

    And I realized I’ve been avoiding making some big decisions that keep staring me in the face and I am conflicted about and the inner demand to act is getting LOUDER! But I am procrastinating.

    My comfort food also is books I’ve read many times before too: Jane Austen always, and the Amelia Peabody series by Elizabeth Peters is terrific fun, around 20 lighthearted mysteries set in the 1880-1920s whose main characters are archeologists in Egypt. I never get tired of them tho you are right, you need to have a rest between re readings to keep them fresh.

  • PolarSamovar

    My comfort reading genre is how-to books, on activities I’m unlikely to ever participate in. Small-farm skills, carpentry, business management, sailing, embroidery, wilderness survival … there is something so soothing about the tone and pace of a good how-to book.

    My favorite (on an activity I do participate in, for once) is “Beyond Backpacking” by Ray Jardine. It has it all; sewing patterns, recipes, philosophy. I know times are tough when I crave a visit with Ray.

    • Trixie

      Those are interesting go-to books. I love reading about things I’ll never do, either. I love polar exploration and mountain-climbing books (meanwhile, I barely make it through the winter because I’m so cold), and I just read “Walden on Wheels,” which I found interesting (I’d never live in an Econoline van, either, but I admired the author for his tenacity).

  • Susan Mary Malone

    This really made me smile, Gretchen! As well as all the others’ tells here. We are all so uniquely human!

  • Paige

    My tell is that I clean.

  • Krithika Rangarajan

    OOh – I ENJOYED this article, Gretchen! #HUGSSS

    I turn to Dame Christie’s Ms. Marple during troubled times 😉 This sweet, smart, sassy ‘old biddy’ stole my heart at age 6, and my fascination has only grown with age!

  • Michael

    I read comic books and Sherlock Holmes stories when I am really stressed at work.

  • Barbie

    These posts have been fascinating reading. When my husband was in the hospital and I was far away and totally powerless to do anything, I walked my dogs for hours and listened to favorite music while I walked. Sitting still was impossible for me.

  • Judith

    I love that you equate reading with comfort eating. I have been calling my need to re-read old and well thumbed favourites at times of stress or exhaustion “comfort reading” for many years and have a Pinterest board called this very thing. I too love the books I read as a child and young teenager as well as more recent series such as HP. I especially love the Lord Peter Wimsey books by Dorothy L Sayers with my top favourites being the latter books when he falls in love and eventually marries Harriet Vane. Some of my paperbacks are falling apart but they stay on my bookshelves and are far more effective than alcohol or medication to sooth the troubled mind. So looking forward to reading Better than Before Gretchen x

    • Carla

      Ditto on re-reading Dorothy Sayers when frustrated or depressed – my paperback copy of Gaudy Night is literally in pieces and the pages keep falling out whenever I pick it up for another go. Experienced the agonies of a forced retirement last year and was so undone by it that I actually downloaded one of the free Bobbsey Twins novels from my library website and raced through it in about 2 hours; it was so hilariously politically incorrect that my tremendous anxiety and frustration very quickly morphed into a so-that’s-why-my-generation-is-so-crazy mindset: a much more objective and healthy perspective. Couldn’t do without my faithful old friends who never fail to comfort, encourage and happily bump me out of my darker self.

      • Carla

        PS I didn’t really miss the point of The Tell As A Revelation, my contribution is more about agreeing with other posts here re The Reading Tell As A Nearly Fail-safe Fix

        • A. M. Offenwanger

          Me three on GAUDY NIGHT! All the Golden Age British mystery authors are on my comfort reads list, with the Lord Peter/Harriet Vane stories being in the top 10. But the very top is anything by Georgette Heyer, the mysteries as well as the Regency romances. It never occured to me to think of it as a “tell” – that makes so much sense!

  • Jane F

    I’ll read a new romance novel by a trusted author. I’m learning to “be Jane F” and accept and admit that I love romance novels despite the stigma

  • AmandaG

    I love this. I didn’t understand why I did this until recently. It was wonderful to read about you doing this, too. I will listen both “Anne of Green Gables” and “Harry Potter” series when I’m stressed. I usually listen to Anne beginning in November through the holidays. Harry is when school starts.

  • Holy smokes. Lightbulb moment. I’ve been having so much anxiety at work with a big re-org happening, I also just re-read the entire Harry Potter series.

    I didn’t even realize it until I read this.

  • Priyanka

    Love it. I realize that sometimes when I’m anxious, I go terribly left-brain / analytical, and have a tendency to deny that I’m anxious. I also tend to go quieter the more anxious I’m feeling. I think these are my signals to realize that something is off, and I need to figure out “what it is.” Your lovely post inspired me to write one of mine:

  • I like to read teen books anyway and I also enjoy re-reading. I find it comforting to read something where I know exactly how it’d going to turn out, so sometimes when I’m stressed I also re-read a favourite (adult or teenage).

    One of my favourite book series is the Emily of New Moon trilogy and I’ve read the first one so often they’re almost like friends or family!

  • Laura

    My tell, I realized a decade or so ago, is re-reading the complete works of Jane Austen. I had a big Penguin edition of all of Jane’s books that I kept by my bed and carried around with me. I have since given into the idea that I will, at times, just need a little Jane, and I bought smaller versions of each book that fit in my pocket or purse. I need the paper versions, as the electronic versions just don’t cut it.

    Oh, and reading a little book called The Happiness Project. I am running out of room in the margins.

    • gretchenrubin


  • EmmaAnn

    A little bit stressed = historic romances – this can be new reading not rereading
    A bit more stressed = Stephen King (hey it could be worse if supernatural things started happening)
    Really stressed = Little House on the Prairie – The Long Hard Winter especially always puts things in perspective.
    My spending patterns are also a giveaway. I mostly am quite careful about not buying things I don’t need and am quite routine in my buying patterns. I’m a lot more likely to splurge when stressed, especially on makeup, clothes and books.

  • Gracie

    I re-read The Perks of Being a Wallflower.

  • MandyL

    I thought I was the only one who comfort reads! I know I’m feeling anxious when I turn to Jane Austen (‘Emma’ takes me back to school days), or The Happiness Project, or Bill Bryson. I feel comforted by the familiar, but can also always find something new (or something I’ve forgotten!) to stimulate me.

  • Carolyn

    I’ve known for years that rereading favorite books was comforting, and I have found myself rereading most of the books that are mentioned in this blog. Lord of the Rings (starting with the Hobbit), Harry Potter, Anne of Green Gables (my original comfort food along with Nancy Drew, the originals), Jane Austen, Chronicles of Narnia, Mary Stewart, Agatha Christie (I own all of her mysteries and have reread them until they are in tatters and most of them cost $.35!), P.D. James, Deborah Crombie, and especially Dorothy Sayers. I made the mistake years ago of giving away my entire collection of Ngaio Marsh and now she is very hard to find, so from now on, I keep them all, just boxed up to limit the clutter! (Although, really, can books be clutter??) Love your books Gretchen and your column. Makes me happier 🙂

  • LauraC

    Gretchen, The Happiness Project is one of my comfort reads! I like to read just a chapter/month and find it calming. Even reading about someone else decluttering and getting organised is calming.

    After a long flight (27 hours of travel), I can be too wired to fall instantly to sleep, so comfort reading is useful for just lying horizontal and calming down. I like to read “Wild” by Cheryl Strayed or my favourite parts of “State of Wonder” and “The Magician’s Assistant” by Ann Patchett. I also comfort read in the first few days of a holiday – when I’m too wound up to really relax by the pool and those books are always fluffy and fun in the chick lit genre. Jennifer Weiner and Marian Keyes are perfect for this!

    • gretchenrubin

      I love finding out that my work is someone’s comfort reads!

  • dkt

    Omg. I spent my childhood re-reading the same books over & over again. Sometimes starting it over within minutes of finishing it. Sometimes now I go back & read books from my childhood to “get an adult perspective” on the story as I tell myself. Now I understand what is really going on.