Daily Archives: October 30, 2011

Shadow Comforts and Time Monsters

I mentioned yesterday that I had watched “Wise Person Call with Brene Brown,” a video of Jennifer Louden talking with Brene’ Brown.  In it, they talked about Shadow Comforts and Time Monsters, who, from the sounds of it, are the younger siblings of these two:

Picture by Cubby

Jennifer Louden wrote her first book, The Woman’s Comfort Book, when she was 25. “I had no idea how to take care of myself. I wrote the book to discover how – and as I learned about self-care and self-nurturing, I realized how much of the time I comforted myself in ways that actually made me feel worse…I discovered that healthy comfort and shadow comfort are different in how they make you feel. More alive, more centered, more you? Healthy comfort. Dull, self-hating, anxious? Shadow comfort,” (from an interview with Jennifer on Marianne Elliott’s website).

In her published books, she describes shadow comfort this way:

  • A shadow comfort is anything that masquerades as a cherishing self-care technique but in fact drains your energy”
  • Shadow comforts are encumbrances like eating too many sweets, watching too much TV, shopping for things we don’t need, surfing the Internet for hours, reading too much — numbing out. Another word for these behaviors is soft addictions or buffers [or counterfeit comforts],” and “Shadow comfort doesn’t nourish you, it diminishes you. It’s what many people think of when they think of comfort. They are actually punishing themselves instead of nourishing their souls.”

In my attempt to learn self-care, this is an important distinction.  When I was looking up more definitions for it, looking into it further, I found an old article by Jennifer Louden in which she provided an exercise to help you identify your shadow comforts.  In a continued effort to be brave and vulnerable, to be public and accountable, and thereby hopefully some kind of inspiration to someone else wanting to do the same, and as a way to help you understand shadow comforts if the concept still doesn’t make sense, here are my responses to the exercise.

1. List your favorite shadow comforts.

  • EATING, and eating, and eating.
  • Feeling sorry for myself, depression, worry and anxiety.
  • Sleep.
  • Illness.
  • Mindless TV watching, internet surfing.
  • Mindless chores, busywork.
  • Doing for others, taking care of them.
  • Working out.
  • Shame, blame and anger.
  • Smashing myself to bits.
  • Shopping online, buying books or signing up for classes.
  • Alcohol, sugar.
  • Procrastination and avoidance.

2. What are four or five situations or feelings that trigger a shadow comfort response in me?

  • My job.
  • Family problems that I feel helpless to fix.
  • Fear of failure, fear of success.
  • Shame, feeling not worthy or not enough.
  • Poverty mentality, a sense of scarcity, that there won’t be enough.

From Jennifer Louden about shadow comforts, “We often choose to do things that numb us or distract us because we are afraid.”  Based on my lists: um yeah, yup, okay, I see it, “whoomp there it is,” duh.  She goes on to say:

I know, cue smoting of forehead! How obvious but still, like many obvious ideas, huge when you get it.

We eat sugar or check email for the 1000000000000 time because we are afraid.

Afraid of our feelings, our power, our desires, our longings.

Afraid of intimacy, change, beauty, joy, the sweetness of life.

Afraid of anger, disappointment, judgment, shame.

Afraid of being afraid!

Sure, we choose shadow comforts for other reasons too (being tired, not knowing what we really want, being revved up, lack of self-permission, not thinking). And yet, behind even these, often lurks fear.

Then, there are the Time Monsters. Jennifer describes them as “Closely related but slightly different from shadow comforts are time monsters – anything we pretend is a creative, generative use of our time but is actually a way to dodge doing what we really want to do…I’ve coached many women whose lives consisted almost entirely of time monsters because they were too afraid to do what they really wanted to do – for fear of failure, for fear of what their mother/husband/children might think, for fear that when their long-held dream was realized, it would become tarnished by daily living…We spend our lives doing things that don’t matter, and meanwhile, our desires are sobbing, locked away in the basement.”

WAH!!!!  This is what I have been doing for at least the past 20 years.  20 years!  My good grades, my good behavior, my generosity, graduate school, in many ways my job…bleh. Time Monsters. Not a waste of time, just a manifestation of a basic confusion, a huge misunderstanding. I bought into what I thought I was supposed to do, what I thought would make people accept and love me, what would make them like me, think I’m cool or special.  I wanted to be smart, pretty, and popular, and I sacrificed the work that really mattered to me because I thought it would get me there. 

Photo by Toni Verdu

Again, I want to sink into thinking “what a waste of time,” but I remind myself that it was all necessary, that “It took each and every situation you have encountered to bring you to the now, and now is right on time.

There’s hope, there’s a plan, a practice, a way out. You can learn self-care, real and true “I love myself and I am worth it and I am going to show up” kind of care. In another article, Jennifer gives a strategy:

When I look at my habits or practices as something I am teaching myself, instead of as fatal flaws that I can never change, I create enough space to identify what I am doing that doesn’t feel nourishing. Then, if I choose to, I can move into the mood of being a creator, of shaping my life, by asking some of these questions:

Is this teaching me what I want to learn?

Is this helping me live my truest life?

Is this giving me energy?

And the most powerful question of all:

What do I really want?

I have to admit that right now, it feels like I really want a cookie, or an entire chocolate cake, but I know that would be a shadow comfort. Instead, I am off to see Ira Glass, the host of one of my very favorite radio shows “This American Life,” one of my very favorite things, with a good friend.