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.

12 thoughts on “Shadow Comforts and Time Monsters

  1. Amy

    oh, oh, oh!! I needed to hear Ira tonight — and you. I needed these reminders. It is so interesting to me that you blog came along just at a point in my life when I needed to read it. You are doing so much of my background work for me right now — and, yes, it inspires me to do my own…but the reality is that I am not. However, just being reminded that I am not the first person ever to walk through the shadows and that people I admire & respect are also on the path is so very helpful.

    1. jillsalahub Post author

      Thank goodness! Because honestly, 80% of the time when I hit the “publish” button, I am thinking to myself “What the heck are you doing?! Don’t you realize people will be reading this?!” So, as helpful as my writing is to you, your kind and gentle reading and feeback is to me.

  2. Carrie

    Your description of your time monsters could have been describing me:

    “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.”

    Sometimes I think my whole life has been a series of choices I made to please others, but I had convinced myself that I was doing all these things because I really wanted to do them. The problem is that once a train starts moving at full speed, it’s hard to get off. Maybe I’m waiting for someone to throw me from the train. Or maybe I’m just cranky because I’m home sick. 😛

    OK. Here’s my shot at a shadow comforts list:

    buying things for the house or my daughter online
    Facebook (yes. I said it)
    Procrastination and avoidance (I borrowed this from yours)
    illness (when I saw this on your list I realized that I am a little bit happy when I can use illness to hide in m house and not deal with the world.)
    acting like I’m the only one who can take care of (fill in the blank)
    acting like no one knows how hard I’m working and that no one really appreciates me

    What triggers the shadow comforts:

    my job (I didn’t steal this from you—it’s just true)
    cultural expectations for motherhood
    people I envy
    having more to do than is really possible
    catalogues (yes I see the vicious circle here)
    feeling that someone is disappointed in me (i.e., I didn’t live up to expectations)
    thinking that someone has realized my life is a sham—that I don’t have it all together

    That was scary and cathartic. I might be able to get something done today after all. 🙂

  3. sally

    Jill … This is such a stupid question, but … What do I do with all the free time? Like, I know I use shadow comforts (eating, TV, mindless internet surfing) … but how do I figure out what I *should* be doing with that time instead, or what I’m trying to hide?

    1. jillsalahub Post author

      Oh, Sally! That’s not a stupid question at all. I love that question. Thank you for giving me the change to contemplate it, answer it. Here’s what I would say about what to do with all the free time:

      1. Read. Even if you don’t consider yourself someone who reads, or your idea of reading is attached to education and “should,” give it another chance. If you don’t already know exactly what you’d want to read, go to the library or a book store and look around, see what calls to you. Maybe you want to read the latest most popular work of fiction or Oprah’s Book Club pick, but maybe you want to read a cookbook or about garden design or the history of trains or young adult fiction or a graphic novel or a magazine. What I love so much about reading is that it’s a safe space to contemplate a new idea, and that as a reader, you write meaning in the space between the author’s words and your own thoughts. Like Stephen King says, “Books are a uniquely portable magic.”

      2. Sleep. Maybe it’s just me, but a lot of times when I reach for a shadow comfort, what I really need is a nap or to go to bed early. I seem to always be tired, and don’t take my need for rest seriously enough. And, often if I say I “don’t have time” or “am too tired” for the other things on this list, it means I really do need to relax, get some sleep.

      3. Self-care. Sometimes reaching for a shadow comfort is my way of providing self-care, but it’s misplaced, confused. Ask yourself, “what am I truly hungry for right now?” and see if there’s a need, a longing that you can better attend to. And trust yourself about what feels good, what works–what’s self-care for me is different than what it might look like for you.

      4. Be creative. Again, this is unique to you. For example, being creative for my husband means going hiking or for a run without first deciding his route, and cooking or gardening. For me, it might be making a collage, writing a blog post, or making a gift–making something, expressing my creative energy, (everyone has this, creativity is a basic human quality).

      5. De-Clutter. Look for the place where you are stuck, where you feel overwhelmed, and clear it out, or pick a chore or item on your to-do list and get it done. Even a small space, just a drawer, or a tiny thing like scheduling a long overdue appointment can make you feel clearer, lighter, more spacious.

      6. Learn something new. There are so many things I want to learn, if only I had the time to study and practice! I want to learn to swim and to play the ukulele and to cook Indian food and speak Spanish. What have you always wanted to learn, know more about?

      7. Practice. For me, this is meditation, yoga, writing, walking with my dogs–all things I do on a regular basis, that calm me down, make me feel stronger, more stable and sane. I think this is related to learning something, because in order to really learn it, you have to practice.

      8. Connect. Getting outside of your own head and connecting with other people, the environment, the larger world. This could be writing a love letter or thank you note, taking a class (online or in person), calling or emailing someone you haven’t talked to in a long time, joining a book club, volunteering, or doing some love bombing.

      I think the most important thing of all is to be gentle, kind, patient with yourself. Sometimes watching TV isn’t a bad thing, does provide just the comfort you are looking for, and you can trust yourself to know when it isn’t. Know that opening up to unfilled space can be scary, and it’s so brave to do so. Give yourself time to be. Don’t be afraid of who you are.

      I hope that’s helpful. Much love to you. ♥

  4. sally

    That was SO helpful, Jill. I can’t thank you enough for taking the time to write out such a thoughtful answer. I’m going to explore all these options. Thank you deeply and sincerely!

  5. pam

    I so love that I could find this…years after you wrote it.
    I took part in Jennifer’s sample class on Shadow Comforts and Time Monsters last night and she and Rachel Cole mentioned your post and popped a link on Jen’s facebook page. YAY!

    and now…. I’m off to explore the rest of your blog 😉

    1. jillsalahub Post author

      I’m glad you found your way here, Pam. Jennifer and Rachel are the bomb. I was signed up for the call last night but couldn’t make it, will listen to it later. YAY!


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