The Trouble With Shadow Comforts

shadow comfort

“Shadow comforts can take any form. It’s not what you do; it’s why you do it that makes the difference. You can eat a piece of chocolate as a holy wafer of sweetness—a real comfort—or you can cram an entire chocolate bar into your mouth without even tasting it in a frantic attempt to soothe yourself—a shadow comfort. You can chat on message boards for half an hour and be energized by community and ready to go back to work, or you can chat on message boards because you’re avoiding talking to your partner about how angry he or she made you last night.” by Jennifer Louden as quoted on Brené Brown’s blog

The phrase ‘shadow comforts’ was coined by Jennifer Louden in the eighties. I only recently come across this phrase – and I like it.

Shadow comforts – those things that we think will offer lasting relief, only to realize that the comfort was short-lived, leaving us feeling worse than we did at the beginning. Shadow comforts – a false impression of comfort, providing just enough to make us think it’s real.

For years my shadow comfort was eating. I could eat an entire gallon of ice cream, sneaking it when no one was looking. I would eat the batter from chocolate chip cookies until I felt sick. I would drown my sadness and discomfort in food. It tasted so good and kept me satisfied – for a few minutes. Food was my shadow comfort. Later, it changed to people. People became my shadow comfort. I needed their love, I needed their approval. I would rearrange my entire schedule just to please someone else. And then I would return home angry — angry at them for what i perceived as insisting, angry at myself for this unhealthy dependence, my unhealthy need for love and acceptance.

As humans we are infinitely creative at finding ways to mask our pain. Whether it’s eating, keeping our lives so busy that we don’t have to stop and think about our pain, unhealthy dependence on people, substance abuse, working all the time, we have countless ways to ease our discomfort. But all these creative ways have one thing in common – they are shadow comforts.

And the trouble with shadow comforts is that they, like shadows, are fleeting and deceptive, making us think that real comfort is unattainable.When the bright of day comes, the comfort is gone. But for the moment, these comforts stay close and feel necessary.

It is winter and I am particularly prone to trying to find shadow comforts. I make no secret that winter is not an easy time for me. The snow glimmering on branches in morning sunlight holds its magic only until I begin to stomp through slush on city streets.

So I ask myself something I’ve asked a million times — what is real comfort?

Real comfort starts with leaning into our discomfort. The shadow comforts lead us to escape – real comfort asks us to lean in, face the discomfort, the sadness, the anger. Confess the way it takes over our lives, the way it steers us away from truly living. Real comfort wraps itself around us and walks with us, asks us to lay our burdens down and come. Real comfort sometimes wears skin and other times comes when we’re completely alone. Real comfort makes our burden lighter. And sometimes that includes a little ice cream.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.”*

Do you struggle with shadow comforts? How do we help each other understand the difference between real and shadow comforts? 

*Matthew 11:28-29

Image credit: pedrosala / 123RF Stock Photo

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13 thoughts on “The Trouble With Shadow Comforts

  1. Thanks for fleshing out the distinction between shadow comfort and real comfort. It’s a new title for an idea I had this vague notion of, that sometimes we turn to the wrong places for comfort. I admit I have used both food and people as shadow comforts. And I am particularly weak in winter as well. It’s good to know that people a generation older than myself can admit to having the same troubles I have. I honestly don’t see that very much, so it’s nice when I can relate.

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    1. Oh – I so apologize for my generation … :( My daughter recently asked why my husband and I have so many ‘younger’ friends. As I was thinking about it I realized that we’ve never felt like we had it together. So we tend to either hang out with people younger than us who can be honest about that or people my parents age who know that life throws all kinds of curve balls our way. I think with so much of this I hold an Ecclesiastical approach that there really is nothing new under the sun. It’s just disguised in different generational clothing. So glad you read and took the time to comment!

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  2. Marilyn, I love how your posts cut to the heart of a matter. I’ve been reading “The Practice of the Presence of God”, and pondering this quote:

    “Brother Lawrence was aware of his sins, and was not at all surprised by them. ‘That is my nature,’ he would say, ‘the only thing I know how to do.’ He simply confessed his sins to God, without pleading with Him or making excuses. After this, he was able to peacefully resume his regular activity of love and adoration. If he didn’t sin, he thanked God for it, because only God’s grace could keep him from sinning.”

    I wonder if I run to the “shadow comforts” when I start down the path of excuses or self-condemnation in place of confession, the freeing confession that I am powerless to respond to my circumstances with good behavior, good thoughts, or good motives. Good stuff, Marilyn, thank you.

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    1. Oh this really resonates Tracy! I go the self condemnation route far too often– and that leads to self-righteousness because, after all, if I’m so “repentant” than so should everyone else be…. Silly , vicious cycle. I read that book a long time ago but would love to read it again. Thanks so much for reading.

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  3. I think I like the word, “shallow comforts” better. Because there is some comfort in ice cream…or chips and dip….or rice pudding…. but the comfort there is ill-satisfying and superficial. I don’t know.
    I want to be better. I am weary of my soul’s quest for comfort outside the True Comforter. I feel perpetually outside my comfort zone…. but the shadow shallow comforts aren’t cutting it… and my waist line keeps expanding.
    Sigh.

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  4. Love this post Marilyn! I have had many shadow comforts in my life – I’m finally learning to leave them behind – somewhat! :) I’m learning to sit with my discomfort for a bit longer than I think I can stand it, just to see what I’m so afraid of.

    I’ve heard that sometimes we get more “addicted” to the shadow comforts when the result isn’t always predictable – when we feel worse rather than better – we keep seeking it with dogged determination for the next time.

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    1. This is so good Hillary! Yes to sitting with the discomfort. I think so much in our culture tells us we are not supposed to be uncomfortable, we are supposed to seek comfort at all costs so we are fighting a war within and without. I too am learning to sit longer– thanks for reading.

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