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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