Shadow Comforts and Time Monsters
I coined the term ‘Shadow Comfort’ back in the early 90’s. I was writing The Woman’s Comfort Book and realizing that comfort isn’t always good for you – it has a shadow side. Shadow comforts are any choices that masquerade as self-care but in fact drain your energy, numb you out, or fuel the story that you can’t be trusted to be good to yourself. Shadow comforts leave you feeling worse – more tired, depleted, frayed – and farther away from your self. They whisper, “You are unlovable and bad.”
Shadow comforts often come with a running dialogue that sounds like, “Look what kind of day I had, I deserve to collapse on the couch rather than take care of my aching back” or “I didn’t yell at my screaming kid / senile mother / idiot boss, so now I get to eat the whole pie standing up by the fridge” or “I can’t bear missing my dad so much, so I have to watch more TV.”
Shadow comforts can take any form; it’s not what you do, it’s why you do it that makes the difference. When Brené Brown and I first talked about this concept years ago, her eyes lit up, and she went on to quote me often (thank you, Brené). She wrote in Daring Greatly:
“When we’re anxious, disconnected, vulnerable, alone, and feeling helpless, the booze and food and work and endless hours online feel like comfort, but in reality they’re only casting their long shadow over our lives.”
You can eat a piece of chocolate as a holy wafer of sweetness — savor it fully, let it bring you into a celebration of the present moment — or you can cram an entire chocolate bar into your mouth without even tasting it in a frantic attempt to soothe yourself — thus a shadow comfort. You can chat on Facebook or with a friend for half an hour and be energized or you can compare your life to others or gossip and end up feeling empty and sad. In The Life Navigation Course we will reflect in loving creative ways on our shadow comforts. Doing so with a group evaporates the shame – you realize you aren’t weird to suddenly have to find the perfect bran muffin recipe and go to the store and bake them, rather than let yourself be sad and take a nap.
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. Making those bran muffins would be a time monster if instead of napping, you were avoiding writing your novel. It’s the choice to pay the credit card bill, then organize your desk, then spend a week choosing the perfect font for the flyer for your neighborhood’s picnic before you work on your business plan / novel / health that takes you away from what brings you alive.
I’ve coached many a woman in my program whose life consisted almost entirely of time monsters because they were too afraid to take action of what they really desired — for fear of failure, for fear of what their mother / husband / children might think, for fear that when their long-held dream is realized, it would become tarnished by living it in reality. The stories that these women created to allow themselves to live this way were brimming with conviction, and they often held on to them with grim determination. Spending a month planning, cooking, and decorating for the holidays, insisting that every trip be meticulously scrapbooked, running errands first thing in the morning — we tell ourselves that we must do these things exactly this way, and that, in fact, we are the only ones who can do them. We can spend our lives doing things that don’t matter, and meanwhile our desires are sobbing, locked away in the basement.
There are subtle differences between time monsters and overcommitting that are critical to discern. You can overcommit to things you don’t really want to do to avoid the life you’re afraid to live (time monsters); you can overcommit to something because you can’t say no out of fear of disappointing someone or being judged as selfish; and you can overcommit because you are such a glorious polymath, bursting with so many interests and passions that you forget you live in a human body and thus you have limits on your energy and time. Of course, all these boondoggles can overlap and tangle you into a heap of “Who cares? Let’s watch TV and forget all about this building-a-life-we-want crap.” Here is where shadow comforts excel — lulling you into the belief that numbness is the safest choice. Clever, aren’t they?
Weep with tenderness for the parts of you that are dedicated to keeping you busy and numb – they aren’t bad, they aren’t all of you, they just want to keep you safe. Compassionately embrace the truth that you don’t do this inner work of shaping your truer life just once -ha. You get to do it again and again, and then again. It’s a privilege. And time monsters and shadow comforts do loosen their hold and can disappear entirely; mostly, they simply appear less frequently and become subtler — that alone feels fantastic!
Start with self-kindness and awareness. Ask yourself in the moment of choosing a shadow comfort or time monster, “What would I like more?” You can still have the shadow comfort or distract yourself but also let your truer desires start to be seen.
And join me September 17th for a free “life navigation primer” where I will talk a bit more about this concept and the others I teach in my popular online course. You’ll also receive a 3-pack of guided meditations for “knowing home” anywhere anytime. Sign up here: https://jenniferlouden.com/life-navigation-course
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