What to do instead of numbing out: shadow comforts

Jen's Art Mess

Jen’s Art Mess

Check out this brilliant question a reader asked recently:

“I stumbled upon your “shadow comforts” blog posts and could almost scream because this is ME! This is such a stupid question, but what do I do with all the free time?  I know I use shadow comforts (eating, TV, mindless internet surfing, sugar, caffeine) but how do I figure out what I *should* be doing with that time instead or what I’m trying to hide? I KNOW it’s under there but I’m having a tough time figuring out what I’m trying to cover, if that makes sense.”

My darling, this is SO not a stupid question. NOT AT ALL! It is a genius question. It is the kind of question that unlocks everything that matters. I remember asking something similar of my therapist somewhere in my 30’s:

“But why wouldn’t I eat sugar? What could possibly be better?”

Before I get to “What could be better than shadow comforts,” let’s explore “What I’m trying to hide?” For most of us, what we are trying to hide is our humanity. All the things we can’t do, can’t keep up with, can’t be (yet or sometimes ever).

We also hide from the places we aren’t standing up for ourselves – were we seek approval rather than sovereignty. We hide from where our life doesn’t meet our pictures of perfection – my squishy stomach does not meet my inner picture of my ideal stomach. I can use that as proof I am bad and thus an excuse to numb out, or I can see it for what it is – a story of how things should be different. And, of course, we hide from the ordinary and painful mis-steps of our life. The places we hurt people, turned away from the good, didn’t ask for what we really wanted, gave up on ourselves or someone else too soon.

Lately, I’ve been writing about not being with my dad when he died. It is one of my most painful stories. I started writing about this when I sat down to explore “a good enough life” (a possible idea for a new book).  As I wrote, I wondered, “What does this have to do with a good enough life?” Later it occurred to me that facing my past choices with clear hearted acceptance is crucial if I am to be freed from perfectionism and self-hatred, both of which prevent me from living a good enough life. The same is true for you.

Look back at your question. See that word *should*? That is the KEY WORD that sends you (and me) straight into the numbing maw of shadow comforts. Should supersedes your own desires and instincts. It puts your power to choose your life outside of you, out with the famous ever threatening “They” who know better than you. Only they don’t. Never did, never will.

So whatever your reasons, know this: you aren’t hiding something bad nor are you hiding because you are bad, weak or less than. You are hiding because you desire more compassion for being human. And when you think there is something to be rooted out and fixed, something you should be doing better, you will keep using shadow comforts to hide in, when there is only your humanity to be with.

Now here is where the better part comes in – thank god, right?! Here is what is so much better than shadow comforts: being here. Being here, not numb. When you entertain the idea there is nothing bad about you that you need to fix, you relax a little bit. Relaxing is so good for your nervous system. That makes it easier to be open and curious, to pause before you open Facebook or the box of cookies, and ask, “What do I really want?” or “What would feel really good right now?” or “What am I hungry for?” You don’t expect an instant answer nor do you expect it to fit a “perfect picture” of being creative, industrious, or productive (that would be the should operating again). You listen and follow what you hear. You trust yourself. (Have you gotten my freeeee self-trust course?)

Now I know none of this tells you what you should do with your time instead of shadow comforts. But I know you get that isn’t the question to ask. Ultimately what shadow comforts are inviting you to do is walk through the doorway of choice and desire into the ever present now of enoughness. Into wonder, aliveness and LIFE that is present everywhere, even in the midst of great loss and pain.

Shadow comforts say,”Come home to your life.”

In the end,  we numb ourselves because we put doing on a pedestal and thrust being into the pink ghetto. We choose shadow comforts because we are unwilling to sit where we are, being uncomfortable, being restless, being uncertain our desires even matter. We choose shadow comforts because being imperfectly who we are, using our life’s time and energy the way we want, is the ultimate act of an uppity woman.

So go explore, get curious, get open, and tell me what happens. Please.




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Kylie Bellard - May 8, 2013

I could talk about shadow comforts all. day. long. For me, I think the biggest epiphany came when I realized that I wasn’t even letting myself believe that there might be some way to meet my true needs. In that world, the one where my needs and desires weren’t valid, shadow comforts were the only way to keep me going. Just inserting that little bit of possibility — the trust that *maybe* my needs and desires could be met — opened the door to an entirely new world.

    Ronni Ann Hall - May 8, 2013

    important article and timely for me. And I so agree with what Kylie just wrote too. That shadow coming out when we aren’t meeting our true needs. It’s like we think the world won’t hear us because in childhood it didn’t matter. When I grab for the sugar, I usually need some comfort or even a nap! My rebellious self that doesn’t want to be pushed anymore. Maybe we are all just looking for balance…

      jenniferlouden - May 9, 2013

      balance and also to be heard and seen by ourselves. To be witnessed and validated.

    jenniferlouden - May 9, 2013

    exactly! so well said Kylie! True needs + yes it might just be possible to own them and have them filled = big wide open heart of soft choices. I trust my needs and desires are valid. Ahhhh..

leah_DefytheBox - May 8, 2013

I love this post!
Brene Brown’s work has given so much depth to the work I do with clients and myself around numbing out instead of living the life you WANT to live- but to really look at it and see where it’s covering up the idea of not-enough-ness and lack- This line sums it up for me:
“Being here, not numb. When you entertain the idea there is nothing bad about you that you need to fix, you relax a little bit”.

A few years ago I started asking myself the questions you suggest when I was feeling myself slip into numb out mode. Just doing the asking created the space for me to choose what I really needed. It made all the difference.

    jenniferlouden - May 9, 2013

    Yes! It’s amazing in the 21 years I have been asking women to ask themselves “What do you want?” and talking about desire, it never fails to shift things deeply.

      leah_DefytheBox - May 9, 2013

      I’m sending you a virtual “high Five” teeheehahah

Marianne Cantwell - May 8, 2013

This is spot on. Sharing it everywhere, thank you for writing. x

    jenniferlouden - May 9, 2013

    thanks for reading!

Paula - May 8, 2013

Oh wow! Seeking approval rather than sovereignty. That’s it, THAT’S it, that’s IT!

    jenniferlouden - May 9, 2013

    Yes, I know that one well too Paula.

Hanna Cooper - May 8, 2013

This lovingly gave my heart a little squeeze today and made me sit up and notice…. I do feel numb, and I am struggling mightily with my messy humanity today. So, thanks for the naming of this as such… I am breathing & putting one foot in front of the other….

    jenniferlouden - May 9, 2013

    me, too!

Cathy - May 9, 2013

This really hit home. In exploring this, I see a fine line in actions I choose. When is it comfort and when is it just being lazy? And how do I wean myself off of shadow comfort to do what I truly desire but unwilling to do?

    jenniferlouden - May 9, 2013

    Two thoughts, these may or may not make sense!

    The only way to know if you are comforting yourself or just being lazy… is not to know. Not trying to get all Yoda here but the part of you and me that wants to KNOW WE ARE doing this right is the part that shuts down listening. We have to be willing to be uncomfortable and patient. That, at least for me, is so damn hard. We both need to keep asking “What do I most want right now?” and being willing to squirm while we wait for insights and bits of longings to show up. And to see, with LOVE, when we aren’t willing to listen or even ask!! Like I did with the cookies last night! I watched myself know I had had enough but I also let the part of myself that wanted to gorge eat more. I laughed and wished myself well and stayed awake! From my own experience that is all I can do. My heart will tell me, “It’s time to get up and do your stretches not sit here longer typing” or “Another cookie is not what you want, it’s to sit here and feel and be” or “You really want to get off Facebook and create,” and then I override that knowing – or not. The only thing I know for sure Cathy is everytime I override, IF I can stay awake and be kind to myself, something shifts. And I often can put down the cookie or pick up the pen.

    Your thoughts?

      Cathy - May 10, 2013

      I understand asking myself “do you really want this cookie?” But what is the answer is always “YES, cookie” or “reality tV” instead of “Apple” or “Walk” even though I am unhealthy. Is it just a process of exploring deeper? Why do I not see “apple” as being kind to myself? I feel I fall in to the trap of “I need my time” and it is a cookie and “reality housewives” ALOT because it is a comfort I know and love.
      I just realized I sound like a two year old. Some parts of my life are amazing and wonderful and some things I constantly struggle with.

        jenniferlouden - May 10, 2013

        I believe, from my experience, it’s a process of being willing to have out between “cookie and reality TV” and “what else might be more nourishing?” and not know. Sometimes you do want the cookie and the show, but other times you don’t. But you don’t know what you do want or you are so afraid you can’t have it (intimacy used to be one for me) you don’t ask. So it’s not that the apple or walk are a better answer, it’s asking the question where things get rich. Does that help?

          Cathy - May 13, 2013

          Yes it helps. For a myriad of reasons, I avoid “doing the work” when it comes to my physical health. Just goes to show that the work needs to be done. Thank you!

Kathy www.yinyangmother.com - May 9, 2013

I loved this post and feel like I’m a shadow comfort queen from way back and numbing is my specialty. For me it is about numbing against the ‘something more’ that I can’t hope to believe in. I am so grateful affter our long journey through infertility and adoption…..and yet…but there can’t be more, only shadow comfort. A shadow is only a reflection of something that we really want. That’s where I’m at.

    jenniferlouden - May 9, 2013

    Kathy thank you for this. It points to an incredibly tender place, this place of hope, letting ourselves hope, letting ourselves want more. I would love to explore this more if you would be willing to say more or email me. jen at jenniferloude dot com. It feels like I might write a little book about all this.

Eve Johnson - May 9, 2013

As an adept at using shadow comforts to numb out, I was delighted to find this passage in John O’Donohue’s book on Celtic spirituality, Anam Cara:

“Nietzche said that one of the best days in his life was the day when he rebaptized all his negative qualities as his best qualities.

In this kind of baptism, rather than banishing what is at first glimpse unwelcome, you bring it home to unity with your life. This is the slow and difficult work of self-retrieval.

“Every person has certain qualities or presences in their heart that are awkward, disturbing and negative. One of your sacred duties is to exercise kindness toward them. In a sense you are called to be a lovingparent to your delinquent qualities. Your kindness will slowly poultice their negativity, alleviate their fear, and help them to see that your soul is a home where there is no judgment or febrile hunger for a fixed and limited identity.
“The negative threatens us so powerfully precisely because it is an invitation
to an art of compassion and self-enlargement that our small thinking utterly
resists. Your vision is your home, and your home should have many mansions to shelter your wild divinity.”

Interesting how often the answer seems to be, as you say above, “more compassion.”

Thank you for a thought-provoking post.

    jenniferlouden - May 9, 2013

    oh that John, he was a gift. Thank you for calling my attention to this piece – so much what I am doing in my own life – and will always be doing no doubt – is exactly this. May I be well. May I be at peace. Welcoming myself home again and again. So deeply important.

Sherold Barr - May 9, 2013

Jen Louden what a beautiful post. Shadow comforts is such a great topic – I love the name. I have used a variety of shadow comforts during my life and it’s so much more gratifying to accept my feelings – whatever they may be – than numbing them out with wine or sugar. So thank you for writing this.

Marie D. Tiger Mikkonen - May 10, 2013

I read this some time ago and today, still feeling ‘blerg’ and not being able to shake it with all of my usual shadow comforts, I read it again. Then I sat down and painted how I felt. Then I felt compassion for myself and now I feel better. Thank you <3

    jenniferlouden - May 20, 2013

    You bet, anything to help!

Carrie Hensley - May 10, 2013

So much of this post spoke to my heart, Jen. Thank you! It is our very nature to seek pleasure and avoid pain, isn’t it? We don’t want to sit with the discomfort, uncertainty, and/or grief. Yet it is in these moments of complete grief, overwhelm, and sadness that, if we do not resist, if we don’t reach for a shadow comfort, we come face to face with our own inherent compassion, wisdom, and grace. Grateful for this opportunity to reflect!

    jenniferlouden - May 20, 2013

    Thanks for your thoughtful comment Carrie.

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J'aime Wells - May 20, 2013

Jen, I had *such* a great experimental result today. I wanted to work
on my website, which is a task that usually looks like this:

“I have to!”

Inner child: “Nooooo!”

(Procrastination, misery, and eventually, some work ensues.)

I started this Monday morning by doing exactly exactly what I wanted –
no shadow version, the real right thing (this never happens, but today I
knew what it was and was free to do it). And when I was done, my happy
inner child said, “Now, what was that thing you wanted to do next?
Website? I had some ideas about that. Hand me the laptop.”

Me: *hands her the laptop in stunned silence*

It all went poof this afternoon, and I’m back procrastinating, but for a
while there this morning, I could totally see how it is all supposed to
work. Shadow comforts are not filling, they just lead to more time wasting, but doing the thing that’s real actually fills you up. You feel done, and it is okay to turn back to work. Like eating sugar versus eating real food, I guess.

    jenniferlouden - May 20, 2013

    That is such a wonderful story J’aime. You felt it! You were in the sweet spot. Isn’t it amazing!!

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