Exploring Shadow Comforts

Wonder how candy got to be one of my favorite shadow comforts?

If you prefer to listen.

“We are so busy trying to be someone else, that we can’t meet our emotional needs. Thus, our wanting self develops strategies for satisfying our true needs with substitutes. These substitutes provide immediate gratification through a temporary surge of pleasant sensations. They numb the pain, but don’t really fill our needs. We get reliant on these shadow comforts.” Gloria Green

While the details of our lives are different, our socialization caused many of us to believe that it is not OK to have needs.  We need to be good and nice and sacrifice to make others happy. We need to live up to the expectations of our parents, siblings, teachers, friends, bosses, and partners. That leaves precious little time for ourselves, so why bother thinking about our needs.

For many of us, admitting that we have needs brings shame. We feel that we are inherently unworthy so we shouldn’t ask for anything whether physical or emotional. We think that there is something fundamentally wrong with us as we are. We spend our life trying to be who they, whoever that is, wanted us to be. Only if we can guess what they want us to be and be that person, then will we be good enough. We live in what Tara Brach calls the trance of unworthiness.

We are so busy trying to be someone else, that we can’t meet our emotional needs. Thus, our wanting self develops strategies for satisfying our true needs with substitutes. These substitutes provide immediate gratification through a temporary surge of pleasant sensations. They numb the pain, but don’t really fill our needs. Over time, we get reliant on these shadow comforts.

A shadow comfort is anything that masquerades as self-care, but in reality, drains your energy. That might be eating too much, watching too much TV, doom scrolling, shopping for what we don’t need, drinking too much, etc. Anything that helps us numb out.

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.” Jennifer Louden


What are some of your favorite shadow comforts?


What are four or five situations or feelings that trigger a shadow comfort craving in me?

Shadow comforts encourage us to turn away from our pain, ignore it, escape it. They help us push away or cover up our pain. But what we resist persists.  It takes a lot of energy to keep our discomforts hidden. And the shadow comfort often provides us with one more thing to beat ourselves us about.

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.” Jennifer Louden

Seeking pleasure can be wholesome. Giving yourself a treat of chocolate can be a form of self-care; if you enjoy a couple of pieces, savoring the flavor.  But if you down the whole bag to fill a hole you you that you don’t even know exists, it is a shadow comfort. When we are using a substitute to fulfill an unmet need, the craving gets stronger.

Substitutes provide a temporary fix that keeps us hooked, but they never truly deliver. Our accomplishments never allow us to feel truly worthwhile; our money or possessions do not bring real security; our hundreds of friends on social media will never convince us we are lovable. So we keep feeling that something is missing, reaching for substitutes and distancing ourselves from our star—the source of our longing.” Tara Brach

When we are pursuing substitutes for our needs, our needs are often unconscious. When that happens, our mind is our master instead of our servant. We have the chronic feeling of “if only” this or that, then we could be happy.

“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.” Jennifer Louden

When we are taken over by the craving of a shadow comfort, all we can see is how it will make us feel good. This gives us tunnel vision. We don’t see any other options to satisfy our need besides the shadow comfort. This is partly because we don’t really know what the need is. We just want to numb over over the discomfort we are feeling.

Here is where shadow comforts excel — lulling you into the belief that numbness is the safest choice. Clever, aren’t they?” Jennifer Louden

We numb out or cover over because we are rejecting who we are. We are judging ourselves for not being someone more or better. Often our desires or cravings begin with a form of self-judgement. Thinking we are not good enough. The “shoulds” we get from others, supersede our own desires. Because we are not supposed to have desires. We think they, whoever they are, know better than we do. But they don’t.

If we can drop the idea that we need to be different than we are, that we need fixing, we can relax a little bit. That makes it easier for us to live in the present moment. We are not so restless, leaning forward to the next thing. We can actually enjoy just being. We don’t need chocolate to make us happy.

Of course, the feeling of discomfort will come up again. But now we don’t have to be afraid of it. We can stop and ask ourselves what we really want. What need are you trying to fill with that chocolate? Why am I using a shadow comfort to soothe myself? To hear your answer, you need to sit still and get very quiet so you can hear your inner voice. You have to reduce the volume of your mental chatter so you can hear the message trying to get through. Once in a while you will be lucky enough to have an answer pop right up. Just be sure the answer comes from your authentic self and isn’t another “should” from your inner critic.

One of my favorite shadow comforts is chocolate. When I have a chocolate craving, I can ask myself what need I am trying to fill. Sometimes it is the need for connection. I have great memories of walking to the drug store with my sisters to buy candy. Other times it may be boredom, as a former “do-it-all” sometimes I am uncomfortable with just being. And other times, I just don’t feel good about myself. And chocolate will give me momentary pleasure so I can forget how I am feeling. This is the most dangerous reason for my shadow comfort of chocolate, because no matter how much chocolate I eat, I still won’t feel better about myself.

Uncovering unmet needs takes investigation. To heal the discomfort, we have to become aware of our unconscious fears and beliefs. By looking deeply into them, we see the unmet needs that keep us armored or grasping. Through investigation, we can uncover the unmet need that are driving our unhealthy habits. The ones that are obscured by our shadow comforts. It takes courage to face your vulnerability and be curious about what is is you have been numbing or hiding.

If I am craving connection, I don’t really need the investigation step.  However, if I am restless because I am uncomfortable just being or if I don’t feel good about myself, I need to look deeper to uncover the roots of the unmet need.

Next session we will investigate how to trace back our needs to our deepest desire.