Mental Health Beyond 101: Shadow Comforts
This article is part of a series on going deeper with mental health and wellness.
I had a revelation in the middle of a book review last week. One big enough that it changed my entire view of the book I was reviewing.
I realized that I only struggle to create a habit/change when there is a deep emotional block/attachment/something in the way. I further realized that other people do not necessarily struggle in this way. Some people, I realized, struggle to change even when there’s nothing epic in their way.
Because if the change is easy, I’ve always figured, everyone would do it. As it turns out, I’m an “upholder” type of person. I have little difficulty doing things that I want to do, whether it be big projects or daily goals.
My mind is truly blown. Like… it’s just harder for some people to create habits than others. Period. FASCINATING.
This revelation has given me some license to explore change differently–I know I can change easily, and therefore if something isn’t changing it’s probably very, very difficult in my life. The few places in my life I feel out of control are very much tied up in shame (a.k.a. a lifetime of societal, familial, and cultural messages translated into being “never good enough” and “unworthy of love”).
When I look at those places I see that they often offer me “shadow comforts.” Jennifer Louden coined the term shadow comforts, meaning something that is comforting the dark part of you, or feeding it. Gretchen Rubin (writer of the book I was reviewing) says that nothing that is supposed to make you feel better should make you feel worse.
Shadow comforts are pernicious little jerks. Especially because they can masquerade as helpful. One of my most devious shadow comforts is high levels of organization and scheduling. I derive vast amounts of satisfaction from an orderly life. My dream piece of furniture is an apothecary chest–I lusted after them for years and finally snagged myself a small one last year. I call it “the precious:”
One drawer for every thing. Utterly inefficient storage, but yet one of my favorite belongings. See–if everything has one drawer, everything is neat, compartmentalized, and out of sight. It’s clean and pretty and presentable to the world (and you can find everything easily).
Let me tell you–life is not like an apothecary cabinet. Life is messy. Emotional states are transitory and erratic. The effects of mental illness in my life are akin to taking every drawer and dumping the contents on the floor, then stirring them around a bunch and leaving me to figure out what the heck went where. I’d sooner have luck sorting grains of sand than I would trying to organize and manage my emotional life. Trust me. I’ve tried. I’ve tried rigid rule systems for how I interact with others, how I think about things, and how I allow myself to feel emotion. I’ve tried mapping out conversations. I’ve tried guessing what people will say ahead of time (the worst thing is that I’m pretty good at it, but not perfect, so I never quite get it right). I have tried to compartmentalize myself from others.
The change I would love to make is one where I receive emotional upheaval with calm attention, not turning on it with judgment, shame and terror (I like to worry a lot about what it all means and what might happen like a hand-wringing Piglet). I would like to be able to de-personalize situations and react with zen attentiveness whenever needed.
Emotional raging of any kind is deeply threatening to my calm self, though. I’m a sensitive person, and a loving one, and a mentally ill one, and I have about six suitcases of baggage regarding this very issue ranging from people-pleasing to worthiness to real traumatic experiences.
Assuming I could simply work harder and achieve a habit of mindful calm was not honoring my own emotional process and worked against the goal in the first place. Sometimes I need to have a mess in my brain. I need to feel all the things, and all those things will not stay in their damn drawers. Trying to put everything in a compartment simply does not work in all cases. Being highly organized is a great skill, and it is utterly useless to me in this arena.
Shadow comforts tell me I can get there if I just keep trying–keep rehearsing that conversation over and over in your head, keep trying to set boundaries and ask for things even when the people in question aren’t responding, keep doing everything you can to look “in control” so no one notices the stormy mess inside. Do not, for the love of everything, screw anything up.
These shadow comforts make me feel in control and on top of it, but they don’t help me learn to attend to emotional reactivity with calmness! The very attitude I’m trying to cultivate is avoided, and instead I develop more shame because I have again gotten too messy. The cycle repeats itself.
Beware the shadow comfort! They are sneaky and subtle and feel right at the time. I’ve used many things as shadow comforts, from Twitter to chocolate to exercise to sex to organization to shopping and more. None of these things are bad things, but all of them can be used to our disadvantage.
A rule of thumb I use now is this: is this behavior helping me spiral up or spiral down?
Sometimes I happily indulge in a treat of ice cream or whatever. Sometimes, I catch it as a shadow comfort and try to attend to the underlying need. If what I need is comfort because I’m feeling messy, I can find it in other ways besides obsessively trying to neaten things. I can reach out to a friend, or dive into knitting, or take a hot bath and be with those stormy feelings for a while.
Sometimes, I catch myself way too late. I feel shame rush in as I realize I’ve been indulging in shadow comforts. That is the most important time to practice compassion and empathy for self–sometimes we get caught up in the shadow. That’s okay. That’s life, too. Offering gentleness and patience to our beleaguered brains is perhaps the best true comfort we can offer.
A good friend of mine always says “all things in moderation, including moderation.” I would add all things that spiral us up, and all the patience we can muster.
(image: original art by E.H. Shepard)