false comfort vs. nourishment

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Recently I was sick for seven days. On the second day of waking up congested and fatigued, I ordered $52 worth of food from a Shanghainese restaurant in Flushing (they wouldn’t deliver for less!), thinking that it would be comfort food that would last me the entire week. I wouldn’t have to cook. It’ll be like having my mother here. It would be great.

But… the food didn’t taste like home. It tasted like MSG. Everything was drenched in oil, oyster sauce, and overly fried. I felt worse after eating it than before. I didn’t understand why — how could it have tasted so good when I went to the restaurant with my parents, and so bad now? I thought I was craving Chinese food, as one tends to crave home and comfort food when sick. But, I realized that what I really wanted was the feeling of nourishment. I just wanted to eat wholesome, healthy food cooked by someone who really loved me.

This is what I learned. A fundamental skill in the hard discipline of caring for oneself is discerning the difference between false comfort and nourishment. Over time, we’ve learned to not reach for potato chips when what our bodies really want is a broth-y vegetable soup. When it comes to what we put into our bodies, the feedback loop is immediate. But with our minds, hearts, and spirits, we’re often less careful about the input, and less attuned to the output. I spent a week in bed ingesting various inputs, noting how I felt afterwards, and working through the distinctions in my mind.

The 7 drugs of false comfort

What is false comfort? Anything that we reach for out of habit, familiarity, impulse, or craving, but don’t really bring us full satisfaction. Call me draconian and feel free to disagree, but here is my list of 7 sources of false comfort.

  • Mindless Instagram — there’s a fine line between being inspired by beautiful images, sharing powerful ideas, staying connected with friends… and feeling attachment, envy, and craving. Instagram can become a numbing drug for boredom and lack of inspiration. A place for aspirations and dreams to wander around the chicken coop.

  • Facebook — Once in a blue moon, someone posts something substantive and thoughtful. But 98% of what I see on my feed is meaningless chatter, a drug for loneliness and the desire for connection.

  • Television shows — A escapist drug for anxiety and boredom. I was surprised that after watching a really good show, I didn’t feel good. I felt like I needed to keep watching in order to get the steady diet of dopamine and excitement, I think because they’re designed to be addictive. I noticed that my mind felt much less creative, absorptive, alive. It deadened my senses. (Good movies don’t do this.)

  • Video games - Another escapist drug.

  • Alcohol & Drugs — A drug for numbing emotional discomfort. Where is the line? When they’ve become crutches and habits for making you feel better.

  • Unfulfilling jobs — A drug for fear and a sense of security. A job you keep around anyway for security, prestige, or status, or inertia — driven by the fear that you won’t be able to find something better.

  • Unfulfilling relationships — A drug for validation, self-worth, and intimacy. Where you must bargain a part of yourself in order to receive the steady, habitual comfort of validation — not to be confused with love.

When in pain: false comfort is numbing. Nourishment is a salve.

Nourishment gives you energy, rest, and true comfort. It’s a salve to physical and emotional aches. Nourishment inspires movement, freedom, change, and possibility. When you’re sick, nourishment is getting the love, rest, and care you need to move beyond sickness. False comfort, on the other hand, is a dead end. The numbing never lasts. It feeds you into an endless loop of itself. The moment it’s gone, you need more of it to feel better. The more you use it, the higher your tolerance becomes.

When feeling well: nourishment is generative. False comfort is a dead end.

I notice how the things that truly nourish me always inspire me to be more — to push my limits and deepen my potential. Nourishment is a form of care (by oneself or by others) that gives me exactly what my mind, heart, body, and soul are craving. False comfort is like something shiny that distracts me from my own center. Nourishment helps me be my best self, whereas false comfort keeps me in a cage.

What is nourishing?

That week sick, I spent a lot of time in bed, aimlessly resting by indulging in false comforts. I finished a season of Marvelous Mrs. Maisel (pleasurable, but I felt numbed afterwards), scrolled through social media every fifteen minutes — flipping through Facebook photos of people I didn’t know, getting lost inside celebrity photos on Instagram. It was deadening. But, I also made myself a mushroom broth vegetable soup, a carrot smoothie, and indulged in a few practices that I found deeply inspiring and soul-nourishing. Here’s my list of things that always nurtured my body, mind, heart, and spirit:

  • Listening to music

  • Journaling

  • Writing

  • Reading poetry

  • Reading books

  • Painting

  • Watching good films

  • Solitude in a cafe — people watching, reading, writing

  • Cleaning my home

  • Dancing

  • Deep friendships

Emotional care is a discipline that requires a continual attitude of discernment. The better we get at feeding ourselves with what’s truly nourishing, the more we’ll be able to face our vulnerabilities instead of wanting to numb them. And subsequently, the less we’ll be drawn to emotional crutches and sources of distraction.

Tune into yourself

I made a printable PDF of the diagram above that you can use to log yourself as you note what’s nourishing for you, and what’s not. Pay attention as you go about your week and see where things fall. (If you do make one, I’d love to see! I guess this is what Instagram is for. Tag me @keningzhu and use the hashtag #nourishchart before we all get too numb, bored, and paralyzed).


Thanks for reading! If you liked this post, you might also enjoy 13 nourishing practices for wellbeing. You could also check out my project Camp Kening, a place where I help creatives souls build inner strength and deliberate practices. Soon, I’ll be launching a 7 day morning routine course that I’m excited to share with you.

WellbeingKening Zhu