Difference between comfort and holding in recovery work


2 589px-Blue Ballet by Glen Josselsohn Contemporary Modern ArtistRecovery work involves feeling what you'd rather not feel. But how much do you need to feel, and what are you supposed to do while you are in emotional pain? These are vital questions that need to be answered in the spirit of recovery.

One way to stop emotional pain is to act out your eating disorder.  Eat, binge, starve, get on the treadmill, hook up with a person or group of people who will act out with you and bring you to high sensations that block out anything else you might feel.  But you want recovery so you know these are not your best options.  What then?

Understanding the difference between comfort and holding will help you make better choices for yourself and allow you to accept actions and people who genuinely are part of your real recovery.


Comfort soothes you. Comfort eases your suffering. Comfort reduces the level of your feelings and even turns them into something more tolerable. A person or a movie or a book can soothe you and distract you from your feelings, bring you to a different focus or even transform your emotional energy into something else.  For example, another person may offer you sympathy, a listening ear, kind words and flattery. Your emotional energy can turn into sexual energy and you may act out with pent up passion as part of flight into comfort.

Whenever you flee into comfort, whether it's a TV series or a movie or a long conversation or many conversations with a friend, you are not acting out your eating disorder.  This is a relief. You are pushing your feelings below the surface so you don't feel your pain.  You don't accomplish healing, but you do get a chance to rest.

The problem with comfort is that you don't learn anything except, perhaps, to be dependent on what comforts you.  You can develop a powerful need for that comforting source.  If it's a a person you may convince yourself that you are in love or that you must have them in your life on a regular basis. You may believe that they must be on call and available to you when your feelings are horrible. This becomes your definition of friendship. You can become terrified or angry if the person wants to stop being used in this way.  

Comfort gives you a break from your emotional pain, but the pain remains and will come forward again.


Holding is quite different from comforting.  Holding involves something or someone keeping you in place so that you can feel what you feel without causing damage to yourself or someone else.  Arms around you can keep you from moving while you feel your feelings.  This is a helpful intervention with tantruming children but often not practical with adults.  

The voice and presence of a friend who offers no solutions and no rescue but simply sits with you while you feel what you feel can hold you in place, but this is often too great a strain on a friendship.

Finding or creating a person or group or situation that will reliably hold you as you move through your feelings is an important task in recovery.  The person is usually your therapist.  The group is a support group or therapy group.  In choosing one, be sure that the group will hold you and not comfort you.  

Comfort takes you away from your experience.  Holding gives you the opportunity to feel what you thought you couldn't bear.  You develop strength to bear your feelings.  In time, you learn to understand those feelings and work your way through them.  This is recovery work.

Comfort temorarily soothes your feelings.  Holding allows you to develop and progress.

Can you use both?  Yes.  In fact you need to use both.  If your feelings are so powerful that they flood your
awareness and your ability to think, you may need a small degree of comfort that brings you to a place where you still feel bad, but you can bear it.

You'll probably feel frustrated when the comfort stops and holding begins.You'd rather be rescued by soothing than rally your strength under pain and stress to work your way through the experience. In time, with practice, you'll grow to respect and appreciate the difference. You'll celebrate your ability to heal beyond past limitations.

Never underestimate the power of writing.  Wiring in your journal can soothe you.  It can be a resting and soothing place.  As you continue to write, your journal turns into a holding place.  You hold your experience while you feel what you feel.  Without a specific plan or date or agenda you discover that something changes as you journal and that you are doing recovery work while you are being held by the page. 

How can you tell the difference between comfort and holding?  After comfort you feel temporary relief and then return to your painful condition.  After holding you feel more capable.  You've moved a little bit beyond your previous limits.  

Comfort leaves you with a feeling of weakness and dependence. You learn to need comforting.   Holding leaves you with a sense of your own strength and capability. You trust yourself more to continue on your recovery path. Yes, you know you will need more holding, but it's a holding that allows you to feel what you feel and gather up more strength and healing within yourself.

  1. What do you know about comfort and holding?
  2. What comforts you?
  3. What holds you?
  4. Which is more reliable?
  5. What have you learned from each?


0 # feelings?PTC 2013-02-24 18:30
I still have yet to have feelings so I guess I don't need to worry about comfort or holding.  I do know that when I have to put my cats to sleep, which I think about often because they're 16, I know that I'm not going to want to be comforted.  I'll want to be left alone and won't want to talk to anyone.  As for what will happen with my eating, that's another story.  Who knows.  I will most definitely be tested.  I don't think anything would comfort me.
0 # good distinctionmylifex2 2013-02-24 18:51
Of course I have been in both places. Lately however, I have come to rely less on the comfort and holding of those people in public forums such as this. That is not necessarily a good thing.  I think it is a form of shutting down and trying to stay more private with my feelings...not as trusting as I used to be...I do rely on my therapist for these things.  I tend to push away her comforting as well, but she utilizes a lot of the holding technique with me, and lets me come to my own conclusions often enough. When I start to drift away, she will just talk and talk lol, trying to get me back to earth. I have a few very close friends who i can talk to and who can talk to be. We reciprocate equally, none of us burning out the others. Overall, I think I am in a better place with my depression. I am on better meds for my chronic pain, which was really lending toward my emotional distress, as I have come to find out.  I don't feel like I need to talk as much on here, rather, listen and see how everyone is doing, keeping everyone in prayers often.
Laura R
0 # Trying to digestLaura R 2013-02-24 22:07
I've come back to this post a number of times and am still trying to process all of it. My first reaction was to think I am bad or weak for wanting comfort. I think my therapist started with comfort as a way to model for me how to self soothe as I kept getting overwhelmed and flooded. Now there is a lot more holding but still some comfort too. I still wish for comfort as much as I understand that holding is what will help me grow. I feel some shame about wanting comfort. I can tell when my T is trying to hold at times that I am really wanting comfort. Sometimes I have to dig deep and do a lot o self soothing to not to beg for comfort. Whew...thinking about all of this does bring up a lot of confusion and shame. Growing pains. I'll have to keep re-reading and thinking and see where I go with all of this.
0 # still food!shh 2013-02-25 00:56

I read something somewhere that says everyone has at least 2 addictions in life, and major addiction - the one you rely on most, and a secondary one in case you aren't able to utiliise the first - and if that's true then food is my major addiction, and sex my minor one.

I have really worked on understanding the sex better, and I know now that it's triggered by feeling inadequate - as soon as I get the feeling, the urge, if it's not around ovulation time or in circumstances where most people would feel aroused, then I ask myself what it is that's making me feel inadequate, and I work out a way to deal with that and not act out sexually.

But the using food for comfort, sometimes bingeing, sometimes continuously grazing to keep myself on a level, is something I still find myself doing, and I'm not even fully aware of why, or what it is that I need comforting and relief from anymore. After a year of not turning to food at all, I find this difficult to fathom out properly, other than maybe a reaction to stress, as a way of dealing with something that says it's not okay to feel under pressure and feel stressed - not sure?

I used to get my holding from therapy and journalling, now that I'm without therapy, it's down to me to comfort less and hold more. I know if I journalled more I would probably have a better grip on my eating, but I just don'y have enough time to journal on a strictly personal level at the moment, although I do journal a few times a week as a requirement of my training, about the things that come up as a result of my training experiences.

I also really utilise the holding environment of the "process hour" at the end of a training day - a lot of people struggle with it, but I really find it useful.

I did have a recent experience of being "rescued" during process hour - which is supposed to be a strictly holding environment, and I found that I really resented it. I had spoken about something sensitive that had come up for me during the day, and felt quite tearful, and left the circle/room - I had a bit of a cry, asked myself if I was ready to go back, washed my face, dried my eyes, and before I went back to the room I said in my head the words I knew I needed to say to the group to ensure I could say them without tearing up again, and I was fine, so I returned, ready to say what I needed to say, and as soon as I returned, the group member who outwardly admits that she has a strong rescuing tendency, started to speak, and I knew she had done it to divert the attention away from me in the room, and give me some space, which was sweet, but I felt very much like..."I'm not  THAT weak, I don't need rescuing, if I wasn't ready to return and face all the eyes on me and talk about why I left, I wouldn't have returned yet", and it was a bit like she interrupted what should've been a natural flow of events

I asked her about it afterwards, whether she'd done it to rescue me, I thanked her for being sweet, and assured her that I didn't need rescuing and preferred not to be rescued.

I just wish I felt and behaved the same way in my personal life behind closed doors.

I know if I had more time, I would be able to tackle my comforting myself with food better, and I know how important it is, but I have no idea  where I can find that personal time and space from at the moment.

0 # responding to PTC, Tracy, Laura and Shhpinkjoanna 2013-02-25 15:09
The comfort versus holding issue never goes away. AND there's nothing wrong with either when used or accepted mindfully.

PTC, you might well want comforting when you cats die.  At the same time, someone quetly being with you may give you a comfort  through holding that is even greater than an attempt to comfort.  

The experience of "being present for someone else" is a border territory that can be both comforting and holding.

Tracy, shutting down is an attempt to get away from painful feelings you believe you can't bear.  You may need enough soothing, just enough, that allows you to bear the feelings you can bear in a holding experience.  This is like an artistic choice where you mix the right combinations, i.e. right for your unique situation, so that you are soothed enough to be held and feel what you are capable of feeling so far.

Laura, what I described to Tracy may be what was happening in your therapy.  Your therapist may have been trying to give you enough comfort so that you were capable of being held and feeling what you feel.  Sounds like your big challenge is to accept your humanity and know that wanting and needing help, comfort, holding, reassurance, guidance and caring is very human.  We never outgrow this. We do learn to give it to ourselves, ask for it from others, give it and accept it differently than we did as children.

Shh, time becomes an issue when you deny your resistance.  You need 30 seconds to write one sentence.  You don't need everything in order with predetermined amounts of time set aside for giving yourself the experience of comfort or soothing or holding.  I know you know this.  

Why not pick an activity you do every day or, even better, something you do several times a day.  Tack on to that activity a full minute of mindful breathing or one or two sentence of journalling or both?  An example could be brushing your teeth or your hair or making your bed.  Introduce a little to what's already established in your day.  It's a way to start.  You'll get benefits, even from just a little attention to yourself in this way.

Thank you all for your comments and stories.  Each of you help me to think and feel more deeply about these issues.  And I know you are helping each other as you make your strides toward healing and inner harmony.  
0 # you are right JPshh 2013-02-25 15:43

Joanna - you are right, there is some resistance there! Sometimes I feel aware of it when I do have a little bit of time to play with and it crosses my mind that I should probably journal, but then I think "but I don't want to, and anyhow I don't have anything I need to 'out' at the moment" - which I know really is not true, as it's still driving me to eat, it's just that I am keeping whatever it is very deeply buried - must be something I'm subconsciously aware that it might be painful to face into.

Thank you for giving me that poke that says "come on, you know you are resisting getting into something" and "busting me" :-)


Laura R
0 # Not all or nothingLaura R 2013-02-25 19:24
Joanna - I think I understand what you mean. So it's fluid. Ts like you are constantly changing the mix of comfort and holding as you help helps us move through recovery. And the feelings I'm having are normal. Having the wishes and wants doesn't mean I am failing recovery, or that I'll never learning how ask for comfort or to comfort myself in a grown up way. That's helpful. I've always thought the wishing was a sign that I'm not comitted enough to recovery. Thank you.
0 # Not all or nothingpinkjoanna 2013-02-25 23:55
Dear Laura,

Don't let an eating disorder rob you of the joy of wishing.  Wishes can lead to inspiration and creativity that leads to new action based on what you genuinely care about.

You sound committed to recovery to me. :-)
0 # alonePTC 2013-02-26 04:56
Why is it that I just like to be alone when I'm upset about something?  I know that I tend to lose my appetite when something happens that upsets me.  Things I worry about in my future are my parents dying and my cats dying and how I'm not going to be able to handle it.  (Both my parents are in good health, but I often have the thought of them not being around).  I'm afraid that I'm just not going to eat at all and I might end up worse (ED wise) than ever.  Yet, I'll still want to be left alone.
0 # Can't get small enough is signal that it's time to growpinkjoanna 2013-02-26 14:23
Dear PTC,

Sounds like your main defense is to shut down.  You shut down emotionally so you feel very little; physically, so you don't eat; spatially so you limit your environment to a small place.

Smallness and isolation is a comfort to you.  It's a comfort that isn't working for you.  It's a comfort that allows you to remain in a place where you do not develop or gain strength.  You maintain the status quo or get worse if you believe that more smallness and more isolation are your only ways of coping with life.

But, the problem, such a part of anorexia symptoms, is that you cannot get small enough or isolated enough to stop being a human being. Feelings will get through, and you believe you cannot cope with challenges life will present except through shutting down. This has got to lead you to anxiety.

I recommend any kind of regular practice that invites you to open. For example, you might explore open heart loving kindness meditations.

When you know shutting down doesn't work for you and when you know you can't get small enough to be safe, then you have to turn your ship and head out into a larger world. You move away from isolation toward relationships.  You pull out from smallness and allow yourself to grow into your true size.  You do this slowly and gently, but you do it daily, like it or not.

You can want something and learn that you can't have it.  You function anyway.  So when you want to be alone, that may well be your cue to open more and let yourself be more visible and present.  That's how you encourage your own development and healing.  Your therapist can help with this. Make sense to you?
0 # YesPTC 2013-02-28 05:44

Yes, that does make sense.  Thank you.  I would like to turn my ship (if I had one) to head towards a secluded tropical Island, or Bora Bora would also be nice. 

I definitely shut down and avoidance and denial are my two best things, along with being passive aggressive.  I'm really good at all of those things, unfortunately that's not such a positive thing, but it is what it is.

I guess I won't really know how I'll handle any of the thing that crosses my path in the future, I just have to hope I do it well.

0 # Giving myself what I truly need...Lise 2013-03-16 08:01
Sometimes I need to listen, acknowledge, and comfort myself before I can "hold" or create a safe haven that I can step into and allow myself the healing or transforming that I need. My ability to put my hands on the steering wheel and direct my emotional and physical health life to express joy and happiness has been a journey that I judge to be uneventful, mainly because I compare it to my expectations and what I percieve other's lives to be. I continue to hear the same message that I have heard since my early teens....manage the emotion, or "waves" as Joanna describes. When I did the EST training some 30 years ago, the message was, "Are you your word or what shows up"? (what shows up after you say or commit to " i don't feel like it, I am tired, etc.)

I know that this truth is worming its way into my awareness and my "habit" with food is the deepest external excess I have been reluctant to let go of. After 40, omg, years of bingeing, purging, starving, overeating, gaining/losing that extra 20 pounds, I am today, more aware of this "habit" that I can say no to, ride the wave, and be the sea. Like I said, my progress has been painfully slow and I wish it only lasted a few years like I hear alot of younger gals claim, but my ability to let go of this well developed habit has been slower than I would expect of myself...but that is just the judge trying to mess with me. Staying in today and watching the waves....thank you for that visual Joanna.
0 # What I truly need - Be the ocean, not the wavespinkjoanna 2013-03-16 09:41
Dear Lisa,

Thank you for sharing your journey. I know many people can relate to your challenges.
Progress can seem slow, but it's progress nonetheless.  Plus, you are not moving into the darkest places where some people go. This is a major win when we are looking at eating disorders.

I'm glad you appreciate the visual of watching the waves.  A more complete image is, "Be the ocean, not the waves."  

So you be the ocean and watch, feel, observe the waves.  You are the wholeness.   Waves occur in different sizes and duration depending short term stimulus.  You, the ocean, with all your deeps and currents, are the constant.
Casey Becker
0 # Holding as a therapistCasey Becker 2013-10-18 06:25
I love this article. I am an ED therapist and this is a subject that comes up a great deal. The way you distinguish between holding and comfort is spot on. Being able to "hold" emotions is a very real skill and is huge progress, even though sometimes it does not feel like it. It's hard, I think too, as a therapist to let a client hold her emotions when you want to make it better. Great post. Thanks!
0 # Welcome, Caseypinkjoanna 2013-10-18 11:51
Dear Casey,

Thank you for joining in with your perspective. I'm glad to know you appreciate what I wrote.  

The comments from the readers add so much depth to the material. Bringing their experiences and feelings to the conversation help all of us understand and value the human connection and healing effort required for healing disorder recovery.

I hope to find your voice here again on this and other articles.


best regards,


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