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Turning inside for comfort

by Bill Rutherford
| November 10, 2010 8:00 PM

On this cool November day I work in my yard with a feeling of melancholy. The satisfaction of completing fall tasks by turning off the in-ground sprinkler, stowing deck furniture, raking leaves and buttoning up the garden is dampened by the grayness of an autumn sky, dead flowers, leafless trees and short days. I find comfort in my yard and garden during summer months but now my comfort is gone; taken away by blustery autumn winds and soaking cold rain.

When outside work ends for the season, I turn inside for comfort. My kitchen replaces the garden and new work begins. After finishing my yard work for the year, I turn to the kitchen and grind the cayenne, jalapeno and habanero peppers drying in my bay window this past month, make fresh yogurt, wash the first crop of Fuji apples harvested from my little garden tree and clean my refrigerator in preparation for the season.

Working on my stove in November feels as comfortable as the work done in my garden on early, sun-filled August mornings. The situation has changed but not the emotion. I still strive to feel grounded, stress-free, purposeful and comforted - like I did in the summer working in my garden. Autumn offers this to me in my kitchen.

What is psychological comfort and why is it important? Comfort is like a warm blanket on a cold December night. Comfort is a hug by someone who cares about you exactly when you need it. Comfort is sitting in your favorite chair, watching your favorite television show and not thinking about anything except your favorite television show. Comfort is macaroni and cheese.

Psychological comfort is a feeling deep inside one's belly that tells one life is good. Comfort might be watching a child giggle for the first time, an intrinsic feeling that one is a good person and that their life is purposeful or listening to a song on the radio and becoming emotional because the song "just makes sense."

Last week I promised an answer to a few questions. How can a person become emotionally involved with an onion and why drug addicts "flashback?" I will also offer an experiment for you to do at home to change your approach to food.

First, let's explore how a person can become emotionally involved with an onion. Remember, last week's column discussed how we pair positive experiences with a neutral stimulus. While walking in Seattle's Pike Street Market one smells a bakery and daydreams about being in grandmother's kitchen eating buttered, homemade bread as a child.

Well, here's an example of the same search for comfort. Imagine I am 18 years old and have a girlfriend. Now imagine that I HATE onions. I invite my new friend to a restaurant where they serve her favorite dish, an onion burger. She orders my nemesis, the onion burger and enjoys every bite. I work up the courage for a kiss while dropping her off at home and give only a peck due to my repulsion of her stinky breath. She looks at me surprised, expecting more than a quick kiss but her breath pushes me away.

Flash forward two months. After many onion dinners and reluctant kisses, I learn the beautiful 18-year-old is more than her breath and begin to kiss her passionately ignoring the allium on her breath. I begin to order onions in restaurants and actually learn to like them. I learn the girl I find attractive is paired with the smell of onion that I find repulsive. I have two unconscious decisions. I can learn to like onions or learn to hate my new girlfriend. I unconsciously learn to like my new friend. Now, I am an onion lover and love my friend who I pair with the onion flavor. Our relationship lasts two years and we part ways.

Flash forward 20 years. I'm walking in the supermarket, sniff the almighty onion and become emotionally aroused once more. I look at a 50-something woman across the isle, pair her with the odiferous aroma of the onion recently whiffed, look deeply into her in the eyes and become instantly attracted.

I still remember the emotion learned as an 18-year-old. My memory floods with my 18-year-old girlfriend and the positive emotional behaviors, feelings and memories of our two years together. If this memory is not rewarded, it will extinguish. If this memory is rewarded, it will be reinforced. The woman looks at me quickly, turns then walks away extinguishing the behavior. I again hate onions.

Drug abusers suffer the same affect. When a recovering drug abuser re-enters an atmosphere or situation he or she used drugs in, she or he will rethink and relive the situation in which they initially used the drug. This is a flashback. During treatment, we suggest a recovering addict not be around the same friends, houses, restaurants or situations they were around when they were using.

As the onion breath lover rediscovers his love for onions when smelling allium in a grocery store 20 years after his emotional attachment with the 18-year-old, the drug user rediscovers their addiction when they smell or relive a situation in recovery. This rediscovery causes a drive that is strong and demands attention. The addict often reacts to the drive and becomes addicted again. This search for comfort creates a false sense of attachment that makes the addict use again in search for comfort. Being comfortable is a strong drive.

Lastly, I offer an experiment to change your life. Can you be comfortable? Can you change the way you think about something you dislike? The experiment - pair positive memories with negative feelings. Gather the following items:

1. Your favorite music - at least three hours or your favorite stuff.

2. Your favorite foods - cook or have someone cook your favorite food and food you find extravagant and delicious.

3. Your favorite people - invite your favorite people to a dinner party. Not the people you usually will invite to dinner but your favorite people - people you respect, find intriguing, are exciting and stimulating.

4. Set a beautiful table - read magazines and emulate what the magazine does to make a dining table beautiful.

5. Hold your special night in a special place - if your home is not a "special place," hire a restaurant or ask a friend to hold your life changing party at their house.

Prior to the party, write down things in your life that are not working, things that are not allowing you to be comfortable. At your party, place 3-by-5 cards at your guest's place settings that state the things in your life that are not working, i.e., "I struggle talking with people I don't know, people do not find me attractive, my kid's do not respect me."

Have each guest read their card, then discuss as a group options for personal growth. If the food, music, friends and table are beautiful, your memory and motivation for change will be great. You will pair these people, the food, the music and the place with the positive memories of the night which increase your comfort every time your hear, eat, see or smell stimulus from that wonderful night, strengthening the positive experiences and creating comfort in your life.

Remember, to feel comfort in life one must be comfortable. If we pair positive memories, feelings, emotions and beliefs with the life we wish to have, our life will improve and feel rewarding. If we remain in a life where our memories are stagnate, self-serving, negative and sad, we will not feel comfortable.

Next week I will conclude this subject, focusing on comfort food and what makes the food comfortable. I will offer many recipes that make me comfortable. Meanwhile, create positive memories and become comfortable.

Bill Rutherford is a psychotherapist, public speaker, elementary school counselor, adjunct college psychology instructor and executive chef, and owner of Rutherford Education Group. Please e-mail him at bprutherford@hotmail.com and check out www.foodforthoughtcda.com.

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