This article is updated from the original posted June 25, 2015.
I worked at the Barre Center for Buddhist Studies for five years. Each year that I was there, a fellow called Chris Germer came and taught a program called Mindful Self-Compassion in our Dharma Hall. Every year I saw this program coming up on our schedule, and thought, hmmmm, sounds interesting. It would have taken me 20 seconds to walk from my office to the Dharma Hall to attend this course, and I could have attended it on work time, but for four years, I managed to prioritize the endless task of taking care of emails rather than attending Chris’s Mindful Self-Compassion course.
A combination of my A-type personality, obsessiveness and perfectionism, and an increasing number of changes at the study center, left me, by the fifth year, a bit of a mess. I was finally desperate enough to go to Chris’s course.
So, as a manager at the center, I sat at the back of the Dharma Hall where escape would be easy and I could safely return to the comfort and familiarity of my emails. I was aware of my status as a representative of the study center and I wanted to keep things professional. As the weekend progressed and Chris dived further into the topic of self-compassion, challenging me to think differently toward myself, things started to get uncomfortable and I all but forgot what it meant to maintain a professional demeanor.
First, I got angry. Angry at Chris. He was talking about bringing kindness to our experience, warming up our conversation with ourselves, dropping the struggle. All I heard was a teacher setting me up to fail. I couldn’t do these things. Who was he to expect me to drop my defenses and start treating myself differently? I wouldn’t be able to do it, and I was angry about the contrast between what he was asking us to do and my abilities. I hate to fail.
I was also confused. Why was I having this strong emotion? I knew Chris and I liked him, and I understood him to be a gentle soul. Why was I getting so angry at this person? And why couldn’t I drop the fight, just do what he asked? What on earth was going on in my experience?
And then, after some time struggling with confusion and anger, a dam in my heart bust open and I began to cry.
And then, after some time struggling with confusion and anger, a dam in my heart bust open and I began to cry. Still confused, trying to not be too obvious about my unprofessional tears in the back of the Dharma Hall, I sat and sobbed silently … for the whole weekend.
I sobbed as I realized how unkind people had been to me and how unkind I had been to myself. I sobbed because it felt so tender to open up to the experience of kindness. I sobbed in grief over a lifetime of believing that my needs were not important, that my emotions were not valid, that I was not tough enough, that I was somehow defective. I sobbed because I knew in my heart that I was discovering a missing piece in my life – self-compassion.
I was experiencing backdraft – a term we talk about in Mindful Self-Compassion that can be a surprising and powerful response to experiencing compassion in a real, embodied way, maybe for the first time.
Backdraft is the visceral somatic awareness of the contrast between how we have been treated – by ourselves and others – and how we need to be treated to thrive and flourish. Backdraft is grief and anger over a personal story of consistently unmet needs, all the while having some sense that we deserved something better, and finally, suddenly discovering experientially that we were right all along. We were worthy all along; we just had no-one there to make the transaction for our inalienable right to belong.
Chris describes backdraft as the heart suddenly opening to the love it has needed for many years and allowing difficult emotions out in exchange, similar to the firefighting term that describes a contained fire that explodes out through a doorway when it suddenly gets more oxygen. He also describes it as being like our hands thawing when we come in from the cold – painful in the short term, but necessary for our health and comfort in the long term. Backdraft is part of the healing process.
Kristin Neff suggests that backdraft might occur because a person’s sense of self has been so invested in feeling inadequate this ‘worthless self’ fights for survival when it’s threatened. This notion fits in well with Internal Family Systems theory, where our internal psychological system is viewed as a group of parts, like a family. When one member of the family starts to do something different, it can cause a backlash from another part who was relying on maintaining the status quo for its existence, however maladaptive and clumsy that part might be. Our human systems are designed to survive, not be happy.
Paul Gilbert says that the attachment system (the development of our ability to bond with our caregivers) can act like a book, closing down at a particular time in a person’s life due to abuse or neglect. Experiencing compassion can open the book at the same place, causing someone to re-experience emotional distress from childhood.
Polyvagal theory suggests that when we finally come out of a shut-down/freeze response, maybe after a lifetime of being shut down, we move back through mobilization threat responses (fight and flight), feeling the anger and sadness we were unable to safely express in response to stress and trauma at the time it took place.
“Love reveals anything unlike itself.” Anon.
Love reveals anything unlike itself.
Backdraft, for many people, is a necessary part of the healing process. Only after we can let our bodies and minds have their experiences in response to our hurts, in whatever form that takes, can we then move on to the work of tending to our unmet needs. Holding backdraft is a compassion practice.
As for me, my experience of backdraft led me to a multitude of life changes, all in the service of giving myself what I need to thrive and flourish. Backdraft was the start of a new chapter.