Why Does Self-Compassion Feel Uncomfortable At First?

Have you noticed that self-compassion can be...uncomfortable?

Self-compassion is often a radically different way of relating to ourselves. Often, harshness and self-criticism comes easier to us, simply as a function of being a default response for so long.

When we turn to ourselves with self-compassion, it can be uncomfortable for a variety of reasons.

This post is dedicated to explaining this interesting phenomenon that so many of us experience- and now we have word to describe it: self-compassion backdraft.

In this post we will cover:

What is self-compassion backdraft?

How do we recognize a backdraft when we practice self-compassion?

What can we do to manage the backdraft?

Let's get into it.

What Is Self-Compassion Backdraft?

In simple terms, self-compassion backdraft is the discomfort that can arise when we practice compassion with ourselves. We can break this down further though, so let's explore :)

What is a 'Backdraft'?

The term backdraft originates from an entirely unrelated field: firefighting.

A backdraft occurs when fires actually gain intensity at the moment fresh air is introduced through an open window or door.

Fires that have been deprived of oxygen can become re-ignited quickly and fiercely in these conditions. Christopher Germer and Kristin Neff used this phenomenon to describe a similar effect that can sometimes occur when we open ourselves to self-compassion!

Many of us are deprived of self-compassion. We keep the doors closed tightly, locking in harsh self-criticism and locking out compassion.

When we try and open the doors (or windows) to kind self-talk, self-love, and self-compassion, it can 'fan the flames', making us feel initially worse and igniting feelings of :

  • Shame
  • Anxiety
  • Regret
  • Deep sadness

It's important to recognize self-compassion itself is not making us feel this pain. Instead, the process of self-compassion opens up old wounds, not the least of which is making peace with the harm that self-criticism has caused us

How To Recognize Self-Compassion Backdraft

Backdraft can show up as any form of uneasiness. This includes feeling shame, grief, sadness, and even bodily sensations such as aches, pains, nervous system activation, and body memories. We may feel discomfort as our physical and emotional bodies recall times when we didn't receive compassion when we needed it most, or and bring up difficult emotions and body memories of times when compassion was missing.

Notice how you react when someone (i.e. a loved one or even a therapist) encourages you to practice self-compassion

For many of us, the instinct is to recoil.

A common experience is  feelings of unworthy of self-compassion. Many clients express the sentiment that "I feel like I'm letting myself get off easy" or "I'm making excuses for myself".

The truth is that you deserve self-compassion- we all do.

Self-compassion is NOT pity-party. In fact self-compassion makes sense: here is why

A Case For Self-Compassion Why It Makes Sense

Have you ever wondered why self-compassion is important to begin with? It is not self-indulgent behaviour, in fact self-compassion is hard work with a beautiful pay-off.

Here is why practicing self-compassion makes sense.

Increased Resilience

Individuals who practice self-compassion are more likely to bounce back from setbacks and learn (+ grow) from their mistakes. Facing mistakes with self-compassion improves the likelihood that we can forgive ourselves and learn from those mistakes rather than trap ourselves in harsh feelings that ultimately impede our growth.

We will always learn more from mistakes than successes- and self-compassion increases the chances of our resilience and growth in the face of adversity.

Reduced Stress

Self-compassion allows us to challenge self-criticism, perfectionist tendencies, and and unhealthy comparisons. These factors often fuel stress and anxiety!

Self-compassion improves our ability to navigate stressful times through increasing distress tolerance. If we can be more compassionate in the face of distress, we feel less stressed and more capable of managing our challenges.

Increased Satisfaction And Quality Of Life

Self-compassion interrupts our tendency to be unnecessarily hard on ourselves, making more room for happiness, gratitude, and personal fulfillment.

How To Manage Self-Compassion Backdraft

Let's talk about how to navigate self-compassion backdraft. It's important to understand and manage it, so it doesn’t deter us from the healing experiences that self compassion can introduce into our lives!

Label It For What It Is

Consider 'taming' the experience by naming it.

You can say to yourself "okay, this is backdraft" or "I know what this is, it's backdraft".

Validate The Emotion

You can even label the strongest emotion that emerges. For example "this is guilt", or "this is grief". It even helps to recognize the emotion out loud, in a gentle voice, or write it down.

Where Does It Show Up In The Body?

Be curious about where in your body the difficult emotions from the backdraft are residing. Some may experience a tightness in their chest, or a constriction in the throat.

Once you understand here it resides, try offering soothing touch.  Place your hand over the area and hold it gently. You can also try rubbing your hand over the area or applying soothing pressure.

However you choose to do this, the point it to hold compassionate space for the emotion arising from the backdraft.

Re-direct Your Attention

Sometimes it helps to direct our attention to something soothing or neutral.  This can be a pleasing object, a particular sound, or even running your hands over something textured and tactile.

Soothe yourself and anchor your awareness in everyday tasks, such as going on walks, doing laundry, cooking, cycling etc.

Try introducing activities that you find pleasant and rewarding to your senses, and then savour that comfort.

Here is a little summary of this post:

Before You Go...

Self-compassion backdraft may be a newer term, however the experience is a familiar one to many of us. Working through the backdraft does not have to be a lonely process- seek professional help and lean on supportive family and friends.

How do you feel when your experiences are captured by a concept like self-compassion backdraft? Is it validating? Confusing? We would love to know!

Until next time!

Zainib Abdullah

WellNest Psychotherapy Services