It is only natural for us humans to want to protect ourselves from harm (our survival instinct); as such, when you have had more than your fair share of tough times and pain and suffering, it is likely that your heart and mind tried to help you out by constructing fantastic doors and barriers to keep painful and negative events and/or emotions out. Great thing is, they have been pretty efficient, haven’t they? It might feel like somehow, the doors slam shut at just the right time to ward off pain and suffering. “What’s the catch?” I hear you saying. So glad you asked…
When individuals who have kept iron clad doors around their heart sealed shut for most of their lives begin to offer themselves love and self compassion, they often feel just the opposite; it might seem that all the negative feelings that have been kept away get activated all at once. This could very well turn such persons away from even considering this thing called “being self compassionate” again; perhaps feelings of discouragement or beliefs that they are “doing it all wrong” come up. And so the doors slam shut again. These uncomfortable feelings actually indicate the practice is being done correctly; that the doors are being opened.
If you are familiar with fire fighting, perhaps you are also familiar with the term “backdraft”: this refers to when firefighters touch a door to determine if it is hot before opening it. If the door is hot, that likely means the fire is right behind the door and opening it (introducing oxygen) could result in an explosion. When we offer ourselves self compassion, it’s like we’re opening the door to our hearts; when the heart is ablaze with the fires of hurt, anger, fear, etc., the result of opening the door probably will not be too pretty. What to do? Stay in contact with the backdraft.
When you are trying to give yourself some compassion and notice you are feeling or experiencing the exact opposite of warm and kind emotions, you can label it as backdraft: “Aha, here is backdraft. I am feeling really scared right now”. Believe it or not, this simple acknowledgment can help to calm the fires a bit! If this does not work for you, try locating where that intense feeling shows up most in your body and try to soothe yourself. Refocusing your attention is another option; this is NOT the same as distraction! You can’t heal what you can’t feel; if you are numbed out, it is not possible to really FEEL the pleasant sensations of compassion. . Using behavioural self compassion techniques is another option: asking yourself what you need or want right now and (barring dangerous pursuits) offering it to yourself: maybe a hug or a cup of tea or an intense hike. Only you know what you want.
Because it is SO important to be compassionate to yourself when you practice self compassion, sometimes the best thing for you to do is to go down the path of self compassion with a trained therapist. If you feel overwhelmed with negativity when you practice, be kind to yourself and seek out some assistance.
“We give ourselves compassion not to feel good (or chase negatives away), but because we feel bad” (Neff & Brown, 2016).