Navigate the Backdraft of Self-Compassion

Navigate the Backdraft of Self-Compassion


How do we shift that critical voice in a way that supports us rather than knocking us down?

“What if you turn up the volume on that voice in your head, as it were a radio station that’s been playing in the background, that you can’t quite hear the words to the song?” I ask clients the first time we meet. I remember being asked that question myself, and being startled by what I found.

We are typically, excessively critical of ourselves. What I’ve found, both with myself and with my clients, is that when we “turn up the volume” on that self talk, we hear what we are saying to ourselves is quite hurtful; things we would never say to someone we love. So if awareness is the first step, how do we shift that voice in a way that supports us rather than knocking us down?

Kristin Neff and Christopher Germer, both with PhDs in psychology, developed a practice called Mindful Self-Compassion. With Neff leading the way in research, and Germer bringing mindfulness and self-compassion into his private practice for many years, the two founded the Center for Mindful Self-Compassion( to bring the practice to a broader audience. In their new book The Mindful Self-Compassion Workbook they bring their 8-week course into an interactive format, with space to write and reflect as you work through the lessons.

A cornerstone practice they describe is called “Affectionate Breathing.” Start by getting into a comfortable position, eyes closed, and hand placed on your heart or another comfortable place, “as a reminder that we’re bringing not only awareness, but affectionate awareness to our breathing and to ourselves.” Notice your breath, feeling the in breath and the outbreath, and how your body responds to each differently. Neff and Germer suggest “see if you can just let your body breathe you. There is nothing you need to do.” Then, notice the rhythm of your breath, how your body subtly moves with it, and perhaps “allow your body to be gently rocked and caressed-internally caressed- by your breathing.” The attention is meant to be fully with the sensation of the breath. Then, slowly let go of that attention and notice what you are feeling for a few moments before you bring your awareness back to your surroundings.

Neff and Germer assert “self-compassion is a practice of goodwill, not good feelings.” They emphasize that it’s about holding yourself in kindness rather than criticism and that practitioners may feel pain when they first begin the practice because they simply are not used to holding themselves in such a tender way. Because of this shift, they suggest starting slowly with the practice, and giving yourself as much time as you need.

They describe this rising of old wounds as a “backdraft”, based on the firefighter term for a fire being exposed to fresh oxygen once it has used up its supply. They write, “it’s important to realize that the discomfort of backdraft is not created by self-compassion practice. We aren’t doing anything wrong when we experience backdraft. In fact, it’s a sign that we’re doing it right, we’re starting to open the door of our hearts.” This process can be recognized by a sense of unease, emotional, physical, or mental, showing up as physical aches, fear, grief, or sadness, or thoughts of failure or being alone.

When you recognize this happening, Neff and Germer suggest asking yourself, “what do I need to feel safe right now?”

  • Label the backdraft in a tone you would use with a dear friend.
  • Name the emotion you are feeling
  • Notice where in your body the emotion is, and the sensation associated with it, and just be present with that sensation for a few moments.
  • Bring your attention to something neutral, your breath, or a sound in your environment.
  • Feel the soles of your feet. Finally, and especially if the emotion has felt overwhelming, ground yourself by bringing your attention to the soles of your feet. Start by standing and noticing the sensations in your feet, shifting your weight forward and back and side to side. Begin to walk, and immerse yourself in how the soles of your feet feel when walking.

Ultimately, this practice is meant to be a lifeline for us in troubled times. “Together, mindfulness and self-compassion form a state of warmhearted, connected presence during difficult moments in our lives.” We will all go through challenging times, when we can meet ourselves with awareness, and be present, compassionate, and connected to our own vulnerability, we are able to meet those experiences, and the people in our lives more fully, honestly, and openly.

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