Backdraft and Other Discoveries Along the Path - by Ellie Hyatt

When I began this recovery journey the list of things I knew was much shorter than the list of things I did not know. Honestly, maybe I wouldn’t have started if I had known what was involved. On the other hand, desperation is a pretty strong motivator and I also knew how I was living wasn’t working.

It became clear very early in my recovery journey my relationship with myself was broken. It was suggested I begin practicing acceptance and what I needed to accept first was my human condition. Years later when studying self-compassion, I was introduced to the idea of “Common Humanity” as defined by Kristin Neff.  It gave me information that helped me understand and accept my inner critical voice. 

In an earlier blog I talked about the negativity bias of the brain, the idea that we are hardwired for survival, not happiness. When I began to practice self-compassion as a response to this inner critic I was surprised by what happened. When I treat myself with care, my heart cracks open and the heat of the negativity that I have locked away explodes. Christopher Germer borrowed the term "backdraft" to explain this. "Backdraft" is a term used by firefighters and it describes what happens if oxygen is introduced to a fire. The fire explodes and grows in intensity.  Perhaps I didn’t recognize this rush of negative thoughts, upon opening my heart, was an indication for more healing and self-kindness.

Those negative feelings are not created by our kindness, rather we are simply re-experiencing them. When we give ourselves care, we often remember old messages, such as “I don’t deserve care.” 

Another way to understand this is explained by the following concept from A Course in Miracles -Love brings up to our awareness everything unlike itself.

What can we do when backdraft occurs? Once we recognize backdraft, the first step is to name it. Then see if you can name the emotion you are experiencing and validate it with a kind voice, for example- “oh, that’s grief.” It is helpful to explore where this emotion resides in your body. The idea is to stay with the discomfort and treat yourself with kindness. If nothing seems to be helping and the emotion feels overwhelming, the kindest response is to offer yourself care - behaviorally, ask yourself what do I need. 

When I am feeling emotionally overwhelmed my most common response is to pray for help or pick up the phone and call a trusted friend. I can allow the discomfort and give up my resistance to old memories and emotions. I can tell myself the truth, this is necessary for healing.