So once again I’m listening to a Ruth Buczynski seminar about shame featuring Peter Levine, Ron Siegel, Kelly McGonigal and Bill O’Hanlon where I learn something new that feels very familiar. It’s called ‘backdraft’ and is about the backlash that can happen when someone is feeling ashamed and is met by compassion. It reminds me of that moment when I am close to tears and someone moves into hug me to which I respond “please don’t”. It is almost a warning that you are in danger of killing me with kindness. Sound familiar?
Over to the experts:
Most clinicians have witnessed how difficult memories resurface when a client feels truly seen, heard, and loved in therapy. A metaphor for this process is “backdraft.” Backdraft occurs when a firefighter opens a door with a hot fire behind it. Oxygen rushes in, causing a burst of flame. Similarly, when the door of the heart is opened with compassion, intense pain can sometimes be released. Unconditional love reveals the conditions under which we were unloved in the past. Therefore, some clients, especially those with a history of childhood abuse or neglect, are fearful of compassion (Gilbert et al., 2011).
It is related to trauma and the belief held by the person that they are undeserving of kindness but in fact it is more than that. They are perhaps so unused to compassion that they find the experience unsafe, threatening and dangerous.
Childhood trauma survivors may also equate self-compassion with self-pity or self-centeredness. They may have been told as children to “get over yourself” when they suffered and complained. It is important to understand that by entering into our emotional pain with kindness, we are less likely to wallow in self-pity. The reason is that self-compassion recognizes the shared nature of human suffering and avoids egocentrism. Sometimes only a few minutes is all that is needed to validate our pain and disentangle ourselves from it.
Self-compassion is often confused with narcissistic self-love, although research indicates that there is no link between narcissism and self-compassion (Neff, 2003; Neff & Vonk, 2009). Victims of childhood trauma often do not have enough narcissism, feeling that meeting their own basic survival needs is a forbidden indulgence. Anxiety may arise from the looming possibility of breaking an invisible bond with a primary caregiver who thought the child should suffer for his or her misdeeds or bad nature. Self-deprivation becomes “safety behaviour” (Gilbert & Proctor, 2006). It is a necessary compromise made by an abused child in order to survive, so the client becomes frightened, viscerally and unconsciously, when he or she breaks the contract. For this reason, sincere efforts by therapists to help abused or neglected clients may be met with resistance. These clients first need to contact their emotional pain, see how it originated through no fault of their own (“you’re not to blame!”), and then gradually bring the same tenderness to themselves that they are likely to give to other, vulnerable beings.
Three symptom clusters commonly found in post traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) are (1) arousal, (2) avoidance, and (3) intrusions. Interestingly, these three categories closely correspond to the stress response (fight–flight–freeze) and to our reactions to internal stress (self-criticism, self-isolation, and self-absorption) mentioned earlier (see below).
||Reactions to internal stress
Together they point toward self-compassion as a healthy, alternative response to trauma. Self kindness can have a calming effect on autonomic hyperarousal, common humanity is an antidote to hiding in shame, and balanced, mindful awareness allows us to disentangle ourselves from intrusive memories and feelings. Research shows that people who lack self-compassion are likely to have critical mothers, to come from dysfunctional families, and to display insecure attachment patterns (Neff & McGeehee, 2010; Wei, Liao, Ku, & Shaffer, 2011). Childhood emotional abuse is associated with lower self compassion, and individuals with low self-compassion experience more emotional distress and are more likely to abuse alcohol or make a serious suicide attempt (Tanaka, Wekerle, Schmuck, Paglia-Boak, & the MAP Research Team, 2011; Vettese, Dyer, Li, & Wekerle, 2011).
These quotes are taken from a chapter of a book by Christopher Germer & Kristen Neff that you can read here:
I found an excellent blog post about it here:
So there you have the connection between shame and booze once again. Low self compassion, higher emotional distress and greater levels of self-medication with alcohol.
If you are unsure of how self-compassionate you are you can score yourself here:
Unsurprisingly my score was low to middling but not as low as it used to be when I was drinking! So how do we work on improving our low self-compassion?
The response is to teach ourselves how to take a self-compassion break
If you start to do this even if you are still drinking, the shift in self-perception may be enough to get you started on thinking about cutting down or stopping. Give it a try – what have you got to lose? 🙂