The 3 Essential Elements of Self-Compassionhand on heart

By April Hadley, LLMSW

“Sweetheart. You are struggling. Relax. Take a breath and then we will figure out what to do.”

I love these words from long-time meditation teacher, Sylvia Boorstein, for two reasons: 1) They challenge me; and 2) they contain the three essential elements of self-compassion.

Let’s start with the first reason. I am challenged to the core by the word sweetheart! Who in the world refers to themself as “sweetheart” when they are struggling? Not me! In fact, the thought of it makes me cringe and causes my chest to tighten up. It seems I share this response with many others.

A few years ago I started doing an informal poll of my students: “Please raise your hand if you call yourself ‘sweetheart’ in a moment of struggle.”

Not one single person has ever raised their hand.

Instead, the responses include eye rolling, smirks, laughter, and even disdain for the seemingly impractical nature of calling yourself sweetheart. Once the reactions settle down, I like to say the word again with all of the syrupy sweetness and tenderness I can muster:

“Sweeeeeeeeetheaaaaaart…”

Quite often the laughter turns to softness and sometimes even a tear or two. People begin to entertain the idea that showing themselves compassion in a moment of stress may be far more effective than crushing themselves under the heavy weight of self-criticism.

Even though it makes us uncomfortable, there is a part of us, deep down inside, that longs for tenderness in a moment of struggle. But tenderness can feel vulnerable, which may explain why so many of us cringe at the thought of it.

However, when we can take in the word “sweetheart” we discover the three key elements of self-compassion in the rest of Sylvia’s words.

“Sweetheart. You are struggling…”
The first essential element of self-compassion is to acknowledge when we are struggling. We cannot begin to experience comfort or healing if we are unable to acknowledge the ways we are hurting. However, most of us have been raised to believe we are only allowed to acknowledge our struggles when they are really big, such as an unexpected physical health crisis or a devastating piece of news. But it is really hard to acknowledge the big moments if we haven’t been practicing all along. When we practice acknowledging small moments of suffering, we are better prepared to acknowledge the big moments too.

“Sweetheart. You are struggling. Relax. Take a breath…”
The next essential element of self-compassion is to offer ourselves a tangible act of kindness. Research on self-compassion has shown that we can activate the care-giving response in the brain when we offer ourselves soothing touch as well as when we speak to ourselves using a soothing tone of voice. Give it a try right now!

Place your hand gently on your heart (soothing touch), take a deep breath (more soothing touch) and say Sylvia’s words to yourself with a gentle tone of voice: “Sweetheart. You are struggling. Relax. Take a breath…” You can also try these kinds words: “May I be kind to myself,” or “May I accept myself just as I am.” It is important to find the words that fit for you.

“Sweetheart. You are struggling. Relax. Take a breath and then we will figure out what to do.”
The final essential element of self-compassion is to acknowledge that we are not alone in our struggle. This part of the practice is often referred to as common humanity. It is hidden in Sylvia’s use of the word, “we.” We will figure out what to do. We are in this together. We all experience suffering and struggle in life. No one is immune. Common humanity invites us to lift our gaze and to look one another in the eyes and to acknowledge and ask without shame, “I am struggling. Are you?” And to be met with the compassionate answer, “Yes. Me too.”

If you like Sylvia’s words as much as I do, you can listen to her interview with Krista Tippett, which is where I first heard her say, “Sweetheart…”
Listen to the full interview here: What We Nurture