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Self-Compassion vs. Guilt – Which Wins?

Jonathan Riley

“Guilt can’t exist where there is compassion, because compassion is understanding and non-judgmental.” – Kristen Neff

Many people experience a lot of resistance to the idea of self-compassion. Many people think of self-compassion as letting themselves off the hook, as if self-judgment is the only way to get better. But negative self-judgment and self-blaming can actually act as an obstacle to self-improvement. The more shame and guilt you feel about your past actions and behaviors, the more your self-esteem is lowered and the less likely it is you will feel motivated to change. And without self-compassion, your level of shame will cause you to defend yourself from taking on more shame by refusing to see your faults and not being open to criticism or correction.

It is natural and healthy to feel bad about hurting someone, to express regret, and to wish we could take it back or do something to make the person feel better. What is not healthy is constantly berating ourselves for our wrongdoing and deciding that we are a bad person as a result. The first experience is generally thought of as guilt while the second is considered to be shame.

Engel (2017) explains the difference between shame and guilt as follows: When we feel guilt, we feel bad about something we did or neglected to do. When we feel shame, we feel bad about who we are. When the focus is on what we are doing wrong, it is difficult to make good decisions. Feeling constantly guilty increases our desire for the things that prevent us from experiencing true happiness.

A lack of self-compassion can also bring about strong feelings of shame and guilt, which can make emotions even more difficult to manage. Self-destructive behaviours can result from a lack of self-compassion. For example, you might begin to engage in deliberate self-harm as a form of self-punishment. For many people guilt is like a chronic disease, believing that they will never be “good enough” unless they feel guilty, and that they must always do or be better. The symptoms of toxic guilt can be very intense and can disrupt many areas of a person’s life. As a result, they may experience feelings of guilt or shame, negative thoughts about themselves or feelings that they are worthless or a bad person.

If you find yourself resisting self-compassion, you may have a powerful need to “be good” and to be seen as “all good” in the eyes of others, as well as yourself. This need to be “all good” may have developed as a result of your parents’ or other caregivers’ unrealistic expectations of you, and as a result of them severely punishing or abandoning you when you made a mistake. Now you may find that you are equally critical of yourself and equally unforgiving.

Without self-compassion, guilt can easily turn into shame. According to Neff, self-compassion entails more than just forgiving yourself when you’ve made a mistake. She claims that self-compassion can be used in any situation involving emotional distress. It is important to recognise that being hard on yourself will not make you a better person; it’s going to make you feel worse about yourself. However, self-compassion can reduce negative and self-defeating thoughts and to believe that no one is perfect, and that everyone makes mistakes. Self-compassion is a strategy for resolving guilt, shame, disappointment, and other emotions that arise when you see a discrepancy between what you believe in and something you have done by repairing damage to your idea of yourself.

Finally, cultivating self-compassion takes time – possibly years – but once you start changing your relationship with yourself, you will discover a new way of being in the world. Instead of constantly feeling guilty and wrong, you will be able to make choices based on valuing your wellbeing, rather than feeling that you need to deprive yourself in any way. In order to recover from toxic guilt and shame, self-compassion is crucial. Your progress may be slow, but even a small amount of self-compassion can have a significant impact on your mental and emotional well-being.


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Engel, B. (2017, June 01). Healing your shame and guilt through self-forgiveness. Retrieved from

Kruger, K. (2020, June 28). When you’re hard on yourself: Replace guilt with self-compassion. Retrieved from

Tull, M. (2019, June 24). Living with ptsd? Be nicer to yourself. Retrieved from