When You’re Hard on Yourself: Replace Guilt with Self-Compassion

Sitting in the sun

“Be gentle with yourself if you wish to be gentle with others.” ~Lama Yeshe

“Guilty,” admits an offender. “Guilty,” proclaims a jury. Things are pretty black and white in trial verdicts and courtroom pleas (although there are still plea bargains and hung juries, mitigating circumstances and appeals).

Life is rarely as cut-and-dried as the criminal justice system.

I’ve experienced guilt in different shades of grey—in rational and many irrational ways that bear no real relation to the “crime” at hand, or to any crime at all.

I’ve experienced guilt simply for how I think, how I feel, not for anything I’ve actually done or failed to do. Shame, really.

And I’ve suffered guilt like a chronic disease, believing that I could never be “good enough” unless I somehow felt guilty, because of course I could always do/be better. (You see the strange logic, don’t you?)

I’ve been far from gentle with myself.

Guilt is a signal that you are striving to be better, and unless you’re doing that, you’re not good enough, or at least not acknowledging all the ways you aren’t perfect. Apparently! There’s always room for improvement, and guilt is the electric prod to remind you, lest you ever get self-satisfied.

I’ve been unpacking, or should I say undressing, the anatomy of guilt lately. In true Irish Catholic tradition, I feel guilty for that!

This ingrained religious belief came down my family line, passed on subconsciously most of the time, at other times with sharp criticism.

I reckon the whole confession tradition encourages you to look for all the things you’ve done wrong rather than celebrate what you’ve done right. The doctrine reinforces all the ways you are fallible and unworthy rather than focusing on how you are simply human and born “good enough.”

I was good at school, but that, in itself, didn’t make me good (which is just fine). Sure, I was praised for my grades, but I had a sense that it was never enough, even though my parents didn’t pressure me to achieve and correctly taught me that grades aren’t everything.

Yet somehow there was almost too much pride in any kind of achievement, too much selfishness in any kind of ambition—guilt even made being good feel bad!

It wasn’t so much about being a do-gooder, as only being allowed a very small quota of acceptable selfishness before guilt kicked in. As it should (or so I thought)!

I heard the “love they neighbor” bit loudly, but forgot to listen to the “as you would love yourself”—the irony being that you can only love your neighbor based on how much you love yourself.

Guilt can be fuel to change, to make amends, and that’s fine. Sometimes we need a guilty conscience to remind us that our thoughtless actions can have negative impacts, even if unintended. Remorse must surely come after criminal acts, or there is no room for rehabilitation.

But when I find myself feeling guilty for feeling (not acting) selfish, I’m stuck in that shame spin cycle, going round and round.

This was how I felt during our long struggle for children—infertile, guilty as charged. How irrational is that?

I realize that I suffered a guilt complex along with the depression that descended in the mire of many cycles of IVF.

Now as a parent of two beautiful adopted children, I’m trying not to pass on the guilt gene.

And I have some tips on reframing guilt in your life.

1. Only allow guilt as insight.

This is the only positive version of remorse. If you’ve genuinely done something wrong, focus on the lesson and the alternative ways you’d act in the future as your “contrition” and motivator to change.

2. Apologize, and then let it go.

If you’ve done something that has hurt someone, apologize if you can and then let it go. Accept the gift of forgiveness graciously rather than beating yourself up. And if someone won’t forgive you, accept that your genuine expression of sorrow and regret is enough.

3. Apply the logic test.

Most guilt is illogical but it still feels the same way as “useful” guilt. Guilt does not equate to wrongdoing any more than joy equates to a new possession. If it doesn’t make sense (apply the objective test of a judge), then the verdict is “not guilty.”

4. See guilt as a symptom of fear, more than a sign of caring.

Often feeling guilty is a symptom of our fear of change—especially when we put off doing something for ourselves.

You can make excuses that you’d feel bad (guilty) taking time out from looking after others to pursue a passion, when in fact you’re simply scared of chasing your dream. Of course, it’s good to care for others; just don’t use guilt as an excuse to care for yourself.

5. Be compassionate.

Start with being gentle with yourself and you’ll learn to be gentle to others. Be gentle with others and you’ll learn to be gentle to yourself.

Being compassionate means you are “being good,” which should leave you with few (logical) reasons to feel guilty. Being self-compassionate means you’ll find fewer (logical) reasons to hold onto any remaining guilt.

Guilt isn’t real; it’s only an emotional response, and often an irrational one.

Compassion, on the other hand, is tangible and felt by others, played out in thoughtful actions, spoken in kind words, expressed in good deeds and in forgiveness.

Guilt can’t exist where there is compassion, because compassion is understanding and non-judgemental.

Guilt may have its place in courtrooms, but my verdict is the real answer lies in compassion and gentleness—starting with yourself.

Photo by Lel4nd

About Kathy Kruger

Kathy Kruger is an adoptive mother of two beautiful kids from China. She blogs about going with the flow, finding yin yang balance, embracing change, and being grateful at A former journalist, Kathy shares insights from her long journey to motherhood.

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  • This is great. thanks for sharing 🙂

  • Debbie Bills

    Hi Kathy,

    Yes, guilty can mess you up pretty good if you let it. Many times on of my adult kids will want me to do something for them and i can’t do it at that time. Then i sit and feel guilty. I have learned to let go of this and help when I can. Thank you for sharing and teaching us how to love ourselves and stop feeling guilty when there is no need too.

  • Talya Price

    Thank you for sharing this. It took me a long time to let go of the guilt for not being present when my mother died. I was in another country, and my family made it their mission to make me fell guilty for not being there. It wasn’t until one of my mother’s best friends told me this: ” Your mother is gone and your were not supposed to be here when she passed on. If you were, then you would have been here. You can’t change the past.” Those words really stuck to me and even to this day I know that I was not supposed to be there when she died.

  • Nick Teddy

    Thank you for sharing this. A very well written and insightful piece. I share your Irish Catholic roots and face similar struggles. Many thanks. Namaste

  • growthguided

    I think compassion like many other things can be viewed very easily. Are you holding care and love for yourself? No? Chances are you aren’t putting much care forth towards the people around you either.

    Thank you for the post

  • Thank you for this Kathy. Your heartfelt sharing of guilt’s role in your experiences is inspiring and you offer beautiful ways to move closer to ourselves and make use of our experiences in a thoughtful way. Blessings.

  • lv2terp

    Wonderful list, and perspective about guilt! Thank you for sharing your experience and lessons learned! 🙂

  • Sharon Jeanette

    Thank you for posting. I’ve also dealt with guilt as a disease, constantly blaming myself for things that are out of my control, and definitely using guilt as an excuse not to care for myself. I know I need to work on it, but some part of me is scared of what I will find in place of the guilt I’ve known for so long. Thank you for sharing your experience.

  • Kathy

    Sharon – I get what you are saying – guilt can become a crutch. There is some comfort in solidarity, but also in realising that we can move beyond guilt.

  • Kathy

    Thank you – it is an ongoing lesson and I think the guilt is lessening over time.

  • Kathy

    Thank you Tracy – I wish I wasn’t an ‘expert’ on guilt, but the things we find the hardest to deal with are the best teachers.

  • Kathy

    That is a very good point – flipping the idea of self-care from being selfish to be a prerequisite for being selfless.

  • Kathy

    Thanks Nick – it is a amazing how strong our social conditioning can be – I guess we just have to keep trying to take the best of what we have learned from our childhoods and traditions and let go of what doesn’t serve us

  • Kathy

    Tayla – I’m sorry to hear of the guilt you suffered alongside the grief at your mother’s death. Glad that your mother’s friends wise words have given you realease from the guilt.

  • Kathy

    You are welcome Debbie – I really do believe that most of the time there is no need or purpose in guilt.

  • Kathy

    You are welcome Liv

  • Nik Jones

    This post is exactly what I needed today! I have been feeling guilty due to a recent relationship break up, blaming myself, giving myself a hard time – then yesterday, someone reminded me that it wasn’t just me in the relationship and it got me thinking, then today, this post popped up and it reiterated all the things I needed to being doing and it’s helped calm my anxieties down tenfold. Thank you so much Kathy!

  • Kathy

    So glad it helped Nik and you are getting some new perspectives on your situation. All the best.

  • Nand

    Hi! is this post still responsive, as I’ve a query to ask. Thanks

  • Great read. Thank you!
    I love how you broke this down from a Catholic & Religious standpoint which rules and effects most thought patterns of those in the Western world. It makes so much more sense that way.

  • Thank you Maria

  • Thank you – I do think the religious doctrines impact lots of us.

  • shilpan dutta

    Thank you for sharing!! I relate to it! 🙂

  • tezu

    I left a job which was really awesome…I had my own comfort zone ..wld have lived happy go lucky life …bt like a fool I left it to get into some other field…I m feeling bad frm past 2 months.self guiltness is overpowering my true emotions..just hop I com out of it..thannx for the post

  • g. honeyfoot

    I fell in love with an awesome brand of shoes that took away my heel pain and bought 3 pairs (all pre-worn). Yet, I found myself burdened with so much guilt. The voice in my head kept telling me I was spending money I could have saved, and just pummeled me out of emotional shape. And you’re right! When I hold it up to the light of reasoning, it is totally irrational. These shoes are helping me alleviate my pain, so they are not a frivolous buy. I have to take many deep breaths to say to myself in a loving, gentle, compassionate way (like you suggested) that it’s alright. This form of self-care is alright. There is nothing to apologize or feel bad about. Instead, it’s great that I’m listening to what I need and trying to meet those needs. Also, love that you went so far back to look at your Catholic upbringing. I am a recovery Catholic, and I was a very good soldier for a very long time, so I really could relate and appreciate your perspective. Much thanks!