Self-compassion: sorting guilt and shame

“Self-compassion is an extension of Jesus’ compassion…”

In my life and work, one of the most helpful pieces of Brene Brown’s work is the way she distinguished guilt and shame.

Guilt says: I’ve done a bad thing. It is behavior focused.  It is positively correlated with healthy change. Self is not threatened so it does not need to be defensive.

Shame says: I am bad. It is personhood focused.  It is positively correlated with self-destructive behavior. Self is threatened so often goes into defensive survival mode.


Guilt works to preserve and maintain connection.

Shame works to disconnect us from self, God, and others.


And disconnection is a big deal because most of us fear isolation more than mortality.

When we mess up, we face a choice about how we will respond.

Many of us have been taught that the way of transformation and reformation is to take our sin seriously by beating up on ourselves with appropriate self-contempt and shame. We’ve been told that we “should” feel disconnected; and that anything less than that denies the holiness of God.

However, when we look at how Jesus related to women in the midst of sin, we see a very different pattern. Jesus encouraged guilt and discouraged shame. He worked to help them face their behavior and at the same time maintain personhood and connection.

Take for example his conversation with the woman at the well.  Even in the context of a cultural divide that affirmed distance, Jesus sought to connect with this woman by initiating conversation. He drew her in as he spoke about offering her what she sought: water. But, he did not stop there.  He brought to light the “shame-full” secret that was hiding beneath the surface of her life, preventing deeper connection with him.

“Go call your husband.”

When she responded with a half-truth ”I have no husband,” he persisted in revealing the facts she most feared: “”You are right when you say you have no husband. The fact is, you have had five husbands, and the man you now have is not your husband. What you have just said is quite true.”

He spoke of her behavior and maintained connection all the while, even affirmed her for telling the truth without mentioning that it was only half the story! He invited her to life-transforming guilt while protecting her from destructive, soul deadening, disconnecting shame.  Transformation happened when he elevated her person by speaking the truth that he was both the Messiah and the one who was seeking connection with her: “I who speak to you am he.” Self-contempt and self-criticism had no place in the story. His compassion for her invited her to be compassionate toward herself.

The same could be said of Jesus’ encounter with the woman caught in adultery, just four chapters later in John’s gospel.  Jesus stoops low, perhaps to establish a point of connection with this woman whose guilt and shame were undeniable. He does not try to mitigate, defend, diminish, dismiss, or undo her guilt (I’ve done a bad thing).  But he does try to dispel the shame through connection. He also actively acts to create an experience for her that has the healing message: you are not less than even the most righteous person in your community.  You belong.  You can stay connected to God and your community in the midst of your bad behavior being seen by all. He seeks to level the personhood playing field in the midst of maintaining the healing potential of facing her poor behavioral choice.  Again, his compassion for her shows her the healing path and self-contempt is nowhere to be found.

When we refuse self-compassion and choose self-contempt, we become dangerous to ourselves.   And in that context of self-criticism, we tend toward denial and defensiveness about our own behavior for the sake of survival.  We seek to disconnect from the truth about our own lives and so from others and from God.  When we give into our tendency toward self-contempt, we re-inforce the idea that our personhood is bad and we embolden disconnecting shame… all of which make us less likely to change our behavior.

Jesus’ compassion provided the safe relational space in which these women could openly face their errant behavior as the doorway toward making new choices. They did not need denial or defensiveness. Self-compassion is an extension of Jesus’ compassion, offering within ourselves that same safety so critical to facing the reality of our sinful, foolish behavior. It allows us to meet our guilt while maintaining the transforming power of connection with ourselves, God, and others.

Quite simply and perhaps counter-intuitively, self-compassion is the doorway to transformation.


How do you see guilt?  How do you see shame? How do you see Jesus’ compassion being connected to self-compassion?




  • Melinda Schmidt

    Thanks for pointing out the importance of staying connected to God and community in the midst of our bad behavior and encouraging us to extend it to others.

    • Janet Davis

      I long for the day when the church culture is known as a safe place for this kind of honest connection to happen.

  • Cheryl Waters

    This is very helpful. I love the way you have defined and separated guilt and shame…your words bring clarity and healing. Thank you, Janet.

    • Janet Davis

      It is tough stuff to sort through on our own. But I truly believe that the more we talk about these soul dynamics, the easier it becomes!

  • jerry lynch

    I first heard that distinction between guilt and shame back in the mid-80s, it read much the same: Guilt is feeling badly about what I did; Shame is feeling badly about who I am. For a long time, I could not distinguish between the two even aware of the suggested difference. To do bad was to be bad period is how I thought. Shame was my primary emotion. It was good to feel badly about yourself in my eyes then, it helped keep a person humble, in the their place.
    I made a practice of keeping fresh as much of the wrong I did that I could remember, continually exposing, I believed, by true nature: I was no good. Only this practice could possibly hold in check my evil ways. I could have been a penitentate.
    I laughed at the notion of self-compassion and self-forgiveness seeing them as corrupt indulgences; one had to be ruthless with oneself. Even as I plunged deeper and deeper into alcoholism, hurting everyone I knew, ruining my life, and contemplating suicide, I still clung to my mistaken beliefs as The Way.
    Shame is a lie, perverse pride. As you rightfully pointed out, it disconnects us from ourselves, others, and God. It also disconnects us from responsibility and accountability, for it makes us victims, albeit of our own relentless cruelty. It vastly limits options in numerous ways. It sucks the light of everything into its dark vortex.
    After I started in Recovery, I re-read the story of Adam and Eve. When God said, “Who told thee thou wast naked,” I heard a playful chiding, a loving attempt to coax them out of hiding. But it was self-imposed seriousness of being “rotten to the core” that kept them from what love would have them do: run to their father arms for comfort and forgiveness. Shame hinders and suppresses the maturation of love.

  • Janet Davis

    Amen! Thanks for your story and thanks be to God for the healing and hard-earned wisdom you bring.