Guilt Vs. Shame- The Indian Context

Guilt and Shame are not very pleasant feelings, but they play a significant role in fostering Individual and Social health. The popular Psychology particularly of the American variety tends to treat both Guilt and Shame as undesirable but has a marked preference for Guilt. It is argued that Guilt has some redeeming features whereas Shame has none. The basic argument goes something like as follows-

  1. Shame is focussed on the Self (e.g. I feel ashamed because of my poor looks) as against Guilt which is focused on specific actions( e.g. I feel guilty because I cheated)
  2. Shame has a stronger link with other’s perception (e.g. loss of face) as against Guilt which is focused on one’s own realisation (e.g. remorse)
  3. Guilt has a direct link with ethics and morality(e.g. I violated a code of norms and values) whereas Shame is more generic (e.g.I feel awkward in social interaction)
  4. In Guilt, there is a recognition of the “other” as a separate person and concern about the impact of our action on him/her. In Shame, the only preoccupation is with one’s own “self-image” either in the eyes of others or oneself.
  5. In Guilt, there is greater accountability whereas in Shame one tends to look at oneself as a “helpless victim”
  6. Consequently, Guilt can be utilised productively, whereas Shame only leads to withdrawal, passivity, substance abuse, self-beating etc.
  7. Shame is associated with the second stage of Erikson’s model and Guilt with the third. Similarly Shame is seen as linked to pre-oedipal stage in the Freudian frame and Guilt with the Oedipal stage. Hence there has been a tendency to look at Guilt as a more “advanced” feeling than Shame.

More than half a century ago, anthropologist Ruth Benedict used the distinction between Guilt and Shame to contrast American and Japanese cultures and labeled them as “Guilt Culture” and “Shame Culture” respectively. Since there was an implicit superiority of “Guilt” over “Shame” some degree of controversy around her work was inevitable. However it opened up the possibility of going beyond the simplistic lens with which we look at these two and also how it is important to look at them in relation to the salience of different cultures. Some significant issues in this regard are as follows-

  1. Many of the differences between Guilt and Shame rest on the “assumed volition” by the person, which is highly subjective in nature and also has a strong cultural dimension. There are people who believe that almost everything that happens to them is linked to their own choices and action; simultaneously there are people who believe that their own choices and actions are of very little significance. Thus the same phenomenon can be seen as “guilt inducing” by the first group and “shame inducing” by the other. Similarly cultures differ in the significance that they attach to “individual volition”. For instance, in the traditional Indian culture, the distinction between “what is of your choice” and “what is not” is not very relevant. The theory of reincarnation being a classical example of how “individual volition” can be regarded as completely irrelevant (it is all because of your deeds in the past births) and also  the only important factor (after all, it is all because of your own deeds though in an earlier birth) Thus to look at Guilt and Shame through the lens of accountability may not be very relevant for cultures like India.
  2. There is perhaps some validity to associating Guilt with a later stage of Psycho-social development,but that does not make it into a more advanced feeling. If anything, it suggests that Shame is the more basic of the two and Guilt is in a way, a kind of shame. However the more important question is as to what does it tell us about the two. As has been suggested by some scholars, it is likely that Shame is linked to “fear of abandonment” whereas Guilt is linked to “fear of punishment”.Putting it in the Indian context, it is significant to note that threat of exclusion has been the most powerful way of dealing with deviant behaviour in traditional Indian society. “Hukka Paani Band” ( exclusion from social intercourse) was a common practice in most Indian villages. In a more subtle form, use of exclusion/isolation continues to be deployed even in the more modern urban society to control individual deviance.
  3. Another significant factor is the relative emphasis which a cultures places on Individualism and Independence as against Collectivism and Interdependence. Cultures which place more emphasis on Individualism/Independence are like to clearly bifurcate between “what belongs to the Self” and “what belongs to others/context”. In cultures like India which have a greater focus on Collectivism/Interdependence, the notion of Self is a lot more fluid and hence it is virtually impossible to differentiate  one’s notions about oneself, from the notions that significant others have about us. This has significant implications for both Shame and Guilt.Shame goes beyond a mere “loss of face” and gets linked to one’s expectations of oneself. Similarly Guilt does not remain an abstract ethical/moral construct but gets linked to “other people’s expectations from one self”
  4. Another dubious distinction between Shame and Guilt is that the former pertains to the Self and later to one’s actions. In Indian tradition, Feeling, Thought and Action are seen as a composite whole and not distinct from each other. Thus it is not very uncommon for a person to feel ashamed/guilty for having an inappropriate thought/feeling even if it is not translated into action.

The central point that I wish to make is that the Western belief that Guilt is a more “productive” feeling than Shame may not be very applicable in the Indian context. Perhaps in the western context, Guilt has played a more proactive role in “self-regulation” and “social -control”; whereas Shame has been seen as something which one only suffers silently and passively. This may not be true for other cultures like India. In fact, it appears that in our tradition, Shame has been the main vehicle for both self-regulation and social-control. Simultaneously, one can not escape the reality that the modern-day societies are built on the premise that Shame is essentially a personal/private affair whereas Guilt entails accountability to others/culpability and is therefore more amenable for self-regulation and social control.

This places us in a very difficult position. On one hand, our traditional (Shame based)ways of self-regulation and social-control are no longer applicable and on the other our psychic orientation is not very receptive to the modern (Guilt based) ways. Thus any attempt to induce guilt creates strong defiance and counter-reaction. This is often witnessed in the perennial tussle between “law enforcing” agencies and  mobs/clans representing “popular sentiment”. Simply put we seem to be losing our sensitivity to Shame and becoming increasingly defiant and violent in dealing with Guilt

This becomes particularly stark when the issues involved pertain to collective pathologies like caste/gender based oppression. The more they are sought to be addressed through “Inducing Guilt” the more virulent the response becomes. Needless to say, there are no easy answers. Perhaps what we need is a judicious mix of both Guilt based strategies and Shame based strategies. The main difference between the two is that while Guilt based strategies focus on the “wrong doings” of the individual/group/ community; the Shame based strategies focus on the “failure” of the individual/group/community to live up to its own “idealised image”

In my work with myself, other people, groups, organisations, I have found that an over-reliance on either of the two strategies becomes counter-productive. Also their efficacy is at least partly dependent upon fear of exclusion (in case of Shame) and fear of punishment (in case of Guilt) Fortunately, there is much more to human existence than these fears. Human beings also have innate needs for self-reflexivity,integrity, meaningfulness, concern and compassion, which perhaps play an even greater role in self-regulation and social control. However it would be utopian to dismiss the role of Guilt and Shame in this respect. The best that one can possibly hope for is to deploy them in ways which take into account the salient cultural context.

Look forward to hearing from you how you have experienced the interplay of Guilt and Shame in yourself and your context.



7 thoughts on “Guilt Vs. Shame- The Indian Context

  1. Loved reading this piece Ashok… I see your point about self regulation and the role of guilt and/or shame. Do you see any links between introversion and extroversion and using guilt based or shame based strategies respectively for self regulation ?


    1. Thank you Uma. Glad that you liked the post. I do not see a direct link with introversion/extroversion. Also I think it will be more meaningful to look for links with identity patterns rather than personality traits. People whose identity is anchored more in Individualism,Independence and fear of punishment are more likely to deploy/respond to guilt based approaches. Whereas people whose identity is anchored more in Collectivism, Interdependence and fear of abandonment are more likely to rely on shame based approaches. Do let me know what you think warmly, Ashok


  2. I hadn’t given much thought to the distinctions you have drawn, how the meanings, associations and relative importance across cultures vary, and the implications for strategies.

    Just thinking that the guilt and shame based strategies may be seen as ‘negative’ or inhibiting strategies, and strategies that focus on ‘enhancing pride’ and ‘self-acceptance’ might be the ‘positive’ strategies (appreciative enquiry…?)


  3. I will make a slight difference here between Guilt and Shame. Guilt is more “inhibitive” because its focus is on “wrong doing” Shame on the other hand is focused on “failure to live up to an idealised image” To that extent, it both “inhibits” as also “propels” the individual to live unto his/her idealised image of the Self.


  4. Very thought provoking Ashok. I have often wondered about Guilt-Shame and Jealousy-Envy. Guilt to me has a strong element of ‘split and project’- i am the accused and there is an external judge who will condemn and punish. Abrahamic ideas like the ‘Judgement day’ reinforce this, and the priest then gain power. When this is internalised by a whole lot of people it becomes culture! Shame is turning the violence of the judgement inward, and may be one splits and introjects! Then while one becomes accountable only to oneself, one is also stuck with issues of worthiness in ones own eyes. Therefore the religious ideas such as reincarnation get obfuscated with the punishment connotation. the question “am i offering some thing worthy of myself? am i offering some thing that values my belonging/ tradition? and so on become turned on its head and rather than evoke ones positive striving, cause fears and anxities of inclusion and exclusion.


    1. Some more thoughts: Shame in the western context seems to be linked to sexuality and the original sin.
      In the Indian context it seems to have a community expectations and accountability to oneself to measure up.


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