Ashamed or Guilty?

I was in two minds. One said I had betrayed my parents’ faith. The other said I simply don’t care. I was nine years old, attending the fifth grade in school. I stood beside my father as he looked through my report card. I hated the very idea. Why would any one give a ‘report’ card about me. Who were they to judge me any ways? Yet there I stood timidly, ready to burst out that I never wanted to step again into the school, if my father so much as asked me the simple question ‘why such low marks in science?’ Yes there was also this other side of me that felt bad to bare myself in front of such an intellectual couple – my parents – that I couldn’t even fetch a pass grade in a school exam in fifth grade. I waited – for the raised voice – my father had never raised his voice against me till then. Would this be the first time? I waited – for my mother to slap my bottom – my mother had never raised her arms on me till then. Would this be the first time?

Dad called out to my mom. That is it. Now it is double trouble. I had hid the report card in my bag till the very last possible moment. I had to submit it today or the school would call my mom. I had five minutes before the pick up and I had timed it perfectly. If only my dad had rushed to sign at the designated place without taking the trouble to read…

‘Mohana!’ my dad’s voice rang out in the morning air. My mom peeped out of the kitchen with a questioning look. Her husband knew better than to disturb her during her morning kitchen routine. This must be important. My tension was mounting. I wanted this over and done with. Oh! May be I didn’t have to go to school even today! Ignoring me, really like I wasn’t even there, my dad looked at mom and said – ‘I think we should spend some time with Gita on her science. She needs your support.’ Well, may be mom would fire the gun. She walked out of the kitchen to take a look at the report card. She silently nodded to my dad and said – ‘Yes I will spend time with her from this evening’. Quietly my dad took the report card again, signed it with a flourish and handed it over to me. ‘Have a good day in school!’

It was just too much for me! Where was the anger? Why weren’t they upset? No blaming between each other! No cold stares or melodramatic beating. They made it sound as if it was their responsibility and not even mine! Yes they looked a little disappointed… but that just added to my discomfort. I burst out in tears. My dad hugged me to his lap and kissed my brow – ‘Hey nothing we cannot handle together!’ My mom walked in with my lunch – ‘Don’t spoil your lovely face with tears. Come on clean up and get ready for your car.’ Never – not then, before or ever since has my dad ever raised his voice at me. Never – not then, before or ever since has my mom raised her hand – even to make a show like slapping me. Can words ever convey what they mean to me…

Thirty odd years have passed and I recently chanced upon a research by June Price Tangney, who has authored a book titled ‘Shame and Guilt’. Systematic empirical scrutiny reveals today the huge difference between shame and guilt. Once thought to be a very interchangeable emotion, today the psychological effect of shame and the purpose of guilt have revealed far reaching consequences in the raising of a child. Shame is a feeling that makes one feel they are an immoral or bad person. Guilt on the other hand is the recognition that they have performed an action that is immoral or bad. Shame makes the child feel worthless. Their inner most core feels totally redundant, they shrink away from life. Especially at a young age, when children are dependant on adults for their very existence, invoking a sense of shame in the child is a life long damage. It belittles the very essence of the child with huge psychological impact that defeats all their sense of self worth, haunting them with undue control all their adult life.

Guilt on the other hand is in relation to a specific behaviour. They regret their action but don’t condemn themselves. They may confess or apologise or do something to set right the wrong actions but they don’t end up feeling worthless. Well, without guilt they may end up hiding or not acknowledging their actions. But with guilt they try to repair the damage. However, with shame they lose a part of themselves.

When the adult responds to a child’s action with anger, it triggers a sense of shame in the child. Powerless, and if the adult happens to be the child’s care giver, the impact of this angry burst and repeated angry bursts very often, reinforce a sense of worthlessness in the child leaving scars that lead to depression, anxiety, PTSD, eating disorders and even borderline personality disorders. On the other hand when the wrong action of the child elicits disappointment rather than anger in the care giver adult, the child begins to feel guilty, takes responsibility and can soon be guided to become a mature adult. Research reveals that children who are ashamed begin to avoid, while children who were guilty make amends.

Researchers believe there are five adaptive functions of guilt which help make positive change while the same costs lasting damage for those in shame. First, while the guilty make amends, those ashamed hide. They either deny or remain defensive. Secondly, those who have felt guilty about a particular action are always very empathetic towards others who seem to be in similar situations. In contrast, shame prone people are too self absorbed to be empathetic to others. Thirdly, anger, hostility and aggression with tendencies to externalise blame are all prevalent in those sunk in shame. They have displaced and self directed aggression, turn the tables on others and attempt to regain control by dominating others. Guilt prone individuals are seen more capable of managing their anger and take more direct corrective action. Psychological maladjustments are the fourth adaptive function lost to those seeped in shame. These are clinical and long lasting making them vulnerable to every stimuli that can easily trigger a sense of shame in them. While guilt doesn’t promise psychological cushioning, it however does suggest greater control over behaviour. Finally, research suggests that shame does not even promote pro-social behaviour as originally thought. (It was believed that shame was so painful that it motivated people to avoid wrong doing). On the other hand, today we believe, shame sometime makes it worse with a tendency to eschew responsibility.

Children exposed to a great deal of feeling ashamed end up becoming angry and moody. They become reclusive, avoid social interactions, blame others and become highly strung adults. Some of the distinct traits of shame driven behaviour are attacking and striking out at others by bringing others down, seeking power and perfection, diverting the blame externally, being self-sacrificing or simply withdrawing. The solution is pretty simple – to raise moral children we need to be proactive parents and care givers who can guide by example and show disappointment instead of anger so that they are only guilty and not ashamed.

But how to work on the child trapped in the adult body? If guilt can do the trick of ensuring psychological wellbeing with growth, why at all do we feel shame? Is there a purpose? Yes, indeed! Scientists believe that pro-social behavioural change is effected only when someone feels guilty of their action. What if their action does not fall under their perception as wrong? Guilt will not be an important factor for change if the very action is not considered important (like skipping a traffic signal) or wrong (like suppressing a fact).

Unlike earlier eras built on dominance, force and threat, today’s world operates on prestige where people achieve status based on their acceptance into society. In such a scenario, shame creates a greater impact of letting people know that social norms are taken seriously as against guilt that under values the importance of their action. The reputation of those filled with remorse and shame somehow translates as someone worthy of trust as they display greater regard for their negative choice. ‘In contrast, the reputations of apparently shameless transgressors are tarnished; they are no longer attractive as trustworthy cooperative partners’ writes June Tangney. Researchers also find that shame is more common in Asian and eastern cultures while guilt is more prevalent in the western world.

Shame and guilt, along with pride are all called ‘self-conscious emotions’. They are evoked by self-evaluation – that is, pride is born when we take the positive action as our own and similarly, the negative emotions of shame and guilt are recognising our own undesirable attributes. Even if another’s behaviour prompts us to feel ashamed, the feeling is born because we identify ourself with that person, making the other a part of our self-identification. However, while shame is a negative evaluation of our self, guilt is only a negative evaluation of our action. This makes a huge difference in the way we approach both interpersonal and intra-personal scenarios. Guilt is easier to handle. Simply take the corrective measures to redeem your behaviour. However, if every symptom of guilt only translates as a superficial change in action without any inner transformation, perhaps it is time to visit shame once. The acute pain of shame, may inspire some soul searching, help revise our priorities and values and could be the starting point for self repair and healing. Especially when we know that such emotions are self conscious and within the privacy of your own self, using them wisely to transform and not get side-tracked with defensive negative reactions is entirely in the control of the individual. But a time comes to let go of shame as well. As Mahatria often says it is simply time to re-parent yourself. Relinquish that shame for, just as how you cannot step into the same river twice, you are not the same child driven to shrink away with shame. Much water has flown in your river of life and it is time to reap the self realised state of taking pride in oneself and all that has been accomplished. It is time to move on…

Written by Gita Krishna Raj  |  Published in the April 2015 issue of infinithoughts

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