Guilt and shame, inevitable human emotions that usually serve a constructive purpose, can sometimes assume pathological proportions.

When a person commits a terrible act, more than the punishment prescribed by the state or the community, it is the punishment meted out by the person’s own mind that is more difficult to bear. This would, of course, not apply to psychopaths, who are considered to be constitutionally devoid of a conscience and feel no remorse for their actions, however terrible these may be. But for the majority of human beings, the existence of a conscience that defines their morality, value systems and adult behaviour can pretty much be taken for granted, even if some are more conscientious than others, and some are more sophistically adept at rationalising their ethically dodgy acts.

In his extraordinary, even if at times ponderous, 1866 novel Crime and Punishment, Fyodor Dostoyevsky takes us through the workings of the mind of Raskolnikov as he agonises, rationalises and eventually rages deliriously on committing an avoidable crime. Among other things, the book is also, arguably, among the finest and most authentic narratives describing the emotions of guilt and shame, uncluttered by psychological references (Freud was only 10 years old at the time) and can take the involved reader down several bylanes of the mind.

Guilt and shame are emotions that all of us have experienced. We usually feel guilty when we are uncomfortable with something we have done or contemplated doing; something that goes against our inherent sense of what is right. It could range from some banal, quotidian act of omission or commission, to a more serious misdemeanour that may have more severe consequences. The guilt turns to shame when we realise that our act has resulted in other people judging us unfavourably and even, perhaps, taking action on this judgement. Put differently, guilt is related to our own judgement of ourselves and shame is experienced when we are judged by others in our social environment. Guilt can be rationalised, but shame has to be lived down.

Generally, all the emotions we experience, even guilt and shame, can serve a constructive purpose as well. When we experience guilt at some action or behaviour, it’s an indicator that some thing we are thinking of or doing is dissonant with our internal moral compass. And when we feel shame, we know that the impact of our action has disturbed our social environment beyond a certain threshold. This knowledge enables us to take counter-measures to reverse the damage we have inadvertently caused to ourselves or those we love. But, when guilt and shame take over our minds, and are disproportionate to the transgression, it can assume pathological proportions, as it tends to do in some of us who are more ‘guilt-prone’ either on account of hard-wiring or adverse life experiences.

There are a variety of reasons why people feel guilt. The most common of these is misinformation, which is the basis for the completely unnecessary masturbatory guilt experienced by hundreds of thousands of poorly informed teenagers in our country, which if unresolved, usually ends up causing severe sexual anxieties later. Another is relationship guilt that many people go through owing to their feeling they are unable to do the ‘right thing’ in a relationship whether or not they are required to, as in not having the wherewithal to rescue an abused mother from the clutches of an alcoholic father, or not being able to afford quality education for one’s child and so on. Sometimes we experience sacrificial guilt when someone we love has made tremendous sacrifices to enhance our lives and we are unable to reciprocate in the manner they want us to, and at other times people feel guilty on account of the demands made on them by their religious faith.

But, probably the most distressing of all forms of guilt is what is called survivor guilt that refers to the intense guilt experienced by those who have survived catastrophes – natural calamities, man-made disasters, accidents or acts of violence – in which others, particularly loved ones, have perished or been severely traumatised. And the hardest form of guilt to deal with is the delusional guilt that those undergoing clinical depression often experience, which may necessitate the judicious administration of medication and psychotherapy.

Usually when guilt is experienced, one tends to punish oneself and attempt in some way to compensate for the act of omission or commission. If the guilt we experience is ‘normal’, we do this and we move on. However, if the guilt is pathological, the end result is more likely over-compensation and worse, a pattern of inequality may get defined in a relationship or relationships, thereby creating a platform for vulnerability to be taken advantage of.

All of us do mess up (some of us seem to do this very creatively and some do tend to make a habit of it), but rarely do we commit unspeakable atrocities. While I have no quarrel with the argument that every crime needs to be punished, I also do believe that each of us must remember that wonderful axiom in law, echoed so resoundingly by Mikado, “Let the punishment fit the crime”.