We Need To Talk About Guilt Culture In South Asian Communities

Note: This topic can be a triggering one for many of us 🥺  If you feel yourself having an intense physical or emotional reaction when reading about guilt and shame culture, take a break. Close the tab. It might have hit home in a way you were not prepared for, and that's okay. Do what you need to do to calm your nervous system and feel at ease again 💛


Guilt is a powerful emotion. It tends to dig deep and nestle into our consciousness,  taking root in our minds AND our bodies. That feeling of being twisted up with guilt is a visceral one- I can almost feel it in the core of my own body as I write about it.

Every emotion serves a purpose, and guilt is no exception. Sometimes guilt can act as a guidepost, signalling to us when our actions stray from our values. For example, when you lash out in frustration at someone who didn't deserve that reaction, the guilt you feel afterwards may motivate you to apologize.

Guilt can also bend us into behaving in ways that may temporarily ease the uncomfortable feeling, but are not healthy in the long run,

And THAT is where it gets dicey. We can be manipulated by guilt, and it can be weaponized against us

Some people are very skillful at using guilt to get their way or guarantee that others around them will cater to their needs. Ever heard of a guilt trip? Many of us who belong to South Asian cultures know the power of the guilt trip a little too well!

In this post we will get into the concept of how guilt culture unfolds, specifically in the South Asian community. This does not mean, however, that the article won't resonate with people from other backgrounds! Many of our readers will be able to relate to this, South Asian or not.

Positioning Myself

My perspective, as the writer of this piece, is a South Asian one. My parents immigrated with my siblings and I from Bangalore, India in the 90's.

This topic can feel personal, and I want to honour that by representing the perspective I am most familiar with. It's also important to note that South Asian culture, like all cultures, is not homogeneous. Factors such as country of origin, religious beliefs,  and social and political  differences create variations in values and behaviours. The experiences described in this piece will not resonate with every South Asian person and that is perfectly normal!

The aims of this post are to:

- Examine the concept of guilt culture as it applies to the South Asian Community

- Describe the experience of adolescent and adult children of South Asian parents

- Discuss ideas on how to cope with guilt and shame that is inflicted upon us

Let's get into it.

What Is Guilt Culture?

Guilt culture forms when a society uses guilt to promote socially acceptable behaviours. The emotion of guilt is used as a tool to emphasize self-control, feel indebted to certain people and circumstances, and staying within the boundaries of cultural norms.

This does not have to occur on a large scale, or societal level. It's also possible to live in a household or be in a relationship that relies on guilt to ensure obedience and conformity.

How Does Guilt Culture Work?

The tactics used to maintain a culture of guilt can be direct or indirect.

Direct tactics are used to remind people about the norms and the consequences of breaking them

Can you think of a time you were directly made to feel guilty about your choices? A common example is being told that 'others' will not approve of your behaviour and decisions (i.e. log kya kahenge?).

Many oldest siblings in South Asian households are directly reminded of how their actions will affect the fortunes and opportunities of their younger siblings. An example I've witnessed multiple times is when elder daughters are encouraged to get engaged or married early because they should not hold up the line for their other siblings.

Guilt culture can also be maintained through indirect communication

If someone has ever taken you on a guilt trip, you have an idea of what this looks like in practice. Many of us have experienced a guilt trip from our parents. Let's use an example.

It's Saturday evening and you are thinking of joining your friends for a movie (we are talking pre-COVID times here 😭.). Your mom has nothing going on that evening, and you know she feels lonely when you are gone and she is at home alone. When you tell her about your movie plans, she looks visibly disheartened. She tells you to go see the movie while also mentioning that no one thinks about what it's like for her to be at home alone. In the end, you stay home because you don't want her to feel sad and lonely while you are out having fun.

Overtime, indirect guilt can mould your behaviour to cater to the person employing this tactic (which doesn't necessarily mean it's being done maliciously- it can be unconsciously done and still be harmful). For example, you may end up staying in more often to appease your mother. While this makes her feel better, it affects your social life and ability to truly enjoy yourself when you do go out.

Guilt Culture In A South Asian Context

South Asian culture emphasizes family loyalty, obligation, self-sacrifice, and obedience towards elders. These characteristics can make it difficult to do things that are deemed 'outside the box'. Individualistic, Euro-Canadian values may also directly challenge the more group-oriented South Asian values.

Many Canadian-born or raised South Asian youth struggle to reconcile these aspects of both cultures.

When we are drawn to aspects of the more individualistic Euro-Canadian culture, our elders and the wider South Asian community may feel threatened by this. Motivated by the fear that their culture, traditions, language and values may be lost, elders and community members can use guilt tactics to ensure we are staying within the assigned boundaries.

Living In A Guilt Culture As Adult Children Of South Asian Parents

As  an adult child of South Indian immigrant parents, I can relate countless experiences of guilt culture in practice! Furthermore, in my role as a therapist, I've found that many of my clients with similar cultural backgrounds are struggling with a lifetime of carrying guilt.

Here is the interesting thing about guilt. After a lifetime of being manipulated using guilt tactics, you end up internalizing the guilt. No one has to directly (or indirectly) guilt you anymore: you do it to yourself.

In my therapy practice, the group of people I've seen this occur the most in are children of immigrant parents.

The Immigrant Child Complex

Many of us belong to a generation whose parents immigrated to Western countries. They gave up nearly everything they knew and left everyone that was familiar and beloved to them, to pursue a better life for us, their children.

That decision had a colossal impact on their relationship with us, and our psyche.

Children of immigrants feel constantly indebted to their parents. The sacrifice that provided endless opportunities for us can never be re-paid. This is not lost on us. However, many of us continue to spend our lives doing our very best to ensure that our parents' sacrifice is worth it.

The question of worthiness is an important one. Will we know when we have finally reached this point? When we have lived up to the pinnacle of worthiness? Of course not.

Part of the reason for this is the measure of proving our worth is constantly shifting.

When we are in school, the measure is getting exceptional grades . In young adulthood, the measure is choosing traditional career paths that fulfill our parents' ideals of success. As we move through our 20's and 30's, the measure shifts once again to marrying into the 'right family', having children at the 'right age' and so on, and so on.

Throughout this journey, guilt tactics are used to correct us when we stray from the socially acceptable ways of doing things (I.e. pursuing a creative degree, dating someone outside your culture, or choosing not to have children).

How does this impact our lives in the long-term? Well, here is a (non-exhaustive) list of decisions my South Asian friends, acquaintances, and clients have made out of a sense of guilt:

- Living with in-laws after getting married when they would prefer not to

- Not speaking up about abusive family members

- Giving up passion projects to pursue more traditional sources of income

- Living with their parents instead of moving out on their own

- Limiting their dreams to cater to their parent's ideas of what is safe and reasonable

Tips On Coping With Guilt Culture

The commitment to 'face-saving' in many South Asian households means that coping with guilt is often a private (and lonely) affair. Research has shown that South Asian families are reluctant to solve their problems in therapy. This can be explained by stigma against therapy and an emphasis on keeping family matters private.

Moreover, confronting guilt culture can be dangerous and disheartening. Having your experience denied, or minimized is extremely challenging.

So how do we cope with guilt culture? We offer a few tips and ideas to gently orient you away from a guilt-focused way of living and towards a life that honours your needs as well as that of others.

1. Set Clear Boundaries and Limit Information Sharing

If you are someone who is easily influenced by guilt, having control over what your family and community knows about your life is an effective way to keep yourself from constantly caving in. This can feel manipulative. In fact, more often than not, we experience guilt around setting this boundary!

However, keep in mind that the more information people have about your life, the harder it will be for you to act freely and make decisions that centre your own wellbeing.

Other boundaries include making it clear that you will not tolerate comments from other people about your life choices and also that your personal life is not up for discussion outside the family or even with certain family members.

2. Recognize Gaslighting Behaviours For What They Are

For those of us who prefer to tell it like it is and confront guilt culture directly, make sure you are recognizing common forms of gaslighting.

Most people employ guilt tactics unconsciously and unintentionally. Regardless, it's important to maintain the impact those actions had on your life.  You may also hear phrases such as "you are overreacting" or "that's not what happened, you imagined it".  

Know that your lived experiences are valid and no one can decide how you experienced things! It is also not your fault (or responsibility) when people refuse to take accountability for their actions.

3. Pay Attention To How Guilt Influences Your Life Choices

Sit down with a piece of paper and do an inventory of your major life decisions. Reflect on the extent to which your decisions were influenced by guilt. For example, did you attend a university closer to home because your parents made you feel bad about moving out?

This will help you pay closer attention to the role guilt plays in your life. Many of us are so used to feeling guilty that we interpret it as a duty and obligation. Understanding what is truly motivating your actions (or lack of) can be liberating.

4. Understand That Living For Your Parents Will Not Fulfill You

In fact, you may come to resent them, and resentment never fosters a mutually fulfilling relationship. Many of us live for our parents because we were taught from a young age that their love is conditional upon the way we act, dress, study, earn money, and marry.

The wounds of conditional love are deep, even when we know that our parents love us and want what is best for us. The pain we carry often prevents us from living our best lives. Instead of filling our cup, we spend our lives chasing the feeling of unconditional love and acceptance by doing everything we can to meet other's expectations.

We need to live for ourselves and prioritize self-love. It is the only way we can release old wounds and build healthier adult relationships with our parents and wider community.

Before You Go....

This is a loaded topic, and I know that not everyone will resonate with it! It's important to note that most of us do not consciously and maliciously employ guilt tactics to control other people's behaviours. People do this in response to their own fears and anxieties. The impact, however, is undeniable, despite the intention behind the action.

If you are feeling triggered and raw after reading this post, please take care of yourself. Drink something warm, sway to some music, put on calming and relaxing rain sounds. Talk to someone who will listen to and validate your experiences. And remember, that as lonely as coping with internalized guilt can feel, there are countless others working through the same or very similar feelings.

If reading this piece helped you realize that, then our work here is done :) 

Until next time!

Sarah Ahmed


WellNest Psychotherapy Services