In my previous blog, we looked at how guilt can be both constructive and destructive depending on whether it is linked to shame. People often confuse these two emotions and there can be a significant overlap in the way we experience them. However, they are also quite different. Guilt is what we feel when we do something we think is wrong. Shame, on the other hand, is the feeling that something is wrong with us as a person. With guilt, we can reflect, take appropriate responsibility and try to move on. But with shame, it can become more about avoiding rejection. We then carry this fear of rejection around with us and it influences our behaviour and emotional wellbeing. What makes things complicated is that for many people, guilt can trigger a sense of shame. This can lead them to take on more responsibility than is really theirs, sometimes blaming themselves for something which is not their fault at all.

Responsibility Pie

The Responsibility Pie is a tool some counsellors use to help people understand and manage their sense of guilt. You can also try this at home as a self-help exercise.

The first step is to draw a pie chart to represent how responsible you feel for a situation. This often starts out with someone blaming themselves entirely. The aim of the exercise is to reflect on the situation as a whole, thinking about who and what else might have contributed to what happened. You can then change the pie chart as you go along, letting a more balanced view start to emerge. Don’t worry too much about making the chart mathematically accurate. Just try to get an approximation. While reflecting, it might also help to keep in mind that cause and blame do not have to be the same thing.

The end result of the exercise will be a new vantage point from which you can view what happened. From here, it is easier to explore any responsibility which is genuinely yours and let go of that which is not. In other words, the responsibility pie is an exercise in self-compassion which can help you disrupt the cycle of blame and shame. This can be valuable for people with many different struggles including anxiety, depression and low self-esteem.

Now, let’s take a look at an example. Due to the confidential nature of therapy, I have not used material from an actual client here. Instead, I have created a story based on a common concern. The percentages I have used are not based on objective judgement, but are for illustrative purposes only. I hope that reading through this will help you see how using the responsibility pie could benefit you.

Krishna and her anger

Krishna had come to counselling feeling stressed and anxious. She was also full of guilt. Part of this was down to her move from being a full time mum to going back to work. What was particularly troubling her though was that she had recently started to lose her temper and yell at her kids. They were still young and she was very aware of how scary they found it when she ‘blew up’. Krishna felt as if she should always be in control of her anger and that yelling meant she was a ‘bad mum’. She saw herself as fully responsible for when this happened but felt unable to stop herself. All of this usually ended with her apologising to them, telling them that she is sorry for being a ‘bad mummy’.

This is what her responsibility pie looked like at the beginning:

From here, Krishna started to reflect on what was going on in the situation. She considered her actions, the actions of others and any other outside influences which came to mind. The first person she thought of was her partner.

Krishna’s partner

She explained how she always has to take responsibility for disciplining her children. Her partner constantly relies on her to do this and becomes irritated if she asks him to step in: ‘I’ve had a 12-hour day at work honey. I need some space. So, please, just relax!’ is his usual response. He sometimes even actively goes against what she is saying, continuing to play video games with the kids when they are supposed to be getting ready for bed. When she considered how much this dynamic contributed to her angry outbursts, she decided it was around 50%. 40% for her partner not participating in discipline and 10% for the stress caused by his job which leaves him exhausted. She then changed the responsibility pie to look like this:

From this alone, she felt a sense of relief from bearing the full weight of her guilt and the shame it triggered. It helped her realise she was putting unrealistic expectations on herself – we all have limits after all and she was being pushed beyond them.

Krishna’s children

Krishna had more of a think about what is involved in the situation. Part of her felt it unfair to place any responsibility with her children. But, at the same time, she realised they are old enough to understand that it is rude to ignore people. They also understand the limits which have been set. Although resistance is natural for children and they are being encouraged by their dad’s actions, she decided they still hold some responsibility. She thought 5% sounded about right so she changed the chart to look like this:

Seeing the chart like this helped her connect to the idea that situations are rarely black and white. From exploring the dynamics she has with her kids, she also understood her own feelings more. She realised how difficult she finds it when people do not listen to her. It gives her an intense feeling of being helpless which she finds hard to bear. This was something she decided to explore in a later session.

Krishna’s experience of anger

Taking a closer look at her own sense of responsibility, Krishna’s counsellor helped her focus in on how she experiences anger. She realised that although she knows all people get angry, she feels wrong for feeling it. This was a message she had unconsciously taken in from her family environment as she grew up. Now, when she starts to feel angry, she always tries to ‘swallow it’ and ‘move on’. This gives her a sense of control and confidence, but it only really works in the short term. These days though, it is hardly working at all. When she is stressed or very tired, her anger tends to explode out, leaving her feeling alarmed, guilty and ashamed.

Krishna’s difficulties at work

On further reflection, Krishna realised that a large portion of the anger she had been feeling recently was to do with her situation at work. She had been leaning over backwards to ‘smash targets’ and prove she is still competent after years at home with the kids. But rather than receiving acknowledgement, she was being pushed even harder by her manager. She didn’t feel able to bring anything up with him or others in management. Instead she kept quiet and tried to get on with things rather than ‘rocking the boat’. After all, perhaps she just needed to ‘try harder’.

In adding these to the chart, she came up with 25% for the subsection of her upbringing and 15% for the stress she was under at work. There was only 5% of the responsibility pie left without a particular label. Krishna saw this portion as the only part which purely came down to her making mistakes.

Learning and moving ahead

Looking at the situation in this way didn’t clear Krishna of responsibility. What it did do was give her a better understanding of why she had been behaving in a way she didn’t like. This opened the door for her to be more compassionate towards herself. It also encouraged her to think about how she could make changes that would help her at work, at home and personally.

At the end of the session, Krishna still felt guilty, but knew she didn’t hold all of the responsibility. And, importantly, she realised that she didn’t have to listen to her critical voices of shame. Although the path ahead felt daunting, the new view she had over the situation made it tolerable and gave her hope.

Thank you for reading. I hope this blog has given you a good idea of how the responsibility pie could help you manage your feelings of guilt and shame. If you would like to look at your difficulties in more depth, then please feel free to contact me about a first appointment.

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