Circles versus straight lines

Sometimes we circle around people who are funny, interesting, powerful, helpful, or charming. You’ll see this often at parties and other social events.

I love social circles. When I get tired of making conversation at a party, I can join a circle with an energetic, extroverted center and let them do the conversational work.

It’s great.

Circling serves many social purposes. It’s efficient. It provides structure and helps create connections.

Circling is an efficient way to expand your connections.

You might know one person in a circle; they invite you in, and now you have a connection with every person in the circle.

Circles can also give you a community when you lack any personal connections: find a circle based on your religion, ethnicity, or passion for Star Wars, and you have an automatic sense of belonging even if you don’t personally know the people involved.

Most of us are in multiple circles as part of normal life. Sometimes we are part of the circle. Sometimes we are the center.

There are many kinds of circles.

Some last for moments. Some last for years.

Some circles are about having a good time together, enjoying shared interests, or working on common projects.

Other circles are about providing or receiving support. I think of how friends and family gathered around me, my Dad, and my sister when my Mom died, in a circle of support.

Circling as a temporary, voluntary behavior is good. Circling as an enforced behavior or as an ongoing way of life is not good.

Circles can change.

Sometimes other people forcibly try to keep us inside a closed circle. But many times, we imprison ourselves. What began as a healthy, open, supportive circle can turn into an unhealthy, closed, destructive prison.

For example, a new parent may be very engrossed in a Parenthood circle. For a time, all other interests and activities will be less important than the Parenthood circle. Most of the time and energy will be spent supporting the child at the center of that circle. And that makes sense, doesn’t it? It’s appropriate behavior—a healthy circle—for the time and situation.

But as time goes on and situations, people, needs, and desires change, staying in the same circle becomes unhealthy. The tight little Parenthood circle, which was safe and helpful for a time, becomes controlling and destructive for everyone, once the child has grown up.

When we get stuck inside a circle, we lose perspective. We adapt. We conform. Everyone in the circle starts to think and act and even look the same. Soon, we see other circles as dangerous and the people in them as enemies.

Connection cannot happen in a closed circle.

Well, it can only happen with people who are also in the same circle. To connect with others, with those outside the circle, we must have open circles that are fluid, that are flexible, that are temporary.

A healthy, open circle is like a tent you’d use on a hiking trip: it allows easy coming and going. It is a shelter. It can be a shared gathering point. It is a place to rest, to enjoy the familiar. But after a time, you step outside of the tent and back onto the trail. You move forward.

Stuck inside a circle, we cannot grow. We can move around inside the circle, but we’re not going anywhere.

All roles and circumstances eventually become limiting; if you are to grow, these must change. Although you are not always ready for it, change is liberating.

Paul Ferrini

Closed circles are limiting and limited.

They prevent growth. They keep us locked in to a set of rules and norms particular to that circle. Over time, we can lose any sense of Self that exists outside the closed circle.

To grow, we need forward movement. We need to be able to change, to expand, to break out of the familiar and venture into the unknown. Growth cannot happen in a closed circle.

To grow, we need to move outside of our circles. We need to focus on a point in the distance and walk a straight line toward that point.

To grow, we need to move in straight lines.

Moving in a straight line (literally or figuratively) requires leaving the circles we’re part of. It might be a temporary leaving, like folding up the tent for the day, knowing you will unpack it that night.

Or it might be a permanent leaving.

Some circles are not portable, not compatible with forward movement. They are closed and they are stuck, and forward movement means we have to break out and leave them behind.

That can be really difficult to do.

Circles can form around intangible stuff like religious beliefs, political philosophies, or lifestyle preferences. But they can also form around people. Or, more specifically, around one particular person.

Have you ever had a friendship in which you always deferred to the other person?

What food to eat, what movie to see, what music to listen to: all of those small choices inevitably favored the other person’s preferences. Maybe you felt like it didn’t matter. Like they were details. Like you were petty to bring it up. Like it was no big deal. Like it was all in your imagination.

Relationships like that have a particular smell.

Know what it is?

It’s the smell of stagnation. It’s a closed circle. One person, by the force of personality or attitude or manipulation or even unconscious control, is dominating the other.

If you think you might be stuck in a closed circle, try a little experiment. Start moving in a straight line and notice what happens.

How can you leave a closed circle?

First, think about what moving in a straight line would mean for you, in your situation.

What does growth require? What does forward movement look like? What action can you take?

Small actions are powerful. You don’t need a big dramatic change. You need one tiny step, and then another.

If you’re in a closed circle, you’ll meet resistance. Lots of it. It will feel overwhelming. It might be threatening. It will create confusion and guilt, self-doubt and uncertainty. Your mind will play tricks on you. The person (or people) in the closed circle with you will feel attacked, so they will attack you.

Don’t stop to explain yourself.
Don’t get lost in the conflict.
Don’t counter the arguments.
Don’t get drawn into the drama.
Don’t engage in a war with the resistance.

Just take that one small step. Then another. Do that one tiny thing. Then do it again.

The only power a closed circle has over you is the power to keep you swirling around, confused, moving but going nowhere. A closed circle cannot resist a straight line.

Focus on your straight line.

Take one step after another.

It isn’t going to be easy. You can do it.

The first steps forward will be the most difficult. You can do it.

People might not understand. Your own inner voice will join in the accusations sometimes. You might think it’s pointless. You might feel like you’re getting nowhere.

Don’t stop. Follow your straight line. It will always lead you forward.

The deeper you were in the circle, the further you have to go to get to the edge. But you will get there. Then you’ll take that step through it. The circle will dissolve behind you. You will wake up, as if from a dream. And the whole world will be waiting.

A straight line can take you anywhere.

Where do you want to go?