The heralded “Circles” program has been successfully used internationally to prevent sexual abuse. Circles teaches developmentally-delayed and autistic spectrum children about appropriate and inappropriate touch, with a colored diagram. Levels of intimacy in relationships are drawn as a giant rainbow-colored target.
The innermost bullseye of the target is purple, and purple represents our private space where touch is safe. Going outward, the next, slightly larger circle is the blue “hug circle” which represents the people that we live with. They are our family, and our partners. They are the ones who are safe to hug, and they are also safe enough to share almost everything with.
Going outward, there is a yellow circle called the “handshake circle”. The yellow circle is for our acquaintances, like our friends at school. There are definitely things that we would share with our hug circle that we might not share with our handshake circle.
The outermost red circle is called the “stranger circle”, and it holds all the people that we don’t know, and the people who don’t know us. The red circle is a place where we must be cautious about what we say, and we must be cautious about how we touch as well.
Each circle is like a boundary, and functions like a wall that protects us. It can be a healthy thing to understand intimacy like this.
The Circle diagram is meant to teach behaviors and the social boundaries that we all sense when we are growing up. There are some kinds of hugs and touch that only happen at home with those that we trust and love. There are some kinds of speech and sharing that are safe and appropriate at home with our loved ones. The very same topics might be considered inappropriate for school, or for work. These are unspoken rules that we all take for granted.
Earlier this year, I released a book entitled “The Unexplored Room”. It is about a kind of personal work, and I illustrated it with my own stories. Writing this book went against the boundaries (and secrets) that I was taught to honor when I was young. As I have released the book and have begun to talk openly about it, I have been forced to say hello to my own circles, because I have shared the contents of my inner purple space with strangers who are in my red circle. The circles map doesn’t work for me anymore.
There is an intimate part of my book that goes beyond what we normally share with strangers. When I was writing it, I imagined my adult children wincing, and saying something like, “Dad, Please! TMI!” But the fact of the matter is, if you are struggling with your relationships, or with burnout, or with addiction, it isn’t too much information. For you, my book may be a precious message from the other side of the colored barrier.
Not long ago, my 11 year old grandson asked me, “Grandpa, what is your book about?”
None of my adult answers about the Jungian shadow were going to work for that question.
To answer him, I had to speak from my purple circle. I replied,
“Ever have stuff happen to you that really bugged you? I have. My book is about how to deal with that kind of stuff”.
There was a longish pause. His next question floored me.
“Grandpa, have you ever had suicidal thoughts?” My grandson had a classmate who had committed suicide last year.
Without thinking, I answered honestly, “Yes…I think that everyone has them sometimes.
If we feel sad enough, these thoughts are normally what comes up…”
His grandma chimed in, “I have had them”.
“That’s what my book is about.” I continued. “It is about how I got help.”
This is my purple truth. The truth from my purple circle is that addiction almost killed me. Not to mention my inability to function in intimate relationship. My book is about inner healing and how it saved my life. Too much information?
When I was trying to imagine a new way of thinking about my circles, I had a remarkable conversation with my personal coach. He asked me to think about what happens when I am playing jazz. If I take a keyboard solo, what circle am I playing from? I knew what he was getting at. I play from my purple circle. I am playing from my heart.
And when my band is playing for a gig, and everyone is dancing, there is something else. On a dance floor with strangers, everyone is moving with their hearts. This is the central message of the new Pixar dance movie, “Leap”. It is possible to use body movement and dance to express what lies within our purple space. The truth is, I am a challenged and intimidated dancer. But at a gig, I am right up next to the dance floor, playing keyboard. I even play standing up so that I can move with the music. Playing is my way of dancing.
At the gig when the music starts, nothing else matters. It doesn’t matter to me what circle you might be in. I don’t think before I play, and I don’t edit myself. Honesty is the privilege of aging, now that I am 60. I let the music move me into my purple heart space, and I just play what I am feeling. I dance the purple.