Within recovery, we rely on various metaphors, idioms, and analogies as helpful tools. For example, there is the “ladder” that one must “climb” toward sobriety. Likewise, there are “battles” that must be “fought.” And then there is the “circle plan,” which is popular in the area of sex-related addictions. In this article, I’ll detail the healthy and unhealthy behaviors that make up the “circle plan,” and how the plan can keep us from acting out and help us maintain sobriety.
An individual circle plan can help us move past addictive and sinful behaviors on the road to recovery. The “circle plan” entails a visual representation of a small inner circle, surrounded by a larger middle circle, surrounded by an even larger outer circle (similar to a bull’s eye pattern you might see on a dartboard).
Within the inner circle, we list the bad, acting out behaviors that are contrary to sobriety (these might include viewing porn, masturbating, drinking alcohol, etc.). Within the middle circle, we list risky behaviors, warning signs, triggers, and near occasions of sin (these might include watching certain TV shows, spending time alone on the internet, not getting enough sleep, etc.). Within the outer circle, we list the healthy, self-care behaviors that help us avoid our addictive behaviors (these might include attending Catholic in Recovery and/or 12-step meetings, the sacraments, therapy, prayer and meditation, exercise, etc.).
The Inner Circle
While certain obvious behaviors should be included in the inner circle, such as viewing pornography, non-sexual triggers should also be listed within the inner circle if there is a very strong likelihood they will cause us to act out (this might include intentionally thinking about certain memories, looking at pictures of a celebrity, watching questionable content, etc.). Everything listed in the inner circle includes behaviors that we need to give up flat out—these are things that we should never engage in.
As a result, there might be some behaviors we are hesitant to list within our inner circle because we don’t want to give them up, even if some of these behaviors are not objectively wrong but wrong for us because of our own particular weaknesses or circumstances (obviously, anything objectively wrong or sinful should be listed here).
I was hesitant about listing certain behaviors at first but then realized my discomfort was really a form of self-denial, which my accountability partner helped me see. We can use our support system, including a sponsor or accountability partner, to make sure we’re not leaving anything out. It’s possible that some of these inner circle behaviors can eventually be moved out after maintaining sobriety for some time and with your sponsor’s/accountability partner’s blessing (such as watching a certain TV show, for instance). Again, though, these would never be behaviors that are indeed sinful and/or direct manifestations of addictive behavior. Those will always be inner circle behaviors.
The Middle Circle
Here we list behaviors that are warning signs that we’re in danger of slipping toward inner circle behaviors. Good examples of this might entail not getting enough sleep, overworking, watching too much TV, etc. These include behaviors that may or may not be appropriate but can lead us into engaging in behaviors within the inner circle.
Referring to AA tradition, the acronym “HALT” is a helpful tool for considering potential triggers that belong in the middle circle. HALT refers to the following: Hungry, Angry, Lonely, or Tired. Bored can be added to this list as well. We should consider behaviors that can cause us to become hungry, angry, lonely, tired, or bored, and list them in the middle circle. Often, when we experience any of those things we have a greater chance of acting out.
When I made my first list, I identified certain risky behaviors that required boundaries at night, such as using my computer and certain apps. Other things to include in the middle circle might include fights with a spouse, feelings of loneliness, or stress from work. When we find ourselves experiencing these triggers or engaging in these behaviors, the next move will be to intentionally start doing outer circle behaviors to prevent slipping into inner circle ones.
We might ask ourselves: What triggers us in daily life that can cause us to feel physically or emotionally off-kilter, and therefore more likely to act out?
The Outer Circle
Within the outer circle, we list healthy, self-care behaviors. This circle is also much larger than the previous two circles, enabling us to list plenty of options to encourage us to remain in this space as much as possible. It’s important to make our list of healthy self-care behaviors early in recovery. Self-care helps us cope with withdrawal from sexual addictions and helps us replace acting out behaviors with activities that are healthy and nourishing.
We can make a list of activities we can do to take care of ourselves, such as attending therapy, going to 12-step meetings, and so on. I suggest we list things from each of these major categories: physical, mental, emotional, spiritual, relational, and professional self-care.
We can also recall hobbies or activities that we enjoy or always wanted to try. For example, I participated in my first endurance race and started a new hobby as part of my self-care. Or we can think about things we used to love doing as a child and incorporate them into our present-day life. Self-care will help reduce cravings and replace the desire to act out with the desire to engage in other healthy and enjoyable activities.
The natural slope of addiction is to move inward instead of outward. This means that as we engage in more middle circle behaviors our natural tendency is to move toward inner circle behaviors as a form of coping. However, by recognizing this tendency we can head in the other direction, moving toward outer circle behaviors instead as a healthy form of coping.
We may need to add more inner or middle circle behaviors as we continue in our recovery. And we might need to use our slips and/or relapses as an opportunity to learn more about our own triggers and temptations and adjust our circle plan to account for them. But we can also continue to add self-care behaviors to our outer circle as well since we can never have too many outer circle behaviors to combat our middle and inner circle ones!
Aaron Walter is a lifelong Catholic and former porn addict whose ministry, NewMenRising, is dedicated to pornography addiction recovery. He is a coach, mentor, and accountability partner and is passionate about helping husbands kick their addiction and transform their lives and relationships. You can connect with him at calendly.com/aaronwaltercoachingsessions.