23 Dec Don’t Underestimate Your Middle Circle Behaviors

By Carol Juergensen Sheets, LCSW, CSAT, CCPS

So often times when men or women attend Twelve Step meetings or therapy they are instructed to do the three circle exercise. The three circle process involves drawing three circles that represent three types of behaviors in an addict’s life.

What the Circle Represents

The outer circle represents healthy behaviors, the middle circle represents behaviors that may lead an addict to pursue addictive behaviors and the inner circle represents behaviors that are absolutely “deal breakers” and would be full on addictive behaviors and would put an addict back into a slip or relapse. Most addicts know to stay away from inner circle behaviors like pornography, affairs, voyeurism, and prostitution because they know it will lead to relapse but often times a sex addict will be in denial of how damaging the middle circle behaviors are and they forget that if they engage in the slippery slope behaviors it will often times open the floodgates for the deal breaking behaviors.

There can be a lot of denial with middle circle behaviors because addicts believe that they can engage in some behaviors that are not good for them yet stay away from “real addictive behaviors.” This is a misnomer as invariably the addict who dabbles in unhealthy behaviors will eventually be drawn to serious addictive relapse or slips. An example of this would be a man who believes that he can look at swimsuit models and not eventually move into hard-core pornography. Or a woman who believes that she can sext or text a man and keep her addiction in written form as opposed to moving into encounters where sexual activity will occur.


Denial behaviors happen when addicts do not recognize nor realize that those behaviors will move them into the actual sexual addiction behaviors that have destroyed their life. Addicts fool themselves into believing that their middle circle behaviors will not trigger behaviors that will take them to the next level.

Some addicts want to believe that they can put substance abuse into their middle circle behaviors. Addicts that use substances like crack, alcohol or sex to “light up ” the reward center produce chemicals that create pleasurable feelings. Addicts fool themselves and look for ways to stay in a heightened state of denial so that they can engage in behaviors that will keep the reward center in the brain active and medicate themselves. Yet they tell themselves that these middle circle behaviors are not really that bad. What we know about addiction is that substance abuse that has been used in conjunction with sex fuses together and that it is imperative to stop both behaviors and keep them in the inner circle as “deal breaking” behaviors. When addicts engage in substance abuse … it is highly likely that they will eventually trigger the need to act out sexually.

A Slippery Slope

Working with addicts who experience sexual addiction entails getting them to recognize how important it is to value their middle circle behaviors and to create measures that absolutely insulate them from participating in those behaviors. Initially, sex addicts in recovery understand that these middle circle behaviors are the gateway to moving them into full-blown relapse behavior. As time wanes and addicts begin to miss their addiction they will begin to flirt with behaviors that will absolutely activate their addiction. Although these behaviors seem insignificant, they will actually start an addict back on the journey towards relapse. I worked with a woman who refused to throw away a lipstick that she only used when she was ready to pursue sexual activity. She thought I was ridiculous to expect her to give up the lipstick. When she was in a heightened state of sobriety she realized that this red lipstick represented her acting out behaviors. She was unable to let go of the lipstick almost as if it was a transitional object that kept her attached to her old behaviors. This often happens with men who put filters on their phone and yet find ways to objectify women in bathing suits. They usually place viewing provocative images in their middle circle. Unfortunately, they are fooling themselves and are in a heightened state of denial and are one slip away from starting the cycle again.

Don’t underestimate your middle circle behaviors. Talk with your sponsor and your Twelve Step group about grieving the loss of these behaviors and finding supports to prevent them from occurring in everyday life. If you choose to ignore these middle circle behaviors, you will likely not be able to stay in good solid recovery. Eliminating these middle circle behaviors are essential to staying clean, sober, and recovered! Redirect your sadness and grief that you can no longer participate in acting out behaviors and focus on all the positive changes in your life. People who are in good solid recovery take their lives to the next level and can really make a difference in this world! For more information about “The Three Circles” go to my sexhelpwithcarolthecoach you tube channel.