Dr. Dylan Morgan M.A.(Oxon.), D.Phil.(Oxon.), MNCP, MNCH

LEEDS Complementary Therapy Centre, 249a Otley Rd. LS16 5LQ. map
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The Four Circles of Life

- Vicious, Vital, Constraining and Comforting

Dylan Morgan


This short book introduces in a popular way the kinds of feedback loops that are common in life. Not only are they common but they are enormously important. They are powerful sources of both happiness and sorrow, of success and failure.

Yet you will, I think, look in vain for books that will even mention them. Why is that? Well, you will find that most people learn by being taught. They start at school and continue at university or beyond. They are taught by people who have themselves learned by being taught, by people who have learned by being taught... This is a good system, but if an idea does not get into the system then they can never learn it.

What other ways are there of learning? One is by doing. You may not be very good at something to start with, but if you keep at it then you will learn to do it better. Another, related, way is to puzzle away at understanding something until you find something new.

Compared with academic psychologists I have done a lot of learning by doing. When your income depends entirely on your ability to help people with personal problems it concentrates the mind wonderfully. Compared with most practising therapists, counsellors etc., my trained mind (Oxford University Mathematics doctorate) has done a lot of puzzling. I can't help it. I have always needed to understand how things work.

I first came to realise the importance of feedback loops when I was trying to understand how hypnosis works. I wrote a technical book on this - The Principles of Hypnotherapy - which you might like to read later. It includes a lot of insight into how the therapy part of many therapies work also. But although it has been well received by professionals it is a bit on the technical side.

So here I would just like to introduce you to the four circles in simple everyday language. This is a short book. I, myself, wish there were more short books. Too many books that I buy have an idea that is clear by about Chapter 3. But you cannot sell a book of that length, so the author pads and pads. It is a waste of time and money. So I would like you to imagine that you have here just the early parts of the first five chapters of yet another "damn, thick square book" (Duke of Gloucester to Edward Gibbon). But I have thrown away the rest to save you time! (And it will emphasise that when I am consulted privately I also prefer to get to the heart of the matter and resolve it as fast as possible, with no padding.)

So here are the four circles.

Everyone has heard of the first kind: the vicious circle. You will suffer from a vicious circle when a change for the worse in your circumstances actually leads you to do something that makes it worse. Consequently things go from bad to worse.

It is not uncommon also to hear of virtuous circles. You benefit from one of these when a change for the better enables you to do something that can make things even better. Consequently things go from good to better. Such a circle is so life-enhancing that I prefer to call them vital circles. The word "virtue" has had some bad press, and sounds boring and restrictive - which is nothing like the nature of this kind of circle - so I want to drop it.

But there are two other kinds of circles which no-one has named to the best of my knowledge, which I term comfort circles and constraining circles. A comfort circle exists when a change for the worse in circumstances leads you to take an action that acts against the change. You then get back to where you wanted to be.

A constraining circle exists when a change that you make to improve things leads to a reaction which acts against the change. You are returned to where you did not want to be. So we have two kinds of favourable circles: the vital and comfort. And there are two unfavourable ones: vicious and constraining.

To the expert in feedback loops the vicious and vital are examples of positive feedback loops, while the vital and constraining are both examples of negative feedback loops. But I am not going to burden you with the enormous scientific literature on such loops since it is mostly based on situations where things can be measured exactly - electronic circuits, for example - and where human feelings are irrelevant. In my life and yours we cannot measure what is going on. And our feelings are supremely important. It is vitally important whether a change is felt to be better or worse. The technical man is interested only in whether the change is increased by the loop or decreased.

I have written five short chapters. In each of the first four there are three examples of each of the circles. They should give you a feeling for the circles, how important they are, and how they can exist in many different lives. The examples are true to life but please note that not just the names but in fact ALL the incidental but irrelevant details are changed from those of clients I have seen or people I have heard of at second hand. The details are just to make them readable. Confidentiality is very important in my work and in a widely-read book it is not enough, I believe, simply to use a false name as is customary in articles written for learned journals. Perhaps I can commend to you John Steinbeck's remark in his book Sweet Thursday, "There are people who will say that this whole account is a lie, but a thing isn't necessarily a lie even if it didn't necessarily happen."

As a result of reading those chapters you should gain an idea of how the circles work. The fifth chapter then gives you some help on recognising them in your own life and how to take advantage of this knowledge.


Chapter 1. Vicious Circles

Most people are familiar with both the term vicious circle and its meaning. I choose here three examples to illustrate them in a lively way to help to bring their power and nature clearly back to mind.

Example 1. The violent couple.

Bill and Mary got married in their late twenties. He had his own printing business and was doing very well. She was working in TV on the production side and was well respected for her skills. As individuals they were both very adept at dealing with other people in a flexible and civilised way, being able to use firmness or humour or tact as was appropriate. They had many friends who saw them as being well suited to each other in most ways, and indeed that was true. After five years of marriage they have yet to start to talk about starting a family.

Perhaps that is because they are fighting like savages. Mary is having to use the services of a friend in Make-up to help to cover up the bruises. Bill is passing off the scratches on his face as being the result of hunting for his golf-ball in some particularly brambly rough.

What went wrong?

Let us go back a couple of years. Bill had come home from work after dealing with a very difficult customer who was not only refusing to pay a very substantial bill but had expressed himself in the violent language of the underworld. As is rather natural he started to share his feelings with Mary almost as soon as she came in. But it happened that she had had a difficult day herself and his angry tones infected her and she snapped, "For heaven's sake! Give me a rest. Let me just get changed first," and went upstairs.

We can perhaps agree that there is nothing much wrong there. It could happen to any couple. These things happen and just blow over.

But this time it had made a bit of a mark and the next day Mary drove home half expecting that Bill might be angry, and in the car she started to rehearse some of the things she would say. In fact Bill was not home, and did not come in until late - in part because he was still a bit angry and wanted to avoid another quarrel. As the wait grew so did Mary's anger, so that when Bill finally arrived another quarrel arose and they slept in separate beds.

They were well suited: they both had strong characters and neither had never been in the habit of backing down in the face of difficulties. It was one of the reasons for their successful careers. But sadly this very virtue simply made things worse and as time passed things got worse.

As you have read this story it may have left questions in your mind and it may have left you wondering whether anything can be done about it.

You might be wondering if there were any background issues that the couple were not addressing. Was she perhaps ready to have a child and either not acknowledging it herself or perhaps he was saying "No, not yet"? Was he perhaps having a secret affair and his suppressed guilt was coming out in anger? Was there in either partner a childhood history of violence? You might be thinking that they ought to go to Relate; or some other form of counselling. Or you may feel that they should have divorced long ago.

Such thoughts are quite relevant. But I would like you to see that the heart of the matter - the cause of the havoc - is the vicious circle that arose in their loving relationship. It is possible that some of the factors above are relevant to the situation, but only if they contribute to the vicious circle. It is possible that some of the actions would help, but only if they were to break the vicious circle. (As a Personal Consultant or Hypnotherapist in such a situation I am experienced both in evaluating factors and initiating relevant actions.)

Example 2. The blushing student.

Estelle is a first year law student at Leeds University. She is slim and just a little over 5 foot high. She is always immaculately dressed, and favours blacks and reds which complement her beautiful red hair and fair skin. You notice the hair because she has it dressed to come forward onto her cheeks. But you would only see her rarely, and at lectures, and then sitting towards the back, being the last in and the first out. She sits in the library with her head bowed over her law books, her face invisible. You would probably put her down as one of those very ambitious students who plans to go far, and has little time for social life. Her high marks would confirm this impression.

But in fact she is very miserable. She is miserable and obsessed with the embarrassing fact that she blushes, often for no apparent reason. When she wakes in the morning she at once reviews the day ahead anticipating all the places and times where she might - she feels almost certain that she will - blush for people to see. And she reschedules her day as far as possible to avoid such occasions. At times it means never going out at all. If she has to go out then she tries to minimise the chances of being seen. You now understand the reasons for the hair style and the library habit. But of course the very thought that she will find a given situation embarrassing - especially the times when she has to give a presentation - primes the pump and makes it almost certain that when the time comes she will blush. And of course the fact that she has blushed increases her embarrassment and expectation that she will blush the next time. And this increased expectation increases the chance of further blushing... and so the vicious circle goes round and round, driving the beautiful young woman who should be enjoying her life nearly mad with despair.

Of course you may well be thinking of there being other factors involved. Had she perhaps been mocked a lot at school for blushing? Was she really afraid of sex and her subconscious somehow hit upon the blushing as a way of safely avoiding meeting anyone, let alone a man? Is her problem more that she is just afraid of other people? And you might think that she should be able to end the problem. Perhaps a short, sharp "Stop all this nonsense"? Perhaps just gently pointing out to her that it does not matter if she blushes? Perhaps try to make her less self-conscious? Perhaps acupuncture or hypnosis or psychoanalysis?

Such thoughts are very relevant. But I would like you to see that the heart of the matter - the reason why there is such a problem - is the vicious circle of embarrassment leading to blushing which leads to more embarrassment which leads to more blushing. It is possible that some of the factors above are relevant to the situation, but only if they contribute to this vicious circle. It is possible that some of the "solutions" would help, but only if they were to break the vicious circle. (Anyone with experience and ability in areas such as counselling should be able to evaluate such factors and be able to initiate relevant improvements.)

Example 3. The rebellious teenage son.

The Cromwell family seems to be one of those families on whom the sun shines. They are very comfortably off since the father Cedric is a successful barrister with a lucrative practice in company law in Leeds and they live in a large house near one of the villages in the beautiful Yorkshire countryside. His wife Janet still retains her looks and slim figure, despite having three children, and enjoys her role as mother and hostess to her husband's friends and has a wide social life of her own. Of the three children only the middle child, 16-year-old Bertrand (though his nicknames are Oliver or Ollie and Roundhead or Roundie, for an obvious reason) is involved in this story. His two sisters, one older and one younger, seem well-adjusted and happy as far as all can tell.

It is, of course, very common for teenage sons to be a bit rebellious, but Cedric is certain that Bertrand is totally out of hand. He shouts and swears and even spits at him! Cedric orders him to go to his room and he refuses to go, but kicks the beautiful oak door to his father's study as he storms out, releasing another bellow of rage from the outraged barrister. Cedric is sure that his son is mentally disturbed, but when he tells Janet this all her maternal instincts strengthen and she defends Bertrand as being simply high-spirited. "You should be gentler on him," she argues. But her strong-minded husband, accustomed to argue his case in court with total commitment, simply gets more entrenched in his position and decides to take an even higher hand with his son. His son, who shares something of his father's adversarial nature, accepts the labels. "OK, so I am a no-good psychopath, am I? I'll show you what I can do on those lines. You'll be sorry." And so you can see the vicious circle arising between the two men. But at the same time notice the other vicious circle involving Janet. The more angry her husband gets, the more she sides with her son, but this simply turns her husband still further against her son and strengthens the son to be more determined against the father: both things increase the severity of the rows and lead Janet's loyalties to become even more polarised.

Again you may wonder if other factors are involved. We may wonder if Cedric is blindly copying a fathering style from his own father, one that is less appropriate in the modern age. We may wonder if Janet's father had been a bully and she is subconsciously reacting against that. We may wonder if Bertrand is taking drugs or is being influenced by suspect friends or is, indeed, suffering from schizophrenia or some other recognised condition. Perhaps his diet is wrong and he is allergic to some additives? Perhaps he is being bullied at school? If we are Freudians we will be thinking about the Oedipus complex. Or we may wonder if Cedric has been something of a bully all along, but that Janet kept the peace for her own sake and went along with it. Or we might simply think that the whole thing is really just in the nature of things. The scene has been played out many times, with variations, since well before the time of Oliver Cromwell. The end is usually for the son to leave home; make a life or his own and find a wife and then peace is declared and father and son become closer than before. And if we start thinking about improving matters we might think of taking Bertrand to a doctor or therapist; we might think of sending him away to a boarding school; we might think of Family Therapy or psychoanalysis for one or more members of it.

Any of such thoughts could be relevant. But I would like you to see that the heart of the matter - the underlying pattern - contains the vicious circles, two in this case, the father-son circle of anger leading to rebellion which leads to more anger and the woman-men circle involving anger in the father leading to more defence of her child by the mother leading to more anger in the husband and more rebellion in the son. It is possible that some of the factors above are relevant to the situation, but only if they contribute to these vicious circles. It is possible that some of the "solutions" would help, but only if they were to break the primary vicious circle. Even if we were to break the secondary circle involving Janet it would do little good unless it led to a breaking also of the circle between father and son. By contrast breaking the primary circle between father and son would immediately stop the other one. (As a Personal Consultant or Hypnotherapist in such a situation I am experienced in evaluating factors and initiating relevant actions.)

The three examples above will, I trust, have illustrated the central role that vicious circles play in many of the problems that try us severely in life.


Chapter 2. Vital Circles

The term vicious circle is used a lot. There is a corresponding term - virtuous circle - that is sometimes used, but more rarely. It refers to a situation in which one thing getting better leads to another thing getting better which leads to the first thing getting even better.... and so on.

Why do we hear more of vicious circles than virtuous circles? Perhaps because of that aspect of human nature which tends always to pay more attention to things that go wrong rather than to things that are going well: "It's the squeaking gate that gets the oil". But I also suspect that there is a problem with the very word "virtuous". The trouble is that virtue is often felt to be rather boring and inhibiting. And that is really NOT what virtuous circles are about.

They are the dramatic converse of vicious circles, they involve things changing dramatically and for the better, they are full of life and interest. And so I am going to suggest that a far better word for them is vital. A vital thing is full of life and growth and is exciting. The word fits the bill very well.

The only difference between a vital circle and a vicious circle is that a vital circle makes things increasingly better where a vicious circle makes things increasingly worse. Here are some examples of vital circles.

Example 1. Falling in love

Falling in love nearly always provides an example of a vital circle. Let us watch Susan and Richard who have met at the birthday party of Pat (a mutual friend). Susan has just joined the accounting firm at which Pat works. She is 19, brown eyed, with long brown hair. She split from her last boyfriend six months ago, and is feeling lonely as she knows no-one else at the party. Richard, 24, is an engineer who went to university with Pat. He feels at home at the party where he knows quite a lot of the others, and indeed was once more than a good friend to Pat. However he is not involved with anyone at present and, after spending the first hour or so catching up with old friends, notices Susan looking rather out of it, so, out of politeness, he goes over.

"Hi, I don't know you, do I? Friend of Pat's?"

Susan finds this small attention more than welcome - she had just been wondering whether to call it a night - and responds with a smile which is made wider by her relief.

"Sort of. I'm new at the office. So I am not really a close friend, but she seems a really nice person. You know her well?"
"Yes, we went to Uni together."

But it is not the words that are important. What is important is that that first open smile made him feel something like, "Nice girl. Seems to like me. Lovely hair." He then, without thinking about it, responded with deeper, warmer tones in his voice, and more intense eye contact. She, perhaps equally unconsciously, responded to his attention as a wilting flower responds to watering. She is feeling, "He seems to like me! Great. He's got something about him."

The conversation wanders on, quickly moving beyond Pat to jobs and accommodation and pastimes. But again those topics are nothing like as interesting to us as noticing the way in which each forward step by one is echoed by a forward step in the other. Smiles are met with smiles, laughs with laughter, and when he touches her arm, as if accidentally, to make a point, her arm moves slightly towards his hand, and not long afterwards she is touching him lightly in return.

You can doubtless see how things continued. We may conjecture what it is that made things go well. We may talk about the "chemistry" between them; we may wonder if he was at all like her father and she like his mother; we may note that they had some interests and characteristics in common; we may notice differences that might attract; we may wonder if things would have gone so well if Susan had not felt so isolated. And indeed all these and other factors might be involved. But the central pattern is of a vital circle in which a favourable response in Susan evokes a favourable response in Richard which evokes a more favourable response in Susan which in turn evokes a more favourable response in Richard which ......

No couple can fall in love without a circle of this kind.

The details may vary, the speed of progress will vary, even the quality of their feelings may vary. In some people love is characterised by excitement, while in others its primary note is one of deep contentment - but always the couple is brought together by a vital circle. A vital, life-enhancing circle. We may perhaps see the wedding ring as a physical symbol of where this abstract circle typically leads.

Example 2. The successful young entrepreneur.

Sam was a young man who had lots of energy but no money. Even before he left school he was devoting his time to the problem of how to get more. He tried this and that and by the time he left school he had collected enough to buy a cheap secondhand van.

Soon after that he went to a large tyre merchant and asked how much they would charge if he bought in bulk. They laughed at the young lad, but in the end told him what he wanted to know. He discovered exactly how much cheaper they were by the hundred and how much discount he got for cash. After a lot of persuasion he talked them into selling him 100 with cash in a week. The next few days he was furiously active, driving around all the local garages with a van-full of tyres selling them at only a little more than he paid for them. They were brand-new tyres; he had the invoice from the wholesaler; he was selling them cheaper than anyone else. Every garage bought a few - for cash. It was money in the bank for them, too. At the end of the week Sam paid the wholesaler cash, which established his creditworthiness with them. He then negotiated for the sale of 200 at a slightly bigger discount. And repeated the whole business. The second time around is always a bit easier, and he could cut the prices a bit more when he needed. He could then get bigger orders and better terms from the wholesalers. This made it even easier to sell bargains to the garages. The greater sales meant that it was easier still to buy cheaply, and so the vital (from his point of view) circle worked in his favour.

Of course he is not the only businessman who has discovered the value of creating vital circles. In all branches of commerce it is common to find that the greater the sales the lower the unit cost, and the lower the unit cost the greater the sales.

"The economy of scale" is the term often used for this. But the name of the wheel that is turning faster all the time is a vital circle.

Of course there are many factors involved in determining whether the wheel will turn or not. Sam's energy was a crucial factor. The state of the market is important: if Sam had had more competitors it might have been a different story. And chance plays a part. But centre stage is the vivid fact that it was only by creating a vital circle that Sam succeeded in starting the business that later made him the money that he had always wanted.

Example 3. Plain becomes beautiful.

Clarissa was a plain girl. At school she was something of a mouse. No boy looked twice at her in her early teens. She was often depressed. Then somehow, I am not sure why, she changed in a small way. She decided that she would try out different styles of clothes, that she bought cheaply from charity shops. She learned how to change them by cutting and sewing. She started to think about mixing and matching. When she looked in the mirror and saw that she looked better, her self-confidence increased. And that increase in confidence made her able to be a bit more adventurous in her purchases and styles. And they made her feel more confident and attractive still. And that made her even more adventurous. She started to read fashion magazines and re-modelled her purchases to look like the latest thing. She paid attention to her hair, skin and nails and was rewarded by them. When I first met her she looked absolutely stunning. And all because she had set up a vital circle which made things better and better.

Of course those improvements led to others. Boys, who tend to notice superficial things more than the person inside, noticed her improved apearance. And that naturally improved her self-confidence still more. And that helped her to be a bit more adventurous. And so on.

Notice that she might have gone the opposite way and fallen into a vicious circle in which feeling less self-confident led her to dress more drably, which would in turn have demoralised her, which would have led to even less time and money being devoted to clothes, which in turn would have made her feel worse....

She should take credit for choosing the vital path and not the vicious path from her starting point. And it is that freedom that we all have.

I hope that these three examples in quite different human fields will give you a feel for the nature of vital circles. One thing changes; it makes a change in a second thing; that change increases the change in the first thing which increases the change in the second thing, and so the changes grow, and grow and grow.

Of course that is also true of vicious circles. The only difference is whether we regard the change as beneficial (vital) or harmful (vicious).


Chapter 3. Constraining Circles

The third of the circles of life is the constraining circle. A constraining circle is not as dramatic as a vicious circle. It does not tend to make things worse, but it acts to keep you in a place or state that you want to leave. You can find the word strain right in the middle of constraining. You are often in fact straining against the forces of the constraining circle, like a goat straining against its tether. And the presence of such circles adds to the strain of life. Here are some examples to make the constraining circle more vivid.

Example 1. The Smoker

Mrs. Sheila Brooks is a normally amiable woman who works as a music teacher. Her two daughters, aged 13 and 15, share her red hair and her musical abilities, but it is too soon to know if they will make a career of music. Mr. Colin Brooks is an accountant, meticulous and successful both at work and with his prize-winning roses.

The family is as harmonious as can be expected with two teenage girls in the house, but Sheila works hard to prevent her daughters' tendency to emotional outbursts from disturbing their father, who needs to maintain a level calm both for his work and for his roses.

There is just one fly in the ointment: Sheila smokes 40 a day. Colin hates this - except when he has greenfly in the greenhouse. Sheila is then called in to breathe tobacco smoke on them and kill them like some fire breathing dragon. But at all other times he constantly reminds her of the folly of smoking - he has never been foolish enough to smoke - why does she not have the willpower to stop? Sheila would also like to stop, for the sake of her own health. She notices herself coughing in the morning, and she is shorter of breath than she should be, and her singing is deteriorating. She has plenty of good reasons to stop, but has never succeeded.

The fact is that she has tried any number of times. She is fine for the first half day. Then she starts to feel irritable. Her music pupils are startled to lose her normal soothing, "That's fine, dear. Well done. Now just go over it again, with a little more confidence this time!" Instead they find her saying things like, "For heaven's sake! You are supposed to be playing the violin, not sawing wood!" But far worse is to come in the evenings at home. The noise of the girls squabbling over who owns a certain necklace starts to get through to her and she starts to snap at them. The last straw, as far as Mr. Brooks is concerned, is when she criticises HIM for something he has been doing or saying every single day of their marriage (so there can be nothing wrong with that, can there?)

Sometimes it is on the second day, and sometimes on the third, but sooner or later Mr. Brooks says, "This simply won't do! You have no self-control at all. And you will soon be losing pupils, which means money! You had better have another cigarette." So redheaded Sheila does, and this calms her down into her familiar calm, smoking self.

And so you can perhaps see how she is constrained to stay a smoker. She makes a change: stopping smoking. That change has an effect on her: she gets very irritable with those around her. That makes her husband (and to some extent her own feelings and those of her pupils) react in such a way as to reverse the original change. She is pushed back to where she was before. And she has gone around this little circle many times.

You will see that there are many details that are relevant to the situation. You may think that it is clear that Colin is insufferable. You may think that Sheila should be more independent. You may wonder if it will be easier when the girls are safely married. You may wonder about other ways of stopping smoking - patches? All of these considerations are relevant. But they are relevant to the central dynamic - the constraining circle of cause and effect. If we can break that circle then it will be easy for Sheila to change and stop smoking permanently. If we cannot then she will continue to last only for a day or two.

Example 2. The quiet spinster.

Felicity is 39 years old. She is still at home, looking after her retired father: her mother died some years ago of cancer. Her hair is mousy, as is her habitual character. She has never had a deep relationship with a man, though her daydreams have always featured a loving man in a nice little house somewhere. The trouble is that she has never had the confidence to take any practical step in that direction.

When she was young she was overshadowed by an older, beautiful, wildly extrovert sister, who is now married with three children. Felicity is a loving aunt to them, but has to stifle a desire for children of her own.

She is quite clever and works as a middle manager, on the personnel side, in a large company in the service industry. Though she does her job very conscientiously, she will never speak in meetings and will never push herself forwards or take any initiative. Her colleagues, if they were asked about her, would pause for a moment to try to form some sort of definite picture in their minds and then might say something like, "Oh, yes, Felicity! A good member of the team."

One day Felicity read an article in a magazine about the power of hypnosis to improve confidence, and from somewhere she just found enough confidence to give it a try. She turned out to be very responsive, as might have been guessed from her very obliging personality. As it happens the hypnotherapist she visited adopted a very straightforward approach which amounted to little more than using a standard induction technique in which Felicity pictured herself lying on a sunny beach followed by very strongly worded suggestions that she would feel enormously confident; she would be able to go anywhere; she would feel able to speak to anyone, and so on.

She left his room feeling a new woman. All sorts of feelings were buzzing inside her. She felt capable of anything, and found it hard to get to sleep that night because of the feeling of inner excitement.

The same confident feeling filled her next day as she went into work, thinking that she really must buy some brighter clothes. She greeted the first colleague she met with an enormous smile and, "Isn't it a lovely morning?" As it happens she was two grades above her in the hierarchy and had probably never noticed her before. She looked startled, murmured, "Quite" and then cut her dead. Felicity walked into the large office that she shared with others and joined a group that was busy talking office politics. "What are we talking about?" she opened brightly. Again there were startled looks - you do not expect the office desks to start asking questions, do you? Five sets of eyes looked at her. Five faces turned expressions varying from blankness to irritation in her direction. Then five minds returned to the topic in hand.

Poor Felicity's heart sank.

From time to time during the day some of the bright confidence returned but, like waves breaking against a rocky shore, it soon fell back again. By evening she was too low to do anything but go home as usual, and cook the meal as usual. That was probably just as well, because her father would have been most irritated if she had suggested going out, and so breaking with his comfortable evening routine. And if she HAD gone out she could easily have gone to an inappropriate place, and said the wrong thing to the wrong person, and come home still more depressed than before.

The plain fact of life is that if you change then everybody that you know is going to have to respond to that change. And on the whole people tend instinctively to resist any significant change that they have not chosen themselves. So when Felicity made a big change, she encountered reactions that inevitably tended to act against it. So we see her during that day traversing the loop: act confident, get repulsed, lose confidence again.

That is a constraining circle.

I might observe that this does not mean that hypnotherapy (or any other therapy that can improve mood) is ineffective. It means that it has to be used with far more intelligence, and more awareness of the possible consequences, than was shown in this example. A better path would involve finding one small positive change: let us say simply wearing a colour other than the greys and blacks she felt comfortable in. It would be then a great step forward if she were to have the confidence to buy something in pink, for example, and wear it to work. There would be too small a change to evoke a strong negative reaction. With any luck there would be one or two small positive remarks from other women in the office who would notice but not feel threatened. That would be a great step forward for Felicity in one week.

In the second week we might just manage to get her to go to an art gallery on the Saturday. For her it would take a good ration of confidence, but a definite feeling of achievement would result. We would nevertheless need to prepare her for any small grumble that might come from her father or her strong sister at such an unprecedented show of independence. We must expect constraining reactions and act to minimise their effects. (I have necessarily become rather expert on advising on such things.)

With each small step firmly achieved Felicity will get more confident, and that confidence will make it easier to take another step and so on and so we would be establishing a vital circle, which, as I have said before, is what you need if you want to make some large positive change.

Example 3. Mesmer's disastrous success.

Everyone knows the word "Mesmerise". It is usually used as an alternative to "hypnotise". Fewer people know that it comes from the name of Franz (originally Friedrich) Anton Mesmer who was born in 1734. Funnily enough Mesmer himself would be angry and offended if you were to call him the father of hypnotism. Hypnotism is based on the facts that people are far more open to suggestions than they imagine, and that it is far easier for an idea in the mind to affect the behaviour of the body than they imagine. Mesmer, on the other hand, believed that he had discovered ways of handling the inner energies of the body - the animal magnetism, he called it - in such a way as to heal. In fact his approach was very much more like the many therapies such as Reiki which promote similar theories today.

However the story of his life gives us an interesting and quite famous example of a constraining circle. The year is 1777, the place Vienna. His patient is a young woman, Maria Theresa Paradis who is quite famous. She is attractive, of good family, a Goddaughter to the Empress, an excellent pianist and blind from an early age.

Her parents, not unnaturally, had tried to find a cure. Medicine was in a primitive state in those days, and the treatments were often very painful - and totally useless. But they kept on trying, and eventually Mesmer's growing reputation in Vienna brought Maria to his door to see if he could help.

And he could! Her sight started to return. The initial result, of course, was delight all around. But then to Mesmer's surprise and considerably annoyance, her parents refused to bring her back for more treatment and Maria's blindness returned.

Why was that? The fact was that no-one had thought through the consequences of an improvement in Maria's sight. The first problem was that her piano playing started to deteriorate, possibly because the fact that she could now see the keys upset her natural habits or perhaps because the sight of her audience increased her self-consciousness and nervousness. But a worse consequence was that whereas as an excellent blind pianist she had a high reputation, as a sighted one she would not be all that special - she did not know how to read music, for example. There was also the possibility that she would lose the pension paid to her by the Empress because of her blindness, and that would be a loss which her father would have noticed acutely.

In short the consequences of the improvement were so dire that you can see why her family backtracked quite quickly and stopped all attempts to "cure" her. There was a good deal of acrimony between them and Mesmer, which eventually died out. But the story remains in the history books as an example of how, from Mesmer's point of view, a constraining circle thwarted him from achieving one of his greatest cures.

Was it a constraining circle for little Maria? In the next chapter we will meet comfort circles. They are very like constraining circles in that they tend to preserve the status quo. The difference is that they maintain a favourable state rather than an unfavourable state. It is my opinion that Maria herself was probably happier and better off as a result of Mesmer's treatment being stopped. She no longer had to undergo fruitless and painful treatments. She retained her pension and her petted position at Court. She achieved acclaim in Paris and London. The great Mozart wrote especially for her his Concerto in B Flat Major. Her servants did all the boring practical things in life for her. She could converse with anyone in Europe. That does not sound too hard a life.

From Mesmer's point of view there was a circle constraining him from achieving the success he desired. But I rather think that from Maria's point of view it was a comfort circle. The difference between these two types of circle is often relative to the person involved. In the case of the quiet spinster a circle that brought comfort to her father was constraining for her.

I have become am enormously familiar over the years with the subtle brakes that the constraining circles place on people. Once they are recognised they can be handled or simply avoided, usually without too much difficulty. But if you do not recognise them then they can feel like some invisible power that holds you in place whatever you do.


Chapter 4. Comfort circles

A comfort circle is like a constraining circle in that it returns things back to the way they were. The difference is a subjective one. From the point of view of the person experiencing it, the result is favourable.

Our bodies are full of such circles which maintain them in a comfort zone. If your temperature rises above comfort level then your body will start to perspire and it will send blood out towards the skin to cool you off again. If your temperature drops below comfort level then your body will restrict the flow of blood to your skin and may even go so far as to make your muscles contract frequently - you shiver - in order to create more heat to warm you up again. These small circles can be repeated over and over millions of times in your life in order to keep your temperature in a comfortable range. Similar comfort circles ensure that you have a comfortable amount of oxygen in your body, comfortable blood sugar levels and so on.

Although we benefit enormously from such comfort circles, they take place below the conscious level. I now want to give some examples on a larger scale of the kind of comfort circles that can make life far more pleasant. These are on a conscious enough level for us to adopt them or reject them.

Example 1 The happy family.

Charles and Susan Green live in a pleasant village in the Vale of York. They are a healthy and happy couple, whose children have grown up and moved away, but not too far for fairly frequent visits.

They have quite a large garden. When the grass grows a little too long, Charles cuts it. When the shrubs get a little too over enthusiastic, Susan prunes them. The inside of the house is rather like the garden - a pleasure to be in. If a room gets a little too messy, Susan tidies it up. When the wallpaper gets a little too scuffed or old they both re-paper. In each case we have the simple pattern of the comfort circle: when something changes for the worse, something else predictably happens which changes it back again.

Does this sound boring? It is certainly not as exciting as vital circles can be. And yet their little comfort circles make life a great deal easier for them than their neighbours, the Browns. The Browns, when the grass grows, start to worry, "Oh, dear! We will never get on top of it," and the thought exhausts them so much that they can seldom find the strength to do any mowing at all. When a room gets messy they say to each other, "It's all your fault!" and do nothing. When the place needs a new lick of paint, it is, "But tradesmen are so expensive these days!" There are no automatic responses to discomfort in the Brown's life which act to eliminate them. Consequently the Brown's drift year by year into a more and more uncomfortable life.

Comfort circles may not be exciting, but not having them can make life far more of a burden.

The Greens created other comfort circles around their three children as they were growing up. When they were young the two boys and a girl were quite as likely to have quarrels and upsets as any others. The Greens, who did not quarrel themselves, worked on the very simple idea that quarrels happened when the children were too full of beans and restless or if they were too tired and therefore irritable. So they instituted the circles, "If you have enough energy to quarrel, then you have enough to do something useful. You can wash the car in the garage or wash the floor in the kitchen." If the answer was, "Oh, I am too tired for that!" then the reply was, "Then you clearly need to go to your room and sleep or rest."

In either case the uncomfortable effects of quarrels were soon eliminated. Perhaps the Greens' ideas were simplistic? Yes, possibly, but they were good enough for their purpose and their family. Did the children lose assertiveness because of not quarreling? No, because sports and competitiveness were encouraged: "Which boy can wash his half of the car best/fastest?" The children could compete against each other as much as they liked: it was only bad tempers that the Greens found uncomfortable and acted against.

Would the Green's way suit you? Perhaps not. I know some people who feel uncomfortable if there are not some quarrels every day or two and some passionate love-making, too. (I saw one study which concluded that the way to estimate the level of satisfaction in a marriage is to subtract the number of quarrels a week from the number of love-makings. The higher the resulting number, the better the marriage!)

Example 2. The successful detective chief inspector.

Detective Chief Inspector Smith has a difficult job. There is a lot of responsibility, a lot of unpredictability and a lot of stress. The hours are often very long. He is often dealing with very difficult characters. His work can in no sense be called comfortable.

And yet he seems to his colleagues to remain remarkably calm and equable. Furthermore he does not smoke or drink heavily - not uncommon methods of trying to keep calm which are used by some of his colleagues.

He was not always this calm. When he was a young office he actually acquired a reputation as something of a hot-head. This continued until one day he actually lashed out at a superior officer and knocked him to the ground. As he remembers it, this was actually one of the great blessings of his life in disguise. He could have got into very serious trouble, but his superior - an outstanding man - had said only, "Constable Smith. You have proved that you have the strength of an ox. Now prove to me that you have the intelligence of a man. In twenty-four hours I want a written report on how you can use your temper for good not harm."

The immediate result was the conscious recognition by Constable Smith that if he felt that oh-so-familiar anger growing inside him then a session at the gym made him feel calmer and better. It was a simple comfort circle, of course. The long term good was a fitter and healthier body.

But that was only a start. He was a bright young man and once he had been shown the start of something he could work the rest out for himself. Soon, without ever having heard of comfort circles, he developed more and more of them. When, after working excessively long hours, he felt his tiredness getting uncomfortable he decided to cultivate the knack of cat-naps. (Another comfort circle: tiredness leads to naps which lead to reduced tiredness.) He became able to drop off for five minutes in the car (at rest, of course) or in his office chair. These revitalised him considerably. Of course he had to put up with a good bit of leg-pulling to start with, but he could deal with that.

Equally when he found that a particular person was making life difficult in his department he sat down and worked on some little way of behaving which would get that person back in line each time with the minimum of trouble.

It all sounds very simple and straightforward. Sometimes it was, at other times it was very hard to find a way of dealing with a particular problem. Some comfort circles are easier to introduce than others. (That is where I have had to learn a lot of skill over the years.) But the main point is that out of that career-threatening mistake Constable, later Sergeant and finally Detective Chief Inspector Smith evolved an attitude of mind that he expressed as follows. "Any well-run organisation or organism needs definite controls so that any departure from the order immediately initiates processes that will return things back to good order." The scientist calls such processes negative feedback loops. In the more human language of the book I am calling them comfort circles.

Examples 3. A medley of small comfort circles.

Here is a medley of little comfort circles that are so common that they arise in millions of people and are perhaps hard to recognise for what they are because they are such common habits.

When Bill feels tense he lights up a cigarette. Five minutes later he is calmer. He goes around this loop perhaps twenty times a day.

When Sue feels rather self conscious in social situations she has a drink. The drink makes her feel less self-conscious, more comfortable. She has been around this particular loop thousands of times since she was a teenager.

Jack does not like the feeling of tension in the air when people are on edge. From an early age he learned that if he could get his parents to laugh then things felt better. Ever since then he has been going around the same loop. He became the joker in the form at school. Now he is the office wag. Whenever tension arises he uses a joke to remove it again.

Frank lacks confidence. But he found from quite early on in life a way to feel better at the times when this feeling came on. He would act and talk aggressively. He would observe that this made people give him some distance and a kind of fearful respect. That allayed his feelings of inadequacy. And so the comfort circle started: low confidence leading to outbursts of aggression leading to some reassurance. And he has gone around that loop thousands of times ever since.

With Helen the calming activity is washing clothes. For her there has always been something very soothing about the simple actions of hand-washing clothes in water and then hanging them up on a line. You always know when life is being stressful for her because she spends longer and longer at the sink and the clotheslines start to fill to overflowing.

For many people the feeling of boredom is very uncomfortable. Here are a few ways people have of dealing with it.

For some people boredom leads to eating which relieves the boredom. For others smoking or drinking is used for the same purpose. For others an exciting book, or video or film with do the trick. Others go to the races, play rugby or go abseiling or hang-gliding. But there are young men for whom joyriding or drugs or breaking and entering are used for the same purpose of relieving boredom.

As I have listed many daily examples of comfort circles you may have noticed that you would have felt that some of them are in some sense "better" than others. I suspect that if you think about it the reason for this is the following.

There is no guarantee that what is beneficial in the short term will also be beneficial in the long term. For one man a heavy drinking session or a workout at the gym will both leave him feeling better. They could each be used as part of a comfort circle in the short term. The difference lies in the long term. Ten years of alcoholic binges will usually lead to problems. Ten years of going to the gym usually leads to health and long life.

Ten years of going around the smoking comfort circle can damage the health as well as being heavy on the pocket. Ten years of washing clothes will see no long term harm, except that just possibly clothes have needed to be replaced a little more often. Ten years of breaking and entering will probably lead to jail. Ten years of playing rugby may of course lead to a broken arm or leg but on the whole will be much more beneficial.

In my work I am acutely aware of the power and value of comfort circles. At times I am helping to introduce new ones that will make life more comfortable. At other times we have to be sure that in making some other change we do not get rid of a useful comfort circle.


Chapter 5. Circles in your own life

In earlier chapters we have seen many examples of the Four Circles in action in various people's lives. You, the reader, may well wonder if there are any which are active in your life.

A vicious circle is not like a rash that can be easily seen, or headache which is clearly felt. There is no medical or other machine that can detect one. It is a pattern of cause and effect. It is a dynamic thing. For that reason it is easily overlooked. The same is true for the other three circles. So how do we know when we are suffering from a vicious or a constraining circle? How do we know when we are benefiting from a vital or comforting circle and how do we create them?

It is important to realise that this is not one of those books that seeks to explain every aspect of life in one way - there are very, very many things that have nothing to do with the Four Circles. So we need a way of determining whether or not we are dealing with a situation which involves one of the Four Circles or not.

And the way is really very straightforward. It involves asking two kinds of simple question.

"What is the result of a change in this?" and "What is the cause of a change in this?"

These are very simple and natural questions, that we are often in the habit of thinking of in one form or another.

Here is a simple example:

What is the result of blushing? - I worry that I will look foolish.

What is the cause of blushing? - Worrying that I will look foolish.

In this simple case we can see that no matter where we start we go around a circle of cause and effect whereby worry causes blushing which causes more worry which causes more blushing.... Since these are unpleasant we have a vicious circle.

Here is another simple two person example, where the problem centres on their sexual relationship:

What is the cause of her not wanting sex with him? - Because he is angry all the time.

What is the cause of the anger? - Not having sex.

Because there is a clear circle of cause and effect we have another vicious circle for each of them.

So the essential idea is very simple. We just trace a chain of cause and effect. We can either go forward from cause to effect, or back wards from effect to cause, and then repeat. A chain may have a loop or it may not. You can find out by just going along it link by link. Only if find a chain of cause and effect that forms a loop can we talk of one of the four circles. If a chain does not close then we do not have one.

I want to repeat that I am not saying that all problems in life are due to one of the circles. There are unlimited examples of cause and effect. We cannot escape them. But the majority of chains of cause and effect do not close and so do not form one of the circles. So here are some examples of when a chain of cause and effect does NOT close into a circle.

What caused your headache? A brick fell on me.

What is the result of your headache? Taking pain killers.

Does the result of taking painkillers include increasing or decreasing the chance of another brick falling? No.

What made you angry? The frost killed my tulips!

What caused the frost? A cold wind from Siberia, and that might have been a result of global warming, but it was nothing to do with my anger.

How come you have such good skin? I inherited it from my mother.

How did she get it? From her mother. It was certainly not because of me.

You see, we can often see patterns of cause and effect, and they do not form loops. Let me repeat. The circles of life that I am talking about are chains of cause and effect which form loops. They are important not so much because they are common - open chains are probably much more common - but because they have greater long term effect than the more random open chains. A chance one-off meeting with a stranger in a train will have some effect, but it is likely to wear off. The effect of a repeated meeting with someone will be much more important in the long term because of the cumulative effect.

Now that we have in mind the simple idea that it is rather easy to find circles by asking our two questions repeatedly, the next question is, how do we distinguish the four kinds? I suspect that this will be rather easy for most people.

If the loop tends to make you feel better and better is is obviously vital. If it tends to make you feel worse and worse it is just as obviously vicious. Notice that the terms are always relative to the speaker. In a tennis match we may find the following chain of cause and effect: player A plays better; the result is that player B feels defeated; that results in B playing worse; that results in A feeling more confident; that results in him playing better and so we have a loop. It is vital for A. It is vicious for B. It does not take an Einstein to see that the distinction is relative to the feelings of a person involved in the loop.

If a loop involves you acting to return from discomfort back to comfort it is a comfort circle. If it brings you back to discomfort after you try to escape it is constraining. Again you see that the nature of the loop is relative to you and your feelings. It is not uncommon for a loop that comforts one person to constrain another. For example: suppose the result of the temperature in a room getting uncomfortably hot for person A is that he opens the window, the result of which is that the room cools down. He is then creating a comfort circle. But suppose he shares the room with B who reacts to the room cooling by closing the window so that it warms up again. Then B is also creating a comfort circle relative to her feelings. But equally clearly A sees B's actions as part of a constraining loop: always acting to bring him back to an uncomfortable temperature. And of course B feels the same about A.

Four kinds of PEOPLE

The main purpose of this small book is just to familiarise you with the existence and nature of the four circles, so that you will become more aware of them throughout your life. A further help to recognise them is to imagine a person whose life is dominated by one and only one of the four.

Those who fill their lives with vital circles will tend to be forever improving. There will tend to be a lot of change, activity and adventure in their lives. They are naturally drawn to jobs where the return in terms of satisfaction more than repays the effort they put in. They are naturally drawn to people who make them feel better after each meeting. It is as if they invest their lives so that there is always a good return in enhanced vitality. Then they have more vitality to invest. They go from strength to strength. This pattern may also exist in their finances: they may automatically put their money where it will get a good return. But there are plenty of people who are very vital without needing large sums of money.

That probably sounds good. But it is idealised. In a real life there can be problems with trying to live only with vital circles. One danger is that without enough comfort circles there is too much instability. And then the vital circle can all too quickly turn vicious. This has happened to many of the companies in the dot.com bubble. They grew fast on the back of vital circles, but they collapsed just as quickly when things turned vicious.

Someone whose life is based on comfort circles is likely to have a conservative but pleasant life of regular habits, steady ways and equable temperament. They are likely to have a positive attitude to things; they will generally feel empowered to do whatever needs to be done if things go a bit wrong. They are quietly confident. You will find that their lives are filled with contentment and quiet satisfaction rather than adventure and excitement.

That may also sound pretty good. The weakness, in the real world, is that comfort circles tend of their nature to be useful only to smooth out small problems. If a big change is needed then we generally need a vital circle to power it. And a man who bases his life on the comfort circles is in a poor position to do that.

Someone whose life has got trapped by one or more confining circles is likely to be showing one or more signs of unhappiness. The common reaction to one of these circles is first of all to be angry. (Think perhaps of a trapped wolf.) But if the circle continues to hold sway then the feeling is more likely to be depression. A later stage still involves a great degree of hopelessness and apathy. The circle has been run many times. Every attempt to escape failed because a confining circle: no wonder they are hopeless.

Not all angers, depressions and apathies are caused by confining circles, but if a client has one of these feelings I will normally check to find out if a circle is involved. How do I check? Simply by looking for chains of cause and effect which include the symptom - "What do you do as a result of this feeling to try to improve things? And what is the result of that action? And the result of that is?"

Someone whose life is dominated by vicious circles is going to be in an even worse state. When things go from bad to worse a natural feeling of anxiety increases to panic level. In fact I find that clients who come to me suffering from panic attacks are nearly always in the grip of a vicious circle. Typically a feeling of anxiety causes some physical symptom (e.g. heart beating faster) which causes more anxiety (e.g. through fear of heart attack) which increases the symptom which increases the anxiety which...

Applying the knowledge

Of course it is natural to want to go beyond an understanding and recognition of the four circles. We naturally want to go on to ask, "How can I get rid of vicious and constraining circles?" and "How can I start up some more vital or comforting circles?"

If you want a simple one-size-fits-all answer to these questions you have come to the wrong place. I deal with such questions daily. I find answers to them. But the answers are always different because people are different. And the details of the circles are different. If you look back at the examples of the circles in the early chapters you should easily see how different are the people and lives involved.

So I am not going to pad out a book by giving some case histories which have solutions that apply only the people involved. They can be pleasant to read. But they seldom tell you what to do yourself.

What I will give is, I hope, far more valuable. I want to empower you to find the right answers for yourself. And the main tool you need for that is the right questions. It is quite common for my clients to have the answers to their problems somewhere in the back of their minds, but they need my questions to bring them out.

So here are the key questions. You may well find that it is more useful still to answer them in company with a friend, for discussion and feedback are very useful.

Vicious circles

I will assume that you have recognised a vicious circle in your life using the questions above. You will therefore have made clear in your mind the links in the chain.

Key question: How can I weaken or break any link in the chain?

The weakest link is sometimes very clear, in which case I will put most of my effort into breaking that. But any weakening is a step forward.

"Is that all there is to it? It seems too easy!"

Well in one sense that is all there is to it. Of course in a real situation there may be all manner of practical problems to overcome

Constraining circles

Again I assume that you have detected a constraining circle, and can name the links in the chain. Now we again want to break the chain, but it can be more useful to reframe the key question:

Can I find a step away from the discomfort that does NOT result in the push back?

Comfort circles

Here we are in the position of wanting to create a looped chain. We are doing so when we have found ourself being made uncomfortable (or worse) by something. We want to create an automatic reaction that remedies things. So the key questions are

What were the early signs of things going wrong?
What could I have done early on to correct things?

When we have the answers to these questions then we can focus our energies on rehearsing the pattern of cause (thing starts to go wrong) to effect (automatic correction) until it becomes smooth and automatic.

Notice that we do this automatically when we are learning to steer a car. We learn to notice a small departure from the correct line and then adjust the wheel accordingly.

Vital circles

Vital circles are also circles we seek to create. They come into the picture when we want to make big changes for the better in life. Fact: big changes take time. We cannot make the big change overnight. To make the change easy we need a vital circle: we need a small step in roughly the right direction to be such that it makes it easier to take another step which makes it easier.... So the key questions are

What simple steps can I take towards my goal?
Can I make one of these steps rewarding enough to make it easier to take another step forward?

Once we have answers to these questions no more thought is needed. You just give it a try. Take the step. If it works, great. If it is not as satisfying as you would like then you have learned something about yourself. You can go back to the questions a little wiser and look for another step.



I have found that an awareness of the power of these four invisible circles in life has made it much easier for me to help clients to improve their lives in an enormous number of different ways. I hope that if you, the reader, start to notice them in your own life, you will find that they help you to improve your life also. If you like to think for yourself then I am sure that you will. If you prefer to go to others for help, then there are many professionals who are, I am sure, aware of all I have said, though they may not think about them in the same language. In that case I still think that any progress you have made in understanding your life in terms of circles of cause and effect will help them to help you.




Chap 1. Vicious Circles

§ The Violent Couple
§ The Blushing Student
§ The Rebellious Son

Chap 2. Vital Circles

§ Falling in Love
§ The Successful Entrepreneur
§ Plain becomes Beautiful

Chap 3. Constraining Circles

§ The Smoker
§ The Quiet Spinster
§ Mesmer's Disastrous Success

Chap 4. Comfort Circles

§ The Happy Family
§ The Successful Police Inspector
§ A Medley of Comforts

Chap 5. Circles in Your Life

§ Four kinds of People
§ Applying the Knowledge
§ Conclusion

Here are another couple of books you might like:

Boy making path in snow
Your Path in Life
Fallen autumn leaves
What do you mean, "It's OK to fail."?