She reached between the cabinet and the wall and pulled out a pink hula-hoop that had been hiding in the space. It was the last thing I had expected to see in my 71-year-old counselor’s office. She set it on the ground in front of me.
“This is your pink circle,” she offered in her gentle manner, gesturing at the toy. “Step in.”
I was 19 at the time, and way too cool for this. I had been seeing a Christian counselor to help me clear away the debris left over from childhood sexual abuse. The memories and the guilt still haunted me, especially as I was considering the possibility of serious romantic relationships developing during the college years. One of my undergraduate majors was psychology (not the field I ended up in), which required me to experience several counseling sessions as a client. I appreciated the ability to take the time to get my life together while earning school credit.
I looked up at the woman on the other side of the hula-hoop, as if waiting for her to laugh and explain herself. She had long, white hair, and her eyes disappeared when she smiled. I had imagined what it would have been like to have her as a grandmother. I decided I wouldn’t have liked it—she knew too much about me, before I even put it into words.
“Step in,” she prodded again. She was all smile and no eyes; I could tell she was enjoying my confusion. I shrugged and stepped to the middle of the circle.
“Now what?” I asked, still slightly annoyed by the exercise and hoping she wasn’t going to make me hula-hoop. She didn’t answer right away. She had this way of intently looking at me after I spoke, with no change in her own expression. It always made me feel like I had to repeat what I had said or say something more. Now I realize that it was part of her analysis. She was reading me—we were both waiting to see what the other would do next. I broke first. “What do you want me to do?”
“Pick it up.” Her amused expression did not change. I complied, certain at this point that this was some “loosening up” exercise and resigned to the fact that I was going to have to start gyrating. Cheerleading and spontaneous dance parties in pajamas on my all-girls hall had made me good at it, but it wasn’t something I was enthusiastic about doing in front of a very modest 71-year-old woman while wearing a sundress.
“This is your pink circle,” she said again as a softness entered her expression. “It has no vertical boundary,” she explained. “Imagine a flexible wall made out of something like plastic wrap that completely surrounds the perimeter of the circle and goes all the way up to heaven—but stays open at the top. Are you with me?”
Oh gosh, this is cheesy. “I’m with you,” I assured her. “I don’t know where we’re going, but I’m with you.”
She looked quite pleased with herself and carried on. “It’s open at the top, and you have full access to God to send him your prayers and receive his love and blessings in your life—no vertical boundary.” I nodded. This wasn’t something I needed an object lesson for—this was what I believed.
“Now let’s talk about the horizontal boundaries.” She stepped back and then walked around me as she spoke. “Studies have shown that humans need at least eighteen inches of what we call “intimate space” on all sides of the body. This is approximately the distance from you to the perimeter of the hula-hoop when you stand in the middle of it. Do you remember our wall made out of plastic wrap?” she paused. I nodded again, beginning to understand the illustration and its importance.
“The flexible wall made out of plastic wrap is special: Once it is formed, it is only flexible from the inside. You can push out the walls—the boundaries of the pink circle—to exclude others. You can also pull in the walls to bring others closer to you if they allow you to. But they cannot move the walls from the outside. No one should ever come closer than the perimeter of this circle without your permission—but your wall was invaded before it had fully formed.”
It was the most she had spoken at one time since I had been seeing her. I knew that she would want to hear my thoughts, and I was dreading my turn to speak. “J, what do you think that early invasion did to your wall?”
I made a silent plea—Please don’t make me channel my inner child again. But I knew I had to cooperate if this was ever going to be over. “I guess it didn’t form correctly…I didn’t even know I had a wall,” I finally replied.
“Exactly,” she affirmed. “So people kept invading it. Sometimes they pushed in, and sometimes you let them in because you didn’t realize that you had a choice. You didn’t know how to work the wall.” Her assessment of me continued and I almost wondered if her insight was a result of professional training and practice or some form of clairvoyance. “The wall isn’t just to establish physical boundaries;” she explained, “it is also the boundary for thoughts and feelings and hopes. You have to take ownership of those within your circle—but not the ones outside of your circle.”
“You brought too much into your pink circle,” she continued, “and it wasn’t just physical things. As you grew, you allowed into your pink circle what should have stayed in the pink circles of others—their desires, their expectations, their opinions, and their responses to you. You became consumed with pleasing other people at your own expense. Your focus has been on meeting expectations and generating only positive opinions. You take it personally if someone fails to connect with you or if they happen to disagree with you. You are so deferential that you tear down your own walls.”
Wow. Where was the crystal ball? She nailed it.
“J, it’s time to rebuild them.” Her eyes were full; her face solemn. She stood in front of me, still outside the boundary of the circle.
“But I don’t want to build walls,” I protested. “I love to love people.”
“How do you feel if they don’t love you back?” she challenged.
The pause before my admission allowed my mind to fill with understanding until I finally confessed—“I’m devastated.”
“That’s what I’m talking about!” she exclaimed. “How others respond to you is in their pink circle—not yours. I’m talking about flexible walls—you can adjust the perimeter from the inside to show love to others and bring them in. But if they don’t love you back, that stays in their pink circle. If you do what you believe is right and others are offended, that is in their pink circle. If you speak what you believe is truth and others disagree, that is in their pink circle—do not allow these things in yours.”
“Let’s practice,” she offered. “Let’s say you send someone a text message saying you’d like to have lunch with them sometime and they never respond. What should you tell yourself?”
“It’s not in my pink circle.”
“Great! Let’s say you pass a friend in the hallway and say ‘Hi,’ and your friend doesn’t even look up at you.”
“It’s not in my pink circle.”
“Exactly! Maybe your friends are busy or distracted or have any number of things they’re dealing with inside their own pink circles.” She gave another scenario. “What if you tell your parents someday that you would rather be a musician than a doctor—and they tell you you’ve lost your mind?”
“Umm—I think they would be right.”
She laughed—“Okay, maybe that’s a bad example.” Her eyes disappeared again as her smile grew. “You get the point, though—right? It’s not in your pink circle.”
Almost nine years have passed since that day. What I initially thought was a kitschy exercise has remained with me ever since. I told my husband about it when we were dating, and he has reminded me of it often.
I remembered it when my anorexic roommate hated me for calling her parents after her weight dropped to eighty-five pounds. I walked into our dorm-room one day to find all of her things moved out and my inbox filled with scathing letters from her family and friends. It’s not in my pink circle.
I remembered it on overnight call when a red-faced surgeon screamed for me to get out of his operating room after I tried and failed to retract a six hundred pound patient’s left leg. I was thirty weeks pregnant and motivated to find favor, learn as much as possible, and work hard—but safely. It’s not in my pink circle.
And I remember it now, as I write an honest letter to my family about my position regarding the faith I grew up with—a faith I am leaving. They may be angry. They may make accusations and assumptions. They may hate me—or they could overwhelm me with love and acceptance. Whatever comes, it’s out of my control. My letter is truthful, gentle, and loving. Regardless of their response—it’s not in my pink circle.
I know this sounds a little strange—I get it. I thought it was crazy, too. But I think we could all benefit from being mindful of our pink circles. I used to remind myself of mine with a pink hair-band that I wore on my wrist. I recently upgraded to something more professional—my husband bought me this Kate Spade version of the pink circle (completely without prompting, by the way—he’s fully supportive of the way the pink circle shapes my thinking and does whatever he can to remind me). You’ll find me wearing it in times when the need for the reminder is great—it will be a daily accessory for a while. Your circle doesn’t have to be pink. Maybe you have the sparkly purple hula-hoop or a sleek black one. Maybe you have the child-sized one because you like to let people in close like I do, or maybe you have the jumbo-sized hoop and would prefer for everyone to keep their distance.
Find the circle that works for you. Reach out through flexible walls to welcome others in, or extend the circular border when you need space. Own your thoughts, your feelings, your hopes, and your actions—but no one else’s. Develop the discernment to know when it is time to say, “It’s not in my pink circle”—but maintain an attitude of humility and do not forget that we have much to learn from each other as our circles intersect.
To my friends here—thank you for pulling in your borders and reaching into mine—for allowing me to know you. To new readers or those just passing by—welcome to my pink circle. I find so much joy in overlapping hula-hoops.
[Image credit: © Luckydoor | Dreamstime.com – Hula Hoops Photo]