The Virtuous Circle


We all know what it is like to be caught in a vicious circle.  Fear leads to more fear, hostility breeds more hostility, defensiveness provokes more defensiveness.  Once negative projections get set in motion within ourselves or between ourselves and another, they take on a life of their own.  The snowball of negativity gets rolling and just keeps on rolling.

The idea of the vicious circle captures so vividly the dynamic that psychoanalyst Melanie Klein described about projective processes.   Our perception of the world is greatly colored by what we project into it.  If we expect the world to be dangerous, we read it as dangerous.  As I like to put it, we find what we are looking for.  With the expectation of danger, we become hypervigilant, looking for any data that supports our view and overlooking any data that might challenge it.  This is the nature of unconscious life:  we tend to get back what we put in.

It’s easy to see how a vicious circle can get going.  We expect mom or husband or boss or friend to be very judgmental toward us (usually because we are so judgmental ourselves).  So we hear everything as criticism.  Then we feel badly about ourselves (or about the other for being so critical) and we feel constricted and self-conscious.  This keeps us from living, thinking, and working freely and at our best, so we make mistakes and then expect even more criticism (from the other as well as from ourselves).   Once that ball gets rolling, it is very difficult to stop.  Negative reinforces negative, making life seem worse and worse.  We have been hijacked by our own projective processes.

Melanie Klein understood, however, that projective processes can work in a positive direction, too.  She even thought that positive projections are the basis of mental health.  They certainly are the basis of falling in love!  Just like we anticipate danger in life, we also anticipate safety, love, and beauty.  As babies, when we feel good inside, we look for good outside.  We seek the beauty of our mother’s face—and Voila!  There she is, smiling back at us, telling us how beautiful we are!  We feel even better about ourselves, so then we feel even better about her.  Far from a vicious circle that undermines our sense of safety, this kind of circle helps us to feel secure and good about ourselves and the world.

Klein was never very good at selecting terms to describe these sorts of dynamics.  I think she failed to capture the power of this incredibly positive dynamic when she called it a “benign circle” as opposed to a “vicious circle.”  I think we should try to come up with a term that packs more punch!

In thinking about it, I googled “what is the opposite of a vicious circle?”  To my great delight, I discovered that economists have come up with a better term for the benign circle—they call it the “virtuous circle.”  I like that.  Good choices breed good results, and good results breed good choices.  A positive circle has been set in motion.

But I still wanted a term with more pizzazz.  What I wanted to capture is that all-important process that happens between two human beings who are working effectively to build a solid, loving relationship.  I wanted to capture that all-important discipline of infusing a relationship with kindness, positive vibes, forgiveness, grace, and love.  What I realized is that there is an inherent challenge in getting a virtuous circle going in a relationship.  The challenge is that someone has to start it.  And just like we don’t want to be the one to start a fight, we actually don’t want to be the one to start the love either.

When we are dating, we want the other person to say, “I love you” FIRST.  When we are in conflict, we want the other person to say “I’m sorry” FIRST.  You get the idea.  We want the other person to make the first move toward intimacy, we want the other person to be the first to get into therapy.  It takes a lot of humility and courage to take the first step.  We must go out on the limb, not knowing if our kindness will be reciprocated.  So, ultimately, the benign circle or the virtuous circle—whatever we wish to call it for now–is difficult to get in motion because it fundamentally involves SACRIFICE.

Enter O. Henry.  Do you remember his short story, the one that is often read around Christmas time?  It is called “The Gift of the Magi.”  It is such an astounding story because it is a story of the deepest, most difficult, and most special kind of love.  In the story, a young married couple has hardly any money to pay their bills, never mind buy each other gifts for Christmas. They love each other dearly—so much so that each one sells their most precious possession in order to give the other something to enhance the other’s most precious possession.  Jim sells his beloved pocketwatch to buy a set of combs for his beautiful wife to use in her hair.  And Della cuts and sells her beautiful hair to buy a chain for her beloved husband’s prized pocketwatch.  We nearly gasp with them at that moment when they exchange their gifts—we can feel their bittersweet sigh.  By offering what they had—the best they had—they lost everything and gained everything.

O. Henry’s story is so poignant because it is essentially about loving sacrifice.  Della did not know that Jim was being as generous as she.  Jim did not know that his initiation of kindness would be met with equal kindness.  Each one took the first step, not knowing if the other would respond in kind.  That is love.  To risk the sacrifice, to take the first step, to have the courage to try to set the virtuous circle in motion.

Wouldn’t it be great to call it the “O. Henry circle”?  Only problem is that no one would know what it means except for us!  So, I will leave it open and just say this.  Make the first move of kindness.  Be the first to say “I love you” or “I’m sorry” or “Let’s talk.”   Be the first to break the silence, offer the compliment, do the favor, address the conflict.  Try to set a positive circle in motion.  Let Jim and Della inspire you.

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