Who’s in your Membership Circle during Covid?

Depressed lady with supporting friend sitting in cafe, hard time, comforting

Something I think has become clear for almost all of us as we continue to experience the pandemic: our relation-ships are our lifelines. We need to know we have people in our circles who we can connect with even as we figure out creative ways to do that: by phone, Zoom,  in situations where we practice social distancing. This got me thinking about how important it can be to appreciate the concept of Membership Circles. 

I first learned about the concept of Membership Circles in one of my favorite books on groups: Groups: Theory and Experiencehttps://www.amazon.com/Groups-Theory-Experience-Group-Counseling/dp/0618270442 by Napier and Gershenfeld. In it they state, “… most, if not all, people are members of a variety of groups including their family groups and subgroups of siblings, same gender family members, family members who live in the same house, those who participate together in certain activities, the groups outside the family, including work, school, recreational and faith groups. There are a myriad of relationships to consider as a result of the various types of memberships we each have”.

The four key Membership Circles are these: our Inner Circle of members where those with whom we are extremely close reside. This is followed by the circle of Close Relationships which aren’t quite as intimate but are safe enough for us to expose many of our thoughts, feelings and needs. Next is Social, Work and Play that includes those we enjoy and connect with but not in ways that are as open and intimate as with those in the previous two circles. Finally there are those relationships that are Temporary and/or Superficial. Each circle fits inside the others.

Each circle can be very fluid, with us transferring people from one circle to another as our trust levels either grow or diminish; some people fit into our Inner Circle for a while and then because of changes in our lives or in our experiences with them, can become less intimate relationally and might even be bumped into the category of more Superficial members. This can happen when there is some form of betrayal or when circumstances do not allow us to stay in close contact with a person.

People with significant trauma histories can find it difficult to trust people in their Inner or Close Relationship circles, leaving them feeling lonely and vulnerable, having few with whom they can be emotionally intimate. These circles can be sparse when they feel like very few people are included and no one genuinely knows them.

Closeup of crying black woman hugging her girlfriend, african american lady supporting her upset friend, giving her hug, saying good words

In times of stress and turmoil as is happening because of the Covid pandemic, we need at least one or two people in our Inner Circle and a few people in our Close Relationship Circle to sustain us, help us feel safe and feel relationally connected. Sometimes this is challenging because our fears can cause us to withdraw, especially if we are temperamentally more introverted, struggle to expose our real selves, and/or do not feel worthy of being deeply cared for. It also can be hard to find people with whom to have these more intimate relationships because we live in a world right now of social and emotional pandemic isolation, forcing us to distance ourselves physically and emotionally from others.

The following questions can help you assess and nurture relationships in your Inner and Close Relationship Circles: to what extent do you feel a person is consistently and predictably:

  • Caring
  • Non-judgmental, accepts me for who I am
  • Trustworthy  
  • Patient  
  • Funny, fun to be around
  • Transparent, genuine
  • Is interested in what matters to me  
  • Is willing to challenge me without shaming me  
  • Shares the airspace when we are talking
  • Often seeks my counsel and opinion
  • Knows when to give me time and space
  • Conversely knows when to be assertive with me when I am not practicing good self-care
  • Offers me grace when I mess up, can forgive me  
  • Believes in me, sees the best in me even when I can’t  
  • Is appropriately affectionate while respecting boundaries   

These include people with whom we can:

  • Be authentic and share our real selves  
  • Talk at a superficial level when that is appropriate, shifting to a much more substantive level when needed
  • Be transparent and expose our real selves without filtering what we share and show  
  • Share our values and have similar moral compasses  
Diverse group of coworkers sitting in a circle.

It is important, especially in these stressful times, to cultivate and maintain at least a few emotionally healthy and relatively intimate relationships that allow us to feel safe, understood and loved.

Invitation for Reflection:

  1. Consider and list names of people who exist in each of your Membership Circles. Notice why you placed them there. Notice how long they have been a member of a specific circle. Who has moved closer to you and who has moved further away? Why?
  2. How has the pandemic impacted members of each of your circles?
  3. What are things you need to do in order to ensure that you have at least a few highly safe members in your Inner and Close Relationship circles as you navigate your experiences of the pandemic?
  4. Consider where you may be located in the Membership Circles of your family members, friends and acquaintances. Do some people consider you to be in their Inner Circles where you have them placed in a more distant circle?

Diane Wagenhals, Director, Lakeside Global Institute


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