In our Expansive Capacity meeting today one of the beautiful masterminders asked, “How do we give ourselves permission to be our fullest selves in a world where there are people who want us dead because of the color of our skin? Where we were taught as kids what to say and how to act to escape as much conflict as possible? To survive?”

I said — especially when we’re dealing with anything that has a lifetime of practice and ESPECIALLY when the stakes are so high — the work is nested circles.

People have two needs. Attachment and authenticity. When authenticity threatens attachment, attachment trumps authenticity. — Dr. Gabor MatΓ©

There’s the circle in which you feel safest to be your authentic, fullest, highest-enoughness self (and for someone like my husband Keith, diagnosed with paranoia, that means his safest circle is often ONLY himself and sometimes that doesn’t even feel safe to him). Some of us will let others into our SELF circle. Most will not. For those folks, there’s an intimate circle, and that’s where one or two others can feel safe enough to see you in your full enoughness.

Then there’s the circle just beyond that with friendlies where you can be a toned down version of your fullest self, or maybe this circle is one in which you feel safe letting people know there IS this fullest self you don’t feel safe to show everywhere. The fact that they even get to know that is a pretty big deal. So we treat these folks differently than we treat strangers (more on those folks in a second).

So, the circles go out from there ’til we get to ones in which you’re not safe to BE.

Let’s take the example of being a woman and being told we cannot dress or move our bodies the way we want to because it will invite unwanted sexual attention. Not just being TOLD this; having it as our lived experience. Every woman has received unwanted sexual attention. Just for being female.

There’s a circle in which it’s safe to be ourselves, another in which we can dress as we wish but all know it’s only because it’s safe there, another where we don’t even talk about wanting to dress that way or move that way so as not to draw attention on THAT, and the there’s the population around whom we’re not safe no matter what we’re wearing. We’re targets. We’re prey.

And almost everyone has some relationship like this though usually not with the cost of potential death as the most extreme circle… unless you’re Black in America. Because then that circle is ALWAYS there.

(Not sure if you’ve noticed, but you also kind of cannot edit your authentic self — no matter how “safe” you make your behaviors, no matter how deeply you tuck in your enoughness and truest self — to the point at which a known threat does not notice you are, in fact, Black.)

Bonnie Gillespie's Circles of Safety for Being Your Authentic Self
Click to enbiggen.

Bonus: If you’re a white, cis-het, straight male, you’ve likely never had a circle that’s even mildly uncomfortable by comparison to how you feel in your own center circle, right? Your center circle (SELF) is the same way you show up in all the circles. You rarely self-edit or tuck in who you are. You don’t have to! Must be nice.

The advantage this person has is beyond all the ones we already know about in our society. I won’t bother listing those (just look around you). When it’s not risky to be your authentic self or even potentially fatal to be SEEN, you can be your authentic self pretty much all the time.

When you get to live like that without any worry for your safety, you have more power, more time in the day (because you’re not constantly shifting between personas after checking to determine which persona is required for the situation/environment), can get more done with confidence, feel less risk around taking risks (which allows for far more expansion of your crazy ideas, more success, because there are more tries with this setpoint), and so on.

But when you live like that — unless you are incredibly evolved and connected to people whose circles aren’t labeled like yours — there’s this lack of empathy that there even IS such a thing as a circle or nested circles to navigate! Because in your white, cis-het, straight male life, there is just being. No set of circles with levels of behavior-edits required for you to stay safe. No levels of risk in even being visible.

We need to know each other’s circles. We need to respect that one another’s circles are different. And — in navigating our own circles — we need to know that the boundaries are permeable. We need to reassess who belongs in which circle from time to time. We need to consider that our need to protect ourselves may increase or decrease over time.

And of course, there’s that exhausting work of navigating circles that are so damn different from inner to outer.

(BTW, this explains why we’ll stay safe and small, or surround ourselves with the same people rather than pushing through to grow and change in life sometimes. It’s just less FATIGUING to stay in the circles that are easier to navigate without code switching.)

Our work is to acknowledge that there are nested circles for a whole lot of people and that many of the levels look different than ours do… and that we may not even really have these levels because it’s safe to be our authentic selves in front of everyone. (Lucky us.) Our work is to help people who invite us into one of their circles know that:

~ we are safe;
~ we see their circle structure and understand where we are in it today;
~ we are open to sitting in the discomfort of seeing their authentic selves incrementally and more fully as we ALL get more accustomed to making it safe for everyone to have less of a need for personas as we navigate our lives.

Specifically — with our Black friends — it is vitally important that we really SIT WITH the truth of what those outer circles of safety ARE for them.

The highest stakes thing in the outermost circle for me is rape.

For my Black friends? It’s murder. Plus rape, of course, for many of them too.

Because the white, cis-het, straight male won’t likely know the reality of either of ours, he cannot make changes that help us feel safe.

SafeR? Maybe. But not likely ever fully safe.

I think just the fact that we have to look to the oppressor FOR the outer circle to become safe is so twisted.

Of course in my lifetime, I’m gonna see white become a minority population in the US. This will be a great way to learn experientially that to be in the minority does not mean to be oppressed… unless of course you’re the current white/majority/oppressor we know well… and of course that’s why the worst of them sooooo fear losing that control. In their reality, he who has the majority keeps everyone else oppressed.

They cannot even imagine a world in which majorities can live alongside minorities and have the same rights… only have a difference in population size, not treatment.

Luckily, we’ll get to prove that this world is possible. That we CAN be populations of different quantities and NOT fear loss of status and position so much that we — when in power — create ways to prevent anyone else from potentially even competing with our status and position.

Total tangent that I promise to resolve: I love playing Words With Friends. I’m really good at it. And I celebrate playing with really good opponents. They make me better. I make them better. We LOVE a good game and we cheer one another on when either of us makes a spectacular play.

I believe we can — and will — live to enjoy competition without it seeming as though we worry ours will be taken from us if we yield even the tiniest margin of leverage. I’ve always been more of a stoic and a socialist, honestly, but I also don’t feel my opportunity to succeed is lessened by someone else’s success, even in a capitalist society.

Let’s start working toward a world in which we all get to be our fullest selves, brimming with our inherent enoughness, no matter whom we’re with.

Of course… at the basis of *this* lives the scary mirror we may never want to look into. Because many of us may be avoiding being our authentic selves even when we’re alone. I know that was me before I got sober. I would pour vodka on anything confronting about my personality, my needs, my desires, my pains, my history.

Here’s the work: Excavate our own enoughness. Get down with who we are, at our core. All the mess. All the stuff we think others won’t accept. WE have to be the ones who accept it all first.

From there, really consider where you are in your Circles of Safety as you navigate through your life, day to day. With your intimates, work to expand authenticity together. With your friendlies, create experiments in which it’s safe for each of you to increase the level of authenticity you bring to your interactions.

With strangers, get good at quickly and dispassionately labeling whether someone here will get promoted to “friendlies” status or if perhaps they’re going to be a known risk. NOTE: It doesn’t matter whether they’re unintentionally risky (they’re ignorant to their “othering” of you or of their “making you wrong” for who you are or how you self-express) or they’re intentionally and actively racist or misogynistic or bigoted or homophobic or transphobic or ableist or any other overtly-positioned threat to your true self. It’s ALL stuff that goes in the “known risks” outer circle. LIMIT YOUR EXPOSURE AND DO WHAT YOU MUST TO STAY SAFE.

And over time, reassess, relabel, respect that we ALL can grow. Especially right now. We’re experiencing exponential growth on the daily. And it’s so freakin’ exciting from a neuroplasticity perspective!! But that’s another post for another day.

Share your thoughts with me, beautiful people. Be as authentic as you feel safe being, with me.

I love you for taking on this work. It’s courageous and so are you!

Keep growing,

Bonnie Gillespie autographed the internet

Enoughness is an inside job… and sometimes you need a guide to find your way there. Let Bonnie Gillespie get you started.

PS — Based off this brilliance, we had a lovely convo during our Get in Gear for the Next Tier monthly Zoom the day after I made this post. What follows is that audio from that discussion.

Thank you, ninjas, for always inviting the tough conversations. This is the work! Stay inspired!

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  1. Kellye Rowland July 16, 2020 at 10:38 pm

    This is beyond what I can even articulate and I’ve read it 3 times now. I feel like nothing I can say is a good enough response, and at the same time I know it’s not about me. And yet, it is, in many ways, wrapped up and entangled in all the ways we interact and “see” each other. The call today helped, hearing you talk about it the way you did. The essence, the distilled down version of what I hear is that we have to keep listening. And not trying to be “right.” And also? Listening to ourselves.

    For me, the way I want to show up in the world is as a listening person. Someone who sits down and is not afraid that in that sitting down, that I will be erased in the process. As a person who has erasure in my formative years, I know this is my work. But there’s power in sitting down and listening. I think my enoughness is found here, in many ways. And I think if I can manage to sit down and listen also to mySELF? Then that will be an unstoppable thing, and will bleed into everything else that it absolutely needs to. Thank you for this powerful post. I know I’m going to come back to it again and again.

    1. Bonnie Gillespie July 22, 2020 at 10:01 pm

      Listening to ourselves maybe first, Kellye. And I know that’s a shocking suggestion for some folks. One of the concepts we covered in Expansive Capacity this month is the idea of self-loyalty. Woof. Can you even imagine?!? Revolutionary.

      I love that you’re going to include listening to yourSELF as you listen fully to the world right now. Check in with yourself so you don’t go too far/too long between stretches of checking in with yourself for what you have to say. Especially because of that erasure in childhood… it’s important to even schedule self-checks ’til you have a muscle for the listening to the world not being to the exclusion of listening to yourself.

      I’m so excited for you and where this is headed! Thank you for being a part of my life, Kellye. I love you.

      1. Elle Dee July 25, 2020 at 1:02 am

        I feel so inspired by this exchange. Thank you Kellye for opening up and sharing this and thank you Bonnie for your response. The reminder to check in and listen to SELF is so important. Easier for some than others.

        Some could do with listening to others more. But that’s surface personality stuff I think. I think really, we all could do with learning how to truly tune in with our real selves – the selves we are UNDERNEATH our personalities (and defences), if that makes sense. You know, what the mystics call ‘the still quiet voice’.

        I think in modern times it’s easy to get distracted and look for entertainment that takes us away from ourselves. That’s all well and good, AND FUN, but overdoing that noisy outer stuff can lead to disconnect from our inner self’s needs and wants, and our proper true power. I think most of us are afraid of our power. Enoughness is there and it IS our true power, found in that still quiet voice. If we only allow ourselves to go there. (Meditate, deep breathe, the mindful doing of things, and all that.) Outer interactions and relatedness goes smoother the more connected we are with our core being, I think. And the work is better, more grounded.

        I could, of course, be ‘talking out of my elbow’ though, because what do I know? I’m only just really beginning to connect with that part of mySELF – (and I don’t mean my elbow). I am aware of how much resistance I have to going deeper into conscious stillness (I’m great with sleeping) – how many excuses I find to NOT meditate, not to train my mind to sit still and BE with itself, one with the universe, if you will.

        Oh look, the house needs vacuuming… that sort of thing.

  2. La Trice July 19, 2020 at 9:44 am

    This is beautiful!! I may not even have the right words for how much this article spoke to my heart…but I’m going to try anyway, hahahaaa.

    First off, I find I wear personas pretty much 99.9% of the time I am not home and/or with family. It’s something I’ve done for as long as I can remember. As you said, it was even as a child when I was taught how to “behave yourself out there”, not only to lessen the amount of judgment you will definitely receive for the color of your skin, but also to ensure you’ll stand a chance to succeed in this world as a woman. The definition, or what constitutes “behaving” most likely varies from family to family, but when it includes things like, making sure you don’t laugh too loud because it will make people think you’re “ghetto”, there’s a problem.

    I didn’t wear the mask because I wanted to. I wore it because I had to. And I’m still working on lessening the fear of being my full, authentic self, so I still wear it when it feels necessary. At times, it’s to help others feel “safe” in my presence. Sometimes it’s to minimize myself so I feel safe in the presence of others. There are even times I do so to try and disappear entirely, or at least blend into the background so I don’t stand out and put myself at risk. Wow, the feelings that just came up from allowing the truth of that out of my head to put down in writing!
    I’m just going to pause a moment for the self hug! LOL.
    But seriously, even in the industry I’m in, I sometimes find myself feeling it necessary to make sure I have a constant smile on my face so people don’t automatically assume I’m upset, angry, or unapproachable. It’s fine really, because I’m generally a jolly person, so I smile all the time anyway. But the fact I HAVE to sometimes…

    But I can see and feel sooo much change happening in this amazing world we live in! It literally feels like people all over the world are slowly, collectively opening up their blinds to see their neighbors, walking over to the fence to fearlessly wave, peer over and see what color the grass actually is on someone else’s lawn. They’re walking over to take their shoes off and walk a few steps in that grass to experience what it feels like, how safe it actually is, and how wonderful it can be to take a stroll where someone else has walked. Seeing that makes my heart light up with joy!

    “It doesn’t matter whether they are unintentionally risky…ignorant to their “othering” of you…”

    This quote though…

    It hit home sooooo hard! I’m starting to believe a great part of this work for me will be in understanding the truth of that and trying instead not to judge the misunderstanding, the profiling, the hatred, etc., but to realize it is there unintentionally sometimes, and do my part by remaining my true and authentic self, allowing them to see that, and then leading with love and patience as opposed to harboring judgment of my own. All of this course, when it is SAFE to do so.

    I want to remove the expectation that whatever “unsafe” feeling my instincts are feeding me are truly coming from a place of prejudice and hate, and open up to the fact it may simply be from fear of the unknown. That thing, THAT particular person doesn’t understand. Most likely, it comes from a place of fear, not of me personally, but of what that person believes I represent.

    I’d also like to “second” what Kellye said in that, I want to start listening. I want to try to lead with openness in place of skepticism, and even try to understand where the negative feelings are coming from so I can stay open and receptive to what the solutions may be for all of us who actually want to start these conversations and seek change.

    Bonnie, I can’t thank you enough for this post and the work you do. You see the world around you with so much clarity! You are always approaching the hard, scary stuff with research, knowledge, understanding, and a bold fearless that makes you a force in this industry and beyond. You’re never afraid to talk about the hard stuff, and that courage, that light spreads through your communities and spills out into the lives of those fortunate enough to find your content. You are a huge part of the massive change happening in the world right now. And as an African-American woman, I’d like to say THANK YOU! <3 <3 <3

    1. Bonnie Gillespie July 22, 2020 at 9:57 pm

      First, I am HONORED that you are having this convo with me. It is not lost on me what a big deal this is and I treasure that our relationship is one in which you feel safe having this discussion… especially because there’s so many places that aren’t safe or relationships that give lip service to being safe but then aren’t. It means the world to me that you are taking the circles to heart and actually testing out bits and pieces of more authentic and fullest-self words and thoughts and feelings and trusting you aren’t going to have the rules changed on you for being authentic. That’s huge and I want to be sure you know how much that means to me.

      Next, I wonder how much we even ARE our truest selves when we have so much practice having pushed down who we FELT we really were or were becoming, growing up. When we spend so much of our lives “behaving” do we become THAT person? Like, how much practice with the persona actually becomes who we are at some point? Not sure I know the answer to that and it probably varies for each person, but wow is that a bit of a mindfuck, huh?

      I love the worldview you shared about our eyes opening and really coming over and looking at, feeling, experiencing that green grass in someone else’s yard rather than assuming things about it. It’s true. Like the moment Dorothy’s view of the world goes from black and white to technicolor. That moment of, “Whoa. I wasn’t even seeing all that I could see. And now I can and it’s beautiful but also terrifying.” That’s that exponential growth we’re talking about! It’s real and it’s freaking some folks out; thrilling others… and everything in between!

      GLAD YOU SELF-HUGGED AND HOPE YOU KEEP DOING IT! This is a lot. I’m not telling you anything new with that. LOL

      Not sure if you grabbed this book back when I mentioned reading it but we should talk more in Expansive Capacity about it anyway: Willful Blindness. It’s all about how we actually create bridges in our brain (because we have to — for all the reasons Keith covers in Day 86 of Get in Gear for the Next Tier and perceptual sets) that prevent us from seeing the truth. I think about cops killing Black people without having their inner light slow them down or stop them even for a second in which they say, “Wait. This can’t be right?!? What are we doing?” and I know that comes from willful blindness (also called willful ignorance) and it’s an actual BRAIN FUNCTION of omitting things that are true in order to make our behavior feel okay. It’s like a slight form of dissociative disease, wherein they actually LOSE the part of their brain that says, “Hey! YOU KNOW THIS IS NOT OKAY.” It’s the only way they can live with what they’ve done… and they don’t even realize they’re doing it because they surround themselves with people who make it okay. Who require it, even.

      So this is like their version of the circles of safety, right? And they stay surrounded by people who only make it feel safe for them to be OKAY with the murdering they’ve done. And if they were to say, “Hey, man. Get your knee off his neck. He can’t breathe,” that would be THEM stepping out into an unsafe circle for that kind of behavior… so they don’t do it for the same reason I don’t walk down the street by some construction workers while I’m wearing a bikini. It’s unsafe. Whoa. This goes both ways, right? At least from a brain-safety POV.

      I feel as though we’re right now — more than ever — at a place where “fear of the unknown” is more a factor than actual hatred due to the color of your skin or the fear of losing power. There are more people waking up to what exactly we’re dealing with on a cultural/social level and this introduces the possibility that the circles you’ve lived your life with are actually CHANGING in such a way that there are more people you’d usually keep in the outer circles whom you could invite closer in — be your more authentic self around. Never assuming all walls are gone or that there’s no need for these nested circles, of course, but seeing the permeability of them in a major way for the first time. That’s my theory anyway. Feels that way.

      But like I said during our Zoom last week, we’re at the VERY BEGINNING of an exciting revolution, so there will be waves of changes in safety, I think. So we still have to navigate, recalibrate, adjust. But the joy of asking the question, “Have I ever felt safe to be who I FULLY, truly am… around ANYONE?” is delicious. It’s a question I wasn’t ready to face ’til I got sober, honestly. And you can see how much emotion I still have about those earliest sober days and how terrified I was that I was about to lose EVERYONE and EVERYTHING because the reality of who I am could possibly be too unpleasant for everyone around me. I could actually be unlovable as my fullest self. That risk… I’m still glad every day that I took it and continue to take it, but damn those were some scary first few months as I learned whom I was going to LOSE (and I did lose people) by being “the real me” for the first time.

      I love you, La Trice. Thank you for this. I don’t tackle the hard stuff because it’ll earn me any points in heaven. πŸ˜‰ I do it because it’s what living IS, as far as I’m concerned — not backing down from the WHOLE of the life experience and knowing NO ONE has the rule book for how this is supposed to go. πŸ˜‰ Your words light me up, so thank you for sharing them. I take my role as a leader seriously — especially because my work helps YOU lead. And I love investing in my beautiful community of creatives. LOVE it. We are all changing the world, for sure.

      We’ll keep having this convo, of course. I’m sorry for the parts where it’s hard. And I’m so excited for where we’re making some things less hard for people who come up behind us! This is the work, right? ONE MORE SELF-HUG!!!!

  3. Crackerjack July 24, 2020 at 11:24 am

    I love this, Bon! It reminds me of similar frameworks for dealing with people in crisis (remember the comfort IN dump OUT circles?) and of course for queer identity construction. Sending you an e-hug <3

    1. Bonnie Gillespie July 25, 2020 at 1:48 am

      Oooooh, I had totally forgotten those, Crackerjack!! THANK YOU for the reminder. I love you so much and miss you like crazy. XO

  4. Elle Dee July 25, 2020 at 12:38 am


    Of all the emails you have sent so far since I signed up for one of your week and a half long revamp challenges (that I partly participated in because I’m only considering putting skin back in the game – at 50 – as a woman – after a long hiatus raising a child and focusing on other aspects of my creativity and moneymaking potential), this is the most resonant and relatable for me. Thank you for the generosity and care you give to all the diverse communities within this greater acting/performing community. And for telling it like it is.
    Big time respect to and appreciation of you.

    1. Bonnie Gillespie July 25, 2020 at 1:48 am

      Thank you, Eldi. I really appreciate this feedback and I’m thrilled to know that you’re exploring your next chapter (I just turned 50 on the 11th, so I’m right there with you in all the expansion). I’m excited for the Hollywood we’re building together! πŸ™‚


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