Whenever we’re trying to change a habit or dependency, awareness and insight make all the difference. They can increase and sustain our motivation when the comfort of our default settings start calling out names and without them, it’s impossible to develop and sustain meaningful plans of action. This exercise is about sitting down to define what “sobriety” or stopping the habit fully looks like to you. What does it include? If I stop cheating on my girlfriend, does that include flirty texts with other girls or does it just mean physical actions (she may have an opinion on that one). If I think I have a drug problem does that include alcohol and/or my prescribed meds? If I’m trying to change my eating habits, or gossiping, or shopping… what does that look like and why does am I drawing the boundaries where I’m drawing them?

Beginning with Sex Addicts Anonymous in 1991, 12-step literature has used variations of a writing activity to help members identify and describe actions that either lead toward relapsing or away from their unhealthy behaviors. Originally titled, “Three Circles”, different fellowships and organizations have used various terminology throughout the years. In fact, Acceptance & Commitment Therapy (ACT) has a similar concept to reflect on whether our actions are in line with our committed values, every decision is a towards or away move.

The following is copied mainly from Wikipedia (with some terminology changes) because they sum it up well:

When creating the three circles diagram, the writer draws three concentric circles, one inside the other (like a bull’s eye). The writer then lists behaviors in each of the circles that reset, endanger or promote their sobriety.


Inner Circle
The writer lists behaviors they want to stop engaging in in the inner-most circle. Engaging in any of these “inner circle” or “bottom-line” behaviors would result in a loss of sobriety for the person. People in recovery typically consider their “sobriety date” to be the last day they engaged in these “inner circle” behaviors.

Middle Circle
The writer then lists “middle line” or “boundary behaviors” in the second or “middle circle.” These include behaviors that may or may not be appropriate but lead to the bottom line behaviors listed in the inner circle. Examples of middle-circle behaviors include not getting enough sleep, overwork, procrastination, etc.

Outer Circle
Finally, the writer list their “top lines” or healthy behaviors in the “outer circle.” These “outer circle” behaviors lead the person away from the objectionable behavior listed in the inner circle. Examples include going to a recovery meeting, calling one’s sponsor or other person in their support group, spiritual reading, recovery writing, etc.

This visual image of three circles can help us realize when we are in trouble and what we need to do to move closer to our individual definition of healthy behaviors.

Three circles – healthy and unhealthy behaviors by individuals who want to change their lives.

  • Inner circle or bottom line behavior – behavior that, once engaged in, leads to worsening self-destructive consequences
  • Middle circle behavior – behaviors that are much less destructive and weaker in intensity. They tend to lead a person back to the inner circle.
  • Outer circle or top line behavior – behaviors that lead a person toward healthy behaviors and away from destruction.
    Top lines are often the first warning signs that these outer circle healthy behaviors are overdue and necessary.

For Further information check out these original sources:

Three Circles – Defining Sexual Sobriety in SAA

Internet and Technology Addicts Anonymous use the word lines instead of rings. They also introduce the concept of “Sidelines”

If you are struggling with whether to add a particular behavior to your bottom lines, you can set a “sideline”. This consists of setting a temporary bottom line.

First, define the sideline behavior clearly. Next, determine how long you would like to remain completely abstinent from this activity. Then, communicate the sideline to another member, as well as the date on which your temporary abstinence will end, and make a commitment to speak with this member again on this date. When you speak again with your recovery partner on the set date, you can make one of the following commitments: 1) introduce this behavior officially into your bottom lines; 2) decide that you’d like to try re-introducing the activity into your life, potentially with an action plan for how you would like to engage safely; 3) commit to another period of temporary abstinence to give yourself more time to figure out what’s right for you.”

ITAA Tools of Recovery

Several Examples of Top, Middle, and Bottom Line Exercises can be found in this Google Doc.

Overeaters Anonymous has a similar exercise found here in PDF.