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Ring Theory and "Saying the Right Thing" in 2020



Life contains difficulty, of that we can be sure. So, how do we show up for our friends and family and support them in their time of grief and need? Susan Silk, a clinical psychologist, and her friend Barry Goldman came up with the concept of Ring Theory, after Susan’s experience with breast cancer. Susan noticed that during her journey with breast cancer, people close to her (as well as, complete strangers), though often well-intentioned, would vent or in an attempt to “fix her situation” by giving their opinions to her. However, what Susan needed most when she was suffering was not their emotions about her experience, but rather their comfort. Hence, the idea of Ring Theory was born. Ring Theory is essentially the idea that a person experiencing trauma and grief needs a specific kind of support during their time of crisis.

Silk explains how to create the rings of the circle. “Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. Parents and children before more distant relatives. Intimate friends in smaller rings, less intimate friends in larger ones. When you are done you have a Kvetching Order.”

The rules of Ring Theory are pretty simple and can be explained in four words, “Comfort In. Dump Out.” Here is how it works. Whoever is in the centermost of the rings gets to whine, complain, cry and vent as much as they want and need to. As Silk states, “That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring.”

The people in the other rings can also express their feelings and concerns. However, the one distinction is with whom they can process those emotions. That is where the concept of “dumping out”, comes into play. The people surrounding the person in the innermost circle express their negative feelings and anxieties only to people in the larger rings. It’s not that you are not allowed to grieve or feel, it is just that venting about your pain to someone who is already feeling their pain deeply is not helpful to you or them.

For example, let’s pretend that your sister is having surgery tomorrow, and she calls to talk to you about it. If you proceed to tell her how nervous you are for her and how you are scared that she may die, that is probably not the encouragement that she needs to face her surgery in the morning. However, it would be appropriate for you to express those anxieties to your significant other or to one of your friends who is in a ring outside your own. It is normal to be scared about someone you love but remember to “dump out”.

Another thing not to do? Give advice. Unless it is explicitly asked for, a person in the acute stage of trauma or grief does not need to hear what you have to say about “fixing” or “changing” their condition. They most likely have a few trusted people (doctors, counselors, mentors and spouses…) they are already talking to and looking to for wisdom. When you are in a wider ring your primary role is to listen to the person in the smaller ring and provide support.

So how do you comfort a person in the centermost ring or ring inside your own? If you feel at a loss for words, simply listening or saying, “I’m so sorry you are hurting.” can go a long way. In fact, just “being with” a person can be enough. We often underestimate the humble gift of presence when people are going through something difficult.

There is also a myriad of practical ways to offer support to people in a time of need. Drop off a meal, babysit, or offer financial support. Be specific in what you can do. Saying, “Let me know if you need anything.” is nice but can also feel overwhelming to someone in crisis-mode. Get creative. For example, you can pick up laundry and bring it back clean and folded. Even seemingly small actions can make a difference.

To a certain degree, we have all experienced a time when what we needed most was a listening ear, compassion and practical support, and we have all been the people on the outside ring offering our compassion. Pain is a part of life, but we can ease suffering by how we relate and respond to one other. Ring Theory gives us a straightforward way to do just that. Wherever position you may find yourself in today, remember to “Comfort in and dump out.”


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