Insights into Psychology

Ring Theory – How to Support Grieving People

Diagram of ring theory to support grieving people - comfort in, dump out

Skinny Hobbit of Growing Into Myself recently did a post on ring theory, which I hadn’t heard of before.  I was curious to learn more, and one of the sources she mentioned was an article on ring theory in the LA Times.

The development of ring theory

Ring theory was developed by clinical psychologist Susan Silk.  After having breast cancer surgery, she didn’t feel up to having visitors. A coworker got annoyed by this and told her “This isn’t just about you.”  Um, excuse me?

Ring theory can be applied to any sort of crisis or loss.  The person most directly affected goes in the centre, and then each concentric ring around them represents people who are further and further removed from the centre person.

The diagram above is a rather half-assed version of ring theory.  I couldn’t find an image that was licensed for free use, so I borrowed this image related to stoicism from Wikipedia and added some arrows.

Comfort in, dump out

Another element of ring theory is the direction in which certain attitudes should have an outlet.  Caring and support, without judgment or advice, should be directed inward.  If someone in an outer ring is interacting with someone close to the centre, it should be all comfort and support.

Dumping and complaining should only be directed outwards.  The person who’s at the centre can bitch to their heart’s content to anyone who’s prepared to listen.  But if someone further from the centre is complaining to someone closer to the centre, that’s out of line.

The key message of ring theory: comfort in, dump out.

And sure, most people will feel the need at some point to talk about the difficult feelings they’re having.  Ring theory doesn’t suggest bottling up these feelings should.  Instead, it’s about finding the right person to express those feelings to.

When it works

This system can work during periods of grieving, illness, or other difficult circumstances.  The concept is very simple, although it isn’t always going to be obvious which ring certain people should fit into.  A fairly safe assumption, though, would be that when in doubt, you should offer comfort.

For example, if Susan’s coworker was frustrated she couldn’t play the role of office do-gooder, she should have kvetched to her non-work friend who didn’t know Susan from a hole in the ground.  For her to dump on Susan is going in the wrong direction.

What this theory alludes to but doesn’t come right out and say is that it’s selfish to make something about yourself when it’s actually more difficult for the person you’re talking to.

I like ring theory – comfort in, dump out seems very appropriate.  However, I think the people who could most use to learn about it are probably the least likely to believe that it’s relevant to them.

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36 thoughts on “Ring Theory – How to Support Grieving People”

  1. That is so interesting. And I agree–what comes to mind is when you’ve got a friend who’s having an awful day, and you should try to be there for them without sympathizing in a way that makes it about you. Yeah, you could say, “Oh, yeah, I experienced that once too,” if someone’s complaining about a coworker, but don’t, like, get into it so much that you’re suddenly the complaining party. Just share it to express that you empathize ’cause it’s happened to you, too. I love the concept of allowing people who are going through something extremely bad to be able to have the spotlight in the bullseye. I think that’s the way it should be, ’cause we should be there for people if they’re in an accident or a loved one dies, etc. I even read a book once about taking care of toddlers who are at that difficult age, and it posited that you should allow whoever’s the most upset (the adult or the toddler) to choose the course of action. Like, if the adult’s the most upset, he or she can say, “I’m really upset right now, so I’d appreciate it if you could do such-and-such for me. Can you do that for me?” If the kid’s the most upset, then the adult can say, “Can you tell me why you’re upset right now? Explain it to Mommy because I want to understand.” It seemed brilliant to me, and it seemed like an interesting application of the rings theory, since (from what I’ve heard) every day with a toddler can feel like a lifetime. Fascinating concept! Great blog post.

  2. Your last sentence says it all! 😁
    It is a very visual tool which explains a lot on who can comfort who and to whom you can complain about something. I really like it.
    It should be very handy for those people who always ‘have it worse’. When you say you have a headache, they have a tumor! But those people also deserve our compassion of course; just need to look again to which circle I can complain about them!

  3. Hmmm….never heard of this before, which is one of the big reasons I love your blog. I’m not sure that this is really possible in practice unless you become a hermit or shut-in, but the theory is sound.
    Have you thought of compiling these postings of debunking pseudo-science and introducing other concepts into a new book? You’re so good at providing this information in an easy-to-understand and bite-sized way that I’d think a lot of people would be interested.

    1. We are not effective at grieving so our thoughts are confusing.

      The theory feels very “context-culturally bound.” It doesn’t feel timeless or empathic or connected. It feels very self v other. Very divided and western. Maybe it feels competitive to us?

      Which is ironic or understandable since we are such an isolated person feeling very isolated.

      We agree based on needs-focus (ie nonviolent communication) that someone in pain needs more immediate tending and, wethinks, once people connect—really connect—the urge for the “victim” to then soothe the listener is often natural. Maybe in extreme or isolated cases it isn’t. Maybe that’s the whole point, that grieving needs different rules. It just doesn’t feel human-connected.

      Has never heard of it. Thanks, Ash and SkinnyHobbit. ❤️💕🥔

      1. Yes, it’s just one person’s view rather than something that’s based on anything broader. I think it’s probably most relevant when someone clearly quite far removed is trying to prioritize their needs over someone who’s clearly very close to the situation. In situations where there isn’t that kind of clear distance it’s far less applicable.

  4. A question: if a mother loses her daughter (second child this mother lost) who deserves to be in that first circle – mother or her daughter’s children then ages 8 and 7 respectively or all three?

  5. I have heard of ring theory before, and I actually don’t like it. I learned about it when I was googling help for grief and stuff like that last year after my uncle and grandmother died. It made me feel like I couldn’t talk to my aunt (who lost her husband) or my dad (who lost his mom) about the deaths.

    I think it made me feel very invalid, as if my aunt was the only one allowed to be sad and that she *had* to be the “most” sad, and I couldn’t also be sad that I lost my uncle. I don’t think that comparing the amount of suffering is helpful. And I’ve also learned since then that I really *was* really sad, in large part due to the situation and in part due to past trauma and strong emotions in general. Which are valid too.

    I also think that talking to family members about what happened can be really helpful, even if they’re “closer” to whatever happened. When I have talked to my family, I feel so much more connected, loved, and supported. People in the outer circles don’t understand what’s really going on. My friend can’t remind me that my grandmother didn’t want me to be sad, and that she would have been so proud of me for dancing, but my mother can remind me of that because she knew my grandmother. We can be sad together and not be alone.

    We can explain how the big change is affecting our lives and relationships to prevent the relationships from changing for the worse. Only supporting in one direction, in my experience, ruins relationships. Even if the person being supported really needs a lot of support.

    Also, sometimes there are no people in the outer circle to turn to. My family and I were all in a car accident together in a foreign country. Afterwards, we were in the hospital, and I had no contact with any friends or extended family members. There was no one else to turn to besides my family, who were also hurting. The only option was to both support and be supported, even though it was exhausting and hard to do. I know that this may seem like an extreme situation, but I think ring theory would be used in extreme circumstances anyway.

    I’m sorry if this was too rant-y or if I didn’t explain things fully. I guess I feel more strongly about this than I originally thought. I’ve been thinking about it a lot in the past year.

    1. That makes a lot of sense, and I totally agree that mutual support is a good thing. I think the model only really makes sense if there are clear distinctions, like a family member vs. a casual friend.

  6. I love this analysis of ring theory for moving out of the ring. I’ve heard so many people say inappropriate things to the more vulnerable people because they do not understand grief. Thank you for sharing your insights!

  7. Interesting! This is a really useful way of thinking, and I agree with your insight that those who could benefit most from ring theory wouldn’t necessarily realize that.

  8. Oooo this is interesting, I hadn’t heard of Ring Theory before either. Susan Silk, I’ll have to investigate the work a little more. “But if someone further from the centre is complaining to someone closer to the centre, that’s out of line” – I’d agree there, though I think there are times ‘outsiders’ don’t know what to say or get frustrated or feel helpless and that negativity is dumped inward, wrongly but not always intentionally.x

  9. Interesting post. I’ve not heard of this before but it makes sense. I can’t believe her co-worker would say anything like that to her! People just blow my mind left and right, wow. That said I like how simple, straight to the point this is


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