I recently came across ring theory, an approach to supporting people in times of crisis, loss, and grief that involves the notion of comfort in, dump out. It was first described in an LA Times article by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman.
The development of ring theory
Ring theory was developed by clinical psychologist Susan Silk as a result of personal experience. 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, loss, or grief. The individual, or individuals, most directly affected go. From there, concentric rings represent others who are further and further removed from the centre person.
Who exactly goes in the middle and in each ring will depend on the person. If a child dies, then their parents or guardians would go in the centre. If a woman has breast cancer surgery, she would go in the centre, as the person most affected. If she had a partner and children, they would likely go in the first ring around the centre. Other family, friends, and acquaintances would fall in various outer rings depending on their level of closeness to the individual(s) at the centre.
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, the focus should be comfort.
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.
That doesn’t mean that certain people don’t have a right to have difficult feelings or to express them. Ring theory is all about directing them most effectively. It also doesn’t mean you can’t have mutual conversations with others about your shared grief. It does mean recognizing that some people are carrying a burden in relation to this situation that’s heavier than your own if they’re closer to the centre, and having the awareness not to add to their burden.
In the case of a woman like Susan Silk, who’s had breast cancer surgery, she would fall neatly in the centre of the circle. Others wishing to express their support should be taking their cues from her, offering support, and generally trying to avoid dumping their difficult feelings about her illness onto her. Let’s say her partner or children are having a difficult time coping. While they can certainly talk to her about those difficult feelings, it’s not a great idea for them to use those conversations to lighten their own load by shifting the burden onto her. That’s what people on the outer rings, or a therapist who’s outside of the ring system entirely, are for.
When it works
This system can work during periods of grieving, illness, or other difficult circumstances. The concept is very simple, but in practice, it won’t always be obvious which ring certain people should fit into. That can create problems if people are misjudging where they stand in relation to others in the system. A fairly safe assumption, though, would be that when in doubt, you should offer comfort, and find someone who’s clearly further away or completely outside the ring system to help lighten some of your own burden.
For example, if Susan’s coworker was frustrated she couldn’t play the role of office comforter that she identified with, that should be deflected away from Susan. She likely has plenty of people in her close circles who don’t know Susan from a hole in the ground; they would be great people for her to turn to rather than dumping her burden on Susan.
What this theory alludes to, but is too nice to come right out and say, is that it’s kinda crappy 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 benefit from this awareness are probably the least likely to recognize that it’s relevant to them.
You may be interested in my review of Russ Harris’s book When Life Hits Hard, which uses an acceptance and commitment therapy approach to dealing with grief.
The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.