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, and I was too lazy to create my own, 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.
The COVID-19/Mental Health Coping Toolkit page has a wide range of different resources that can help make coping a little easier.