Ring Theory: Comfort In, Dump Out

Ring theory diagram: comfort in, dump out

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.

Mental health coping toolkit

The Coping Toolkit page has a broad collection of resources to support mental health and well-being.

34 thoughts on “Ring Theory: Comfort In, Dump Out”

  1. 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!

  2. 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.

  3. 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?

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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

  7. 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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