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Ring Theory Helps Us Bring Comfort In…and “Dump” Our Own Stuff Out

Ring Theory Helps Us Bring Comfort In … and “Dump” Our Own Stuff Out

By Elana Premack Sandler, L.C.S.W., M.P.H.
Reprinted, with permission, from Psychology Today, May, 2017

A few years ago, psychologist Susan Silk and her friend Barry Goldman wrote about a concept they called the “Ring Theory.” It’s a theory to help yourself know what to do in a crisis. If the crisis is happening to you, you’re in the center of the ring. If the crisis is not happening to you, you’re in one of the outer circles.
Here are the basic tenets, paraphrased from Silk and Goodman:
1) Draw a circle. In this circle, write the name of the person at the center of the crisis.                                               
2) Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In this ring, put the name of the person next closest to the crisis.
3) In each larger ring, put the next closest people. As Silk and Goodman state, “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.”

Here are the rules:
The person in the center ring can say anything she wants to anyone, anywhere. She can kvetch and complain and whine and moan and curse the heavens and say, “Life is unfair,” and, “Why me?” That’s the one payoff for being in the center ring. Everyone else can say those things too, but only to people in larger rings. When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help.

Listening is often more helpful than talking. But if you’re going to open your mouth, first ask yourself if what you are about to say is likely to provide comfort and support. If it isn’t, don’t say it. Don’t, for example, give advice. People who are suffering from trauma don’t need advice. They need comfort and support. So say, “I’m sorry,” or, “This must really be hard for you,” or, “Can I bring you a pot roast?” Don’t say, “You should hear what happened to me,” or, “Here’s what I would do if I were you.” And don’t say, “This is really bringing me down.” If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about how it reminds you of all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine. It’s a perfectly normal response. Just do it to someone in a bigger ring.

In the time since I originally read their piece, I have thought of this theory many, many times. Where I am in the circle? Given that position, what should I say, or what can I hope would be said to me? Who are people in the circle I could comfort? Who can I “dump” to?

Kvetching (complaining) is an important tool for managing stress, anxiety, and depression, as well as for strengthening bonds between people and increasing empathy. It’s also a delicate instrument that needs careful handling. The definition of kvetch, from the Yiddish kvetshn, means to squeeze, pinch or press. In modern, American terms, think of it as the everyday complaining over issues both large and small that we all engage in almost unconsciously. It’s about whatever it is that we have to get off our chest.

Here’s a list of practical things that can be done for someone in crisis:
1. Bring a meal
2. Bring a cup of coffee, tea, or a chocolate bar.
3. Offer to go for a walk.
4. Offer to watch/spend time with kids, older parents or pets.
5. Come over just to wash dishes or do a load of laundry.
6. Bring by a favorite CD or movie.
7. If going in person seems like too much, send a note by mail.

What do you have to add to that list?
What’s been helpful for you or a loved one?
Where are you in the circle now?


Elana Premack Sandler, L.C.S.W., M.P.H., approaches health issues from a social perspective, viewing elements of the social environment as crucial factors in promoting individual health and well-being. Elana worked with the national Suicide Prevention Resource Center, providing consultation to organizations on using evidence-based interventions and best practices for developing suicide prevention programs. Elana earned a Master of Social Work and a Master of Public Health at Boston University and is a faculty with Simmons School of Social Work.
She is author of the blog, Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide. It is written from both personal and professional perspectives. Promoting Hope, Preventing Suicide explores suicide prevention, intervention, and postvention. This blog is a forum for new looks at old ideas and encourages challenging dogma. Elana is a survivor, having lost her father to suicide 32 years ago when she was a child. Many of her blog posts touch on her own personal experiences as her grief has evolved over the years.

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