Ring Theory: How to Comfort (And Receive the Comfort You Need)

Ring Theory

In this time of change, uncertainty, and often tragedy, everyone’s in need of comfort and empathy from the people around them. And there’s absolutely nothing wrong with trying to comfort others, while asking for a little support yourself. Having said this, during hard times, doing both at the same time isn’t exactly possible. Enter “Ring Theory”, a clever framework that was developed to understand a more effective way to grieve and support friends or family members who in pain.

The Fundamentals of Ring Theory

In 2013, psychologists Susan Silk and Barry Goldman wrote about a concept they called “Ring Theory” as an op-ed in the LA Times. Ring Theory was created in order to solve a common problem: how do we adequately support our loved ones while they are in a crisis, and how do we do so when we ourselves are in a crisis?

Basically, Ring Theory works like this: if the crisis is happening to you, you’re in the center of the ring, with everyone you know orbiting around you – like planets orbiting the sun.  If the crisis is not happening to you, you’re in an outer circle, and your job is to provide support to the centre and inner circles of the ring.

The Structure of Ring Theory

Try the following to better understand the structure of Ring Theory:

  • 1. Draw a circle. In this circle, write the name of the person at the center of the current trauma or crisis. They are the person who needs to receive the most comfort.
  • 2. Draw a larger circle around the first one. In this ring, put the names of the people that are closest to the one in crisis. This may be one close friend or a few, and might include the person’s partner, best friend, and/or some family members.
  • 3. In each larger ring, put the next closest people. These may be more friends or distant relatives.
  • 4. When you’re finished, you’ll have acquaintances in your very last circle. These might be coworkers who you exchange polite conversation with, or those in your church congregation that you may say hello to when passing by.

When you’re finished, you’ll have a structured illustration of the rings, which approximate the levels of grieving in a given situation.

Comfort In, Grief Out

Now that you have a visual representation of the levels of grieving, here’s out the ring theory process works:

1. The person in the center ring is holding the most pain. And they are encouraged to express that pain as much as they like, to anyone in the outer circles.

2. Nobody else in the outer rings can “grieve in”. Meaning, your job is to provide support to the inner rings. Don’t share the grief, don’t explain why this is hard for you. If you need to grieve, grieve to people in your outer layers, while providing support for those grieving in the inner layers. When you’re in the centre ring, it is your time to feel completely supported, without having to take on someone else’s grief at the same time.

3. When you are talking to a person in a ring closer to the grief than you are, they are closer to the center of the crisis. Your goal, as an outer ring person is to help and offer as much comfort as you can. In this case, it is often more helpful to listen than to talk. More often than not, someone in a crisis doesn’t necessarily want advice on what to do – at least, not yet. They want comfort, support, and understanding about what they’re feeling. It’s okay to take time to feel sad, without taking action. This is especially true if someone is grieving.

4. Comfort in. Take action to help those closer to the grief center. Bring a meal or a snack. Watch the kids for the afternoon. Do something for them, or bring them something. Don’t tell them on how something similar happened to you. Be there for them fully, without bringing your own experiences into it, and certainly without letting them know or implying that their crisis is bringing you down. As a result of hearing about their crisis, you yourself may want to scream or cry or complain, or just voice how shocked you are about the information you have received. Which is perfectly fine – it’s perfectly appropriate that you need to talk to someone about what you’ve heard or experienced as a result of listening to trauma. This is a perfectly normal response. But if you do feel the need to do so, make sure you do it to someone in a larger ring, who has more capacity to support you.

Giving Support While Experiencing the Same Crisis

There will be times that you and those closest to you are experiencing the exact same crisis. So, how do you decide who’s going to be at the centre of the ring? Can you both be at the centre at the same time? It’s important to remember that no one expects you to pretend that your own grief simply isn’t happening. But it’s also important to remember that everyone needs to feel individually heard in order to be comforted. So, it’s important to take turns at the centre of the ring, while also not comparing who feels the most grief. If you are in a situation where your inner circle is also in a crisis, it may be a good idea to suggest that you take turns comforting each other. Propose the idea of Ring Theory and let those closest to you know exactly what you need, as well as those in your outer circle.

Final Thoughts

It’s important to remember that we all experience grief. Especially in the case of the pandemic, we’ve all been experiencing loss. But sometimes the most helpful thing we can do is provide comfort. You never want to compete with grief. Everyone grieves differently, or nobody has it “better” or “worse”. But at the end of the day, if someone is in a crisis, they may need to be at the centre of that ring of comfort for a period of time, and have the focus just be on them – and that’s okay. You’ll get your turn in the centre of the ring. For now, let’s focus on being there for each other and providing comfort in a time where everyone needs it.

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