You may have heard of “The Ring Theory;” a theory crafted by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman in 2013 to help people determine the right thing to say in any crisis. The theory is simple, catchy, and easy to adjust to any situation. In Susan and Barry’s own words, here’s the gist:
Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma. For Katie’s aneurysm, that’s Katie. Now draw a larger circle around the first one. In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma. In the case of Katie’s aneurysm, that was Katie’s husband, Pat. Repeat the process as many times as you need to. In each larger ring put the next closest people. 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. One of Susan’s patients found it useful to tape it to her refrigerator.
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.
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.
Comfort IN, dump OUT.
The Theory has a ‘ring’ of brilliance to it and gives you and your various circles a concrete rule to follow. In moments of panic, crises, illness, loss, or difficult situations, you can know exactly who you can rant to and vent to and who needs your care and who should be baking the casseroles (hint: the further out in the circle you are, the more casseroles you’re baking). As Captain Awkward summarized in her comments on the theory:
The overriding concept is: Yes, your feelings are important, but is this person the right audience for those feelings right now? How can you get what you need but make sure you are not overwhelming someone or unintentionally crapping on them when they are in a rough spot?
And this is important. We all often want to think of ourselves as the inner circle and sometimes it can be helpful to lay it all out and write it all down, to concretely measure and think about ways in which we burden others and unburden ourselves and the cost of such transactions. The Ring Theory provides a tool to reflect upon our choice of words and our choice of recipient.
But is it enough?
What happens when you have two people at the center such as a mother and father both mourning the loss of a child; can they dump on each other? What if someone fits in more than one ring like a friend who is also a client; how do you manage both positions in the circle? Can you leave people out of your circles entirely so that your Mom doesn’t find out about how hard your transition has been on you emotionally? At what point does your crisis end and how do the circles dissipate? Is it acceptable to ask that sometimes people “dump in” anyway just so you can get some semblance of normalcy and comforting another person? What if there are two crises or more going on in your immediate circle at the same time or within close time frames? How can we accommodate ongoing crises like chronic health conditions, disabilities, trauma, etc? And also, how can we accommodate an outer circle person that cannot be a dumping outlet for whatever reason?
These questions don’t really have answers, or at least, I don’t have any. But they do make a simple theory much more difficult in practice. While you’re chewing those over, let me tell you about the existential difficulty I face when I hear about The Ring Theory…
The Ring Theory boils down to boundaries, right? In the traditional circles, each circle is made of a magic boundary-substance that allows someone to push things through going outward, but won’t allow outer stuff to get pushed inward. This is a boundary, a mutually-agreed-upon way for information to flow such that it wells up from the inner core and slowly gets pushed outward like a fountain. If done correctly, it leaves the inner circles dry and given time, dries out all the outer circles as well. No more stuff. It’s all dumped outside the Ring. Done. Gone. Kaput. Crisis averted.
Except, when you’re left with no more stuff, when you’ve efficiently dumped out, how have you taken care of yourself and your connections to those inward, outward, and on your circle? Dumping out allows us to unburden the center of the crisis, but it doesn’t allow us to connect with them or with others very well. We’re constantly taking and passing on, pushing outwards, clearing space. Sometimes, in a crisis, this is needed and the rest comes later. But there is a certain way in which The Ring Theory, I think, creates more space than it needs to in groups of people.
Dumping out sometimes drives us apart.
When we’re constantly focused on taking from the inside and moving to the outside and then focusing our healing and compassion on the inside, then we’re working in a linear fashion. We become spokes on the wheel, so to speak. The rings keep us focused on the Outside and the Inside but what about those who are along your same circle, standing right Beside you? When we let our spokes stiffen we create a much more efficient wheel, it’s true, but we also create a much less efficient community, one that isn’t capable of flowing with the needs of others, one that is robotic and driven. Maybe that’s necessary, maybe it’s not. The Ring Theory isn’t a bad theory. In fact, it helps a lot of people going through very tough places in their lives, but it isn’t the One True Way to accomplish interpersonal healing and comfort in transition and crisis.
We must remember that sometimes our rings need to be flexible to adjust to a myriad of circumstances and that everyone handles crises their own way.
We must remember to hold space for the people along our circle lines, running parallel to us, doing the same hard work we are.
We must remember that not all baggage needs to be carried to the far reaches of our circles and, even if it is, sometimes we have to carry it back again later.
We must remember that “dump out, comfort in” is hard work for all parties and that when it’s over, there needs to be a way for people to reconnect, reclaim, and reestablish new reciprocal boundaries that are healthier for everyday life.