When a tragedy strikes, the urge to reach out and offer support to your friends and acquaintances is strong. And you should!
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Before you do, however, take a minute to think about what you want to say. Do you want to tell them how hard this is for you? Or how this is bringing up memories of something similar that affected you a few years ago? In other words, are you about to make their trauma all about you?
You need to learn about the ring theory.
The ring theory was created by clinical psychologist Susan Silk, who (along with Barry Goldman) wrote about it for the Los Angeles Times in 2013. The idea is that in any crisis, there’s an inner circle of people who are directly affected; concentric circles lead out from that centre of people, each representing another group who are less directly affected by the crisis. Here’s Susan and Barry to explain it in more detail:
Draw a circle. This is the center ring. In it, put the name of the person at the center of the current trauma […] In that ring put the name of the person next closest to the trauma […] 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.
Art by me. You’re welcome.
Now that you have your circle, here is the most important thing to remember: The rule is “Comfort in, dump out.” You can complain about the crisis all you want — but you can only carry on to the people who are outside you in the ring. To the people closer to the centre than you, you should provide comfort only. That’s it.
Why should you follow the ring theory? Well, clearly you can do what you want, but consider this: When someone is going through a crisis, they don’t need to deal with your feelings on top of everything else. There’s nothing wrong with your feelings, and you should feel you can share them with someone. But with the ring theory, you can spare the people who are already dealing with more than their share of grief. Afflict the less afflicted, as it were.
Does this mean that the person(s) in the centre of the ring has the right to wail and gnash their teeth and make it all about them to anyone who will listen? Why yes, yes it does. Because it is all about them. That’s the whole point.