Comfort IN, Dump OUT (Or, What Not to Say)


When someone in our life is facing difficult circumstances – whether it be loss, grief, or any number of bad situations - we are often left feeling awkward at best, and useless at worst, in terms of how to respond.  We want to offer support, and it is a natural human reaction to want to ‘fix’ a situation (as evidenced by this video), yet that can often make it worse, or at least elicit a negative reaction.  So we are often left scratching our heads  because (1) we don’t know what we did wrong,  )2) our attempts to reach out were clearly misguided and (3) we haven’t any earthly idea how to rectify the situation.  This often leads to more awkwardness and discomfort, often resulting in our tendency to avoid the situation and/or person, which leaves everyone feeling pretty crappy.

A quick internet search yields numerous examples of our seeming inability to know the correct thing to say in the face of difficulty: “How not to say the wrong thing to someone with cancer”  “10 things to never say to someone after a breakup”  “What not to say to someone facing a loss”.   Ok . . . we are getting a handle on what NOT to say - but What on earth TO say?

Fortunately for all of us – psychologist Susan Silk has developed a simple, easy to remember, ingenious theory to deal with this issue.  It’s called the “Ring Theory”.  The idea behind the theory is simple:  Comfort IN, dump OUT. She developed this theory after the following experience:  After surgery for breast cancer, one of Susan’s colleagues wanted to visit her.  However, Susan wasn’t up to having visitors and asked her colleague not to come at that time.  Her colleague’s response?  “This isn’t just about you.”  Scratch your head moment, commence.  Thus, the Ring Theory was born.

It is fairly simple.  Imagine a group of concentric circles, each one inside the other.  The person who is experiencing the crisis is in the center circle.  In the next ring out are the people who are closest to that person (significant others, parents, siblings, etc.).  In each circle are people who are the next closest (friends, close colleagues, church members, etc,)   You can draw as many circles as are appropriate.  Silk calls this the “Kvetching Order”.  Keep it handy, as you might want to refer to it often.  The rules of the Ring Theory are also fairly straightforward.  The person in the center ring is allowed to complain to anyone at anytime, anywhere – no limits.  (Comfort In)  Anyone else can vent as well, provided they are complaining to someone in an outer ring.  (Dump Out).   It affirms everyone’s right to vent – provided they choose the right listener.

Here is an example from my own life:  following my husband’s ankle surgery due to a bike accident, he was in a great deal of pain and quite unhappy.  According to this theory, he was allowed to complain to anyone at any time – family members, friends, hospital staff, random strangers.    I was often overwhelmed by what was happening as well.  There were many times that it was enormously difficult and exhausting for me to listen to him in pain.  However, sharing these feelings of exhaustion with my husband would have been inappropriate (Dumping In), so I would instead vent with my own friends in larger rings (Dumping Out).  Any conversation with my husband was limited to listening and offering support and comfort (Comfort In).  Needless to say, I went way over my phone minutes with my friends during those months.  It would not surprise me if my friends became weary from listening to me – but they were kind enough to share this with other friends and family instead of me (again, Dumping Out).

As Sink points out, in a crisis, the goal is to be supportive.  We all want to offer helpful suggestions, but in most cases, talking is not nearly as useful as listening (although listening can certainly be more uncomfortable.) If you do feel you must say something, try and pause and ask yourself “Is what I am about to say likely to comforting and supportive?”  If the answer is yes – go right ahead.  If the answer is no, maybe not.  For example, advice is actually not particularly helpful (although that may feel like the absolutely right thing to do).  People who are in crisis and/or trauma don’t need advice, they need support and comfort (example: “I’m so sorry you are going through this.”)  So, instead of: Here’s what you should do”, or “This is what I would do if I were you” – how about “Can I bring you dinner?” or “I’m taking your kids to the park”.   Additionally, if you are feeling overwhelmed by what is happening and need to vent, that’s fine, and completely normal.  Just make sure you talk to someone in a bigger ring.  Comfort IN, dump OUT.

The beauty of this theory is, that in addition to making sense and fairly straightforward, it can be applied to all types of crisis; medical, relationships, financial, etc.  During this uncertain time of COVID, when we are all coping with a variety of stressors, it might be that you find yourselves with more than one person in a crisis (perhaps everyone in your family).   I know in my circle of friends and family we are essentially "taking turns" - recognizing that we are all going through levels of anxiety and fear right now, and some days might be better than others - during which we would be more capable of offering support.

Having these conversations can be difficult and these skills take time to learn.  Give yourself time and be kind to yourself, especially now.  Take care.



About Author

Kim Andreaus

Work Life Program Manager

Kim Andreaus is the Aging and Eldercare Program Manager for Work/Life. She has experience in geropsychiatry; both inpatient and in a community mental health setting. In addition, she has been a faculty member at NCSU, UNC-CH and Wake Tech and has taught courses in gerontology and conducted training in geriatric mental health.

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