2019 taught me some tough but much-needed lessons I’m going to be thinking about years from now, and I’d love to share one with you.
JCB was in the final stage of his PhD – the writeup. For those who’ve lived closely with a doctoral candidate and seen first-hand the pressure they’re under, you get what I mean. For those who haven’t, just imagine if your loved one hardly ate, barely slept, were utterly convinced that they were on the brink of certain failure and weren’t interested in what you had to say about it because they never saw you. Kind of like that.
I could never understand the time and cognitive capacity it took to complete a PhD. I could understand what it was like to support someone through it, and it sucked. The stress and solitude were awful. I felt lonely and taken for granted. I decided that JCB needed to know about this.
You can see where this is going.
Last year, in the name of honesty, I took it upon myself to describe my feelings in detail to my husband, repeatedly. Some conversations were mellow, but most were not. I couldn’t see why he didn’t have empathy for my situation until I told Toni what was happening. Being my counsellor at the time, she smiled knowingly and asked,
“Jemma, have you ever heard about The Ring Theory?”
Developed by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman, The Ring Theory debuted on (where else) the Los Angeles Times website in 2013 and has been doing the rounds of pop psychology circles, self-help conferences, therapy sessions and blogs (hah) ever since. I’ve nicknamed it ‘Comfort In, Dump Out’ because that’s much more memorable.
It goes like this.
Crisis happens or devolves into An Official Situation – a death, diagnosis, accident, financial issue, divorce, assault, injury, job loss, or any lengthened stressful period – anything unfortunate which warrants a person’s actions to be excused for a certain amount of time while they process what’s happened and figure out a way through.
They are now at the centre of the ring. Surrounding them in the next circle of the ring is their closest relationship – usually a spouse. In the next ring are children and parents. Then come concerned friends and close relatives. Outside of that ring are colleagues, past friends who may have heard the news, family who live further away, and so on. The closer you are to the person who is in the crisis, the further inside the ring you are.
Now, here’s the premise: you’re only allowed to put comfort inside the ring. If you’re interacting with someone who’s closer to the crisis than you are, or the person who the crisis is happening to, you are only allowed to comfort them. Things are very, very bad for them right now, and the only goal is to help. Kind words, hot meals, vouchers, a listening ear, thoughtful texts, cups of tea, empathy, accompaniment to appointments, a shoulder to cry on, long phone calls at 3am – you name it. These are the purple arrows.
When putting comfort in, you do not provide advice. You do not share your experiences unless you’re asked to. You certainly don’t make that person’s suffering about how it inconveniences you: advice I didn’t hear until it was far too late.
The person at the centre of the ring is staring down the barrel of unimaginable grief, horror, fear or stress. Maybe all four. Unless you’re in the middle of the ring, which is the worst place to be and I wouldn’t wish it on anyone, you are a supporter and the situation is now about assisting someone else, not about you. You’re not getting as much attention. You may be ignored. You may be completely taken for granted, but at least you don’t have a child who’s just become a tetraplegic. At least you aren’t going to have to sell your house because of a bad business deal. At least you don’t have an undiagnosed mental illness. At least you aren’t pulling fifteen-hour days, every day for three solid months to finish the thesis in time.
This comfort goes one way, so curb your expectations that favours will be returned any time soon. The person in the centre of the ring is in the middle only because there is a crisis happening, and they need people to in turn dump on. Their worries, fears, tiredness, frustration, stress, misery, sickness, hopelessness, anger, pain and hurt are all coming your way, if you’re in an outer ring. These are the orange arrows.
And the reason I handled JCB’s final thesis writeup so poorly is that I dumped right back on him what he couldn’t and shouldn’t have had to deal with: my insecurities, loneliness, frustration, and exhaustion at holding a household together.
Here’s the key: it wasn’t wrong for me to dump, because those things were hard. I just wasn’t obeying the golden rule – that I could indeed dump, but not inside the circle. I could have let rip to anyone else except my husband, so that I could return, ready to hold the weight of JCB’s stress. But I didn’t realise.
I thought I was in the middle. I felt like I was in the middle. But back the camera up just a little bit, and it’s clear who stepped out of line. Would I rather have been doing a PhD than a load of washing every other day and cooking some meals for the freezer? No way, José.
What I learned too late was that my feelings were all worth expressing, if even just to get them off my chest. I just got the arrows the wrong way. I said the right thing to the wrong person. No wonder he roared, I bit back, and our communication lines shut down for the winter.
If in doubt, remember, “you can say whatever you want if you just wait until you’re talking to someone in a larger ring than yours.”
So, take it from me, a wife who screwed it up. You don’t want to be in the centre. If you are at the moment, I’m sorry. It’s such an awful place to be. I’m sending good vibes, luck, kindness and a wide circle your way.
If you have dodged that bullet this time and you are holding others in your life who are at the centre of their own circles, I’m sending you patience, empathy and the discipline of knowing when it’s time to comfort and when it’s time to dump.