Ring Theory

We’ve all had the experience of someone saying the wrong thing to us about our disease.

“I hate that you always cancel at the last minute.”

“You rest all day. Can’t you make dinner once in awhile?”

“Work is killing me. I am so exhausted!”

If you have ever been on the receiving end of a comment like that (or have made a comment like that to someone else), let me introduce you to the Ring Theory.

Write your name on a piece of paper and draw a small circle around it. Draw a larger circle around the first and write in the name of the person who is closest to you – your spouse or partner, a sibling, etc. Repeat this process, drawing increasingly larger circles and filling in the names of people based on how emotionally close they are to you. So after your spouse, maybe a best friend or parent is next closest. Trusted friends should be closer than work colleagues; your favorite aunt might be closer than your brothers.

Now apply a simple rule: people can only complain to those who are in larger circles. Ring Theory says that complaints, moaning, despair, criticism, and negativity should flow only from smaller circles towards larger circles. There’s nothing wrong with expressing negative or difficult feelings, as long as you direct that at someone in a larger ring. You, as the sick person in the center, can whine to anyone you want in the other circles. Your best friend can complain to your work buddy. But negativity should never flow towards the smaller circles. Your old roommate should not give unsolicited advice about your medical care to your spouse. Only comfort and support should flow from larger circles to smaller ones. Offers of help, sympathetic listening, and understanding should be offered to those closer to the center of the circle, and especially to the person at the very center.

The one problem I see with Ring Theory is that it seems to be designed for acute crises – whether illness or trauma or other acute events. For those of us with chronic illnesses or permanent disability, I’m not sure that the “comfort in, dump out” should always apply. For example, I want and need my husband to share with me how hard my illness is for him. I can’t be the center of attention all the time. Sometimes, my husband needs my support to deal with the impact of ME/CFS on our lives. The same is true for my closest friends and family. Part of what motivates me to cope with ME/CFS the best I can is to make things easier for the people I love.

Overall, the Ring Theory is great advice for all of us. No matter what the crisis may be – illness, death, unemployment, trauma – remember to keep comfort flowing towards the center of the circle, and keep negativity flowing away from the center. It may be one of the best ways you can help, and be helped in return.


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