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How to Respond to a Friend in Crisis

Updated: 7 days ago

I read a lot of articles and books every week (I prefer the term "learner" to "self-help junkie" but the latter is just as true!) so when one still sticks with me a few days later, I figure I may as well share it on my blog.  The visual that the LA Times included with the op-ed piece, "How Not to Say the Wrong Thing," could save a lot of friendships if we took it to heart.

The Ring Theory

The piece written by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman speaks to the temptation all of us have to take someone's story and turn it into ours because their life impacts ours.

After Susan was diagnosed with breast cancer and had to field such comments as, "This isn't all about you," she created the diagram to the right to help us all see that while all of us may be impacted by someone's crisis, we have to stay mindful of whose crisis it actually is.  She calls it the Ring Theory and says it works in all kinds of crises: medical, legal, financial, romantic, even existential.

The person at the center is the one in crisis.  Everyone in that person's life is placed on a concentric circle, starting at the center with the people who are closest to the crisis (i.e. spouse, parent) and moving out to the people in our lives who are less close to us.

How it works, in a nutshell:

"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.

When you are talking to a person in a ring smaller than yours, someone closer to the center of the crisis, the goal is to help.

Comfort In, Dump Out."

Implications for our Friendships

Now, there are times in every crisis where I don't need everyone acting strong around me, where it can be meaningful to hear from people close to me about how this situation is impacting them, and where real authentic conversations and intimacy about what we're both feeling can be helpful.  And there are times where it feels good to have people around me vent, letting me still be a good friend to them, too; reminding me that they still have lives and issues and feelings.  Indeed, whether it's a cancer diagnosis or a divorce, we feel each others pain. But with that said, I think the above diagram is still an incredibly fabulous visual for helping us all keep perspective on where we are, and what our primary roles should be, when a friend is in any crisis.

Does their change affect us? Absolutely.  It will undoubtedly bring up our own fears and memories of loss that need to be processed.  And our schedule might change-- more serving and caring for them, less fun times out.  Our conversations might change and be way less meaningful, mutual, or energizing.  So undoubtedly our friendship will feel like it's changing, but that's not the same as our entire life changing.

I know my divorce impacted my friends-- they were losing a couple that they loved spending time with together, they had more tough conversations in their homes having to process who's fault it was and how to support each of us, and it undoubtedly brought up tough conversations about their own marriages. We both ended up moving away so it's fair to say many people "lost" a lot in my divorce.  But... the rings remind all of us that no one lost more than my ex-husband and I did.  I keep this front-of-mind when I'm heartbroken by the news of friends of mine....

A very aware person notices in those moments several things:

  1. This is her story.  I'm only a supporting actor in this movie starring her.

  2. Therefore she gets to call the shots.  Caring for her is the highest priority in this particular story.  I may be the center of another story, but this one is hers. I will try to be mindful of what she needs, and participate as I can.

  3. This does impact me.  I need to own that so I can be mindful of it.  I need to find the appropriate places to process what I am feeling. Most likely, especially early-on, she probably isn't the best person for me to go to for comforting.  She needs to stay in her role of grieving, processing, and healing-- not feeling pressure to "be there" for me. Remember, I'm only a supporting actor in this scene, not the one who steals the show.  In another scene, with someone else, I can be the main character. And need to be.

  4. I will do what I can. Just because she's in crisis doesn't mean I can show up in all the ideal ways. I may be in the center of another story that prevents me from having the bandwidth, or I may have too many unresolved feelings that I can't stop from bleeding out on her, or I just may not be able to serve all the ways she needs or I want to... but I'll be thoughtful in remembering that it's her right, as my friend, to ask. I won't resent her requests-- I'll just do what I can and lovingly say no to what I cannot.

The point is that their story gets to stay theirs-- always. Which sounds obvious, but can be so very hard to do.

In the Good Times, Too?

I think it's appropriate to expand the word crisis to include pretty much any life change, transition, or profound experience.  I personally think more friendships suffer misunderstandings with these circles in the good news more than in the bad news.

Because when she announces her promotion, her wedding, her retirement, or her pregnancy-- our first reaction will be about how we feel about it. We'll immediately start feeling something-- and whether it's joy or jealousy--we're at risk of putting our feelings on her experience.

In crisis we can be the heroes, the rescuers, the good friends, the shoulder to cry-on, the one who wows.  In good news though, when we might be more at risk of feeling jealous, forgotten, or alone, we may struggle more with letting her stay the center of attention.  She may not "need" us as much and instead of being grateful we're not the one who just got cheated on, we're now wondering when it will be our turn to have good-luck fall on our plate.

To be so mindful in those moments that she is in the center of the circle (her life is changing) and we are on the outside rings (we might feel different about her or us, and the time we spend with her may be changing, but our actual lives really aren't changing) helps give us perspective.

Our role in all these moments is to keep her in her center.  Whether it's in the gloom of her bankruptcy, the dissolution of her marriage, or the death of someone close to her, or whether it's letting her be wedding-crazy, baby-obsessed, and filled with retirement-glee-- let her stand in the center of her life, trusting that a ring or few out, we'll be there with as much support as possible.  We can do this because we will find other people in our lives to process our own feelings about what is shifting. We can take care of ourselves so we can help take care of her.

There's no better way to end this post than with the same words the authors ended their article:

"And don't worry. You'll get your turn in the center ring. You can count on that."

I'd love to hear other insights and reactions some of you have when you look at the concentric circles....  what's helpful? what's difficult? what's clarifying?

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