A Critique of Ring Theory

A Critique of Ring Theory

Psychology February 26, 2021 / By Laura Otis, Ph.D.
A Critique of Ring Theory

Do we help suffering people by keeping our troubles to ourselves?

I have put off calling my sick friend because I’m afraid I’ll let it slip that my father is ill. My friend’s son and daughter-in-law considerately set up a blog through which the many people that love him can receive updates and share thoughts. One contributor posted a description of Susan Silk’s and Barry Goldman’s “Ring Theory,” about which she thought visitors should hear.

According to the clinical psychologist Silk and the mediator Goldman, a person at the center of a crisis, such as a severe illness, can be visually imagined in the middle of concentric rings. The people closest to them can be envisioned in the inner rings, and those least affected by the crisis in outer rings. Ring Theory dictates that when people approach anyone closer to the center, they should watch what they say and keep their emotions in check: “If you want to scream or cry or complain, if you want to tell someone how shocked you are or how icky you feel, or whine about all the terrible things that have happened to you lately, that’s fine...Just do it to someone in a bigger ring” (Silk & Goldman). With this image of rings in mind, one should “Comfort IN, dump OUT” (Silk & Goldman).

A woman quoted in Silk's and Goldman's article, who told her colleague with breast cancer, “this isn’t just about you,” needed to hear this advice. But when I read about Ring Theory in my friend’s blog, I felt angry.

I doubt I’m the only person who bristles when told how to behave, as though she had no emotional intelligence and couldn’t judge for herself. Anger soon gave way to thought, however, as I wondered why this post about Ring Theory had bothered me so much. Silk and Goldman have a point. A person in a hospital bed is literally a captive audience and shouldn’t be exploited by people who are suffering from relatively minor troubles or who feel empowered by giving advice. There are good reasons, though, to question Ring Theory, which however well-meaning, doesn’t do justice to the complexity of the emotions that surround human suffering.

Every afflicted person is unique, and the psychological state of a person in a crisis may vary from moment to moment. In judging how to treat a suffering friend or someone close to that friend, one needs to consider all of one’s experiences with that person and assess what would be most helpful in that instant.

Some afflicted people, in some moments, may need comfort above all; others may be hungry to hear about troubles other than their own. They may want to feel more connected to the world, and giving as well as receiving comfort may make them feel more valued. Certainly, one shouldn’t force one’s troubles on a suffering person, but if deep knowledge of that person’s personality and moods indicates that they want to hear them, one has a right to share.

The second complication of Ring Theory is that crises don’t happen one at a time, and any two people who interact may be at the center, middle, or periphery of multiple ring structures. A person visiting a friend with breast cancer may be experiencing harassment from an abusive ex-partner. In that case, who has the right to tell her troubles to whom? Who should silence herself and restrict her role to listening and comforting?

In his studies of emotion regulation, psychologist James. J. Gross has found that the suppression of emotion increases stress not only in the people suppressing their own emotions but in the people with whom they interact (Gross 217). In decades of studies, Gross and his colleagues have accumulated evidence that reappraising emotions (learning to think about them in a different way) leads to better mental and physical health than suppressing emotions (stifling them rather than thinking about them).

In a 2001 study, Gross and his team asked pairs of unacquainted female participants to view and discuss a disturbing film. In each pair, one participant was asked in advance to suppress or reappraise her emotions or just to respond naturally. Gross’s group found that in the pairs where one participant suppressed emotions, the partner experienced significantly greater increases in blood pressure than did the partners of participants who reappraised or did not regulate their emotions (Gross 217).

Gross hypothesizes that suppression increases stress for a conversation partner because the person stifling negative emotions may squelch positive emotions along with them, eliminating the encouraging cues that help the conversation flow (Gross 217). His group’s studies indicate that a visitor to an afflicted person who stifles her own suffering may not be doing that friend a favor.

When one considers linguist Deborah Tannen’s studies of conversations, Ring Theory may not apply equally well to both genders. In You Just Don’t Understand, Tannen summarizes studies that show how women from more than one culture are socialized to form intimate bonds by sharing their troubles, whereas men are taught to use conversations to establish who has the most information. Conflicts can erupt when men respond to women’s troubles by offering advice, or when women respond to men’s troubles by describing their own worries.

Tannen’s work suggests that for women, telling one’s troubles and comforting others can’t easily be distinguished. In a conversation that goes beyond small talk, where friendship is being reinforced, both partners are likely to listen to each other’s problems and to offer encouragement and support. Whether a crisis should change patterns that have been learned over decades can only be decided friendship by friendship, person by person.

Finally, my own study of emotion metaphors indicates how much harm the “dumping” metaphor can do. Not everyone may recognize “dumping” as a metaphor, but it is a figure of speech that compares the expression of “negative” emotions to the removal of excrement or other waste. To “take a dump” means to relieve oneself of smelly, potentially disease-causing organic matter. A dump truck removes unwanted material. No one dumps anything desirable, and comparing anger, sadness, or frustration to dumped material puts the person who expresses such emotions in the role of a polluter.

Banned Emotions by Laura Otis, Ph.D.

In my recent book, Banned Emotions, I trace the history of metaphors for culturally discouraged emotions to show how these metaphors serve some people’s interests more than others’ (Otis). Usually, anger and sadness arise for reasons; often, they can be traced to unjust treatment. Saying that people who speak about their troubles “whine,” as Silk and Goldman do, belittles the speaker by making her appear childish, so that she may stifle her voice rather than speak against injustice (Silk & Goldman). As a way to describe emotional expression, “dumping” characterizes the person expressing anger or sadness as inconsiderate and irresponsible when she may have something important to say.

Ring Theory has the potential to do good by encouraging people to think beyond themselves and to imagine the feelings of someone in a crisis. At its best, it can decrease pain and make people more considerate, more aware. At its worst, it is a form of censorship in which the “rules” and “Kvetching Order” can increase stress, block bonding, and shame people into silence (Silk & Goldman).

Knowledge of Ring Theory may do the most harm if it keeps friends from reaching out to those in need for fear of what they might say. Should I tell my ailing friend about my even-more-ailing father? I don’t know, but I’m going to call him today. I’ll make that judgment only after I’ve heard his voice, which I’ve been listening to for so many years. We should never presume to know what a suffering person wants to hear.


Gross, J. J. (2001). “Emotion Regulation in Adulthood: Timing is Everything.” Current Directions in Psychological Science 10.6: 214-19.

Otis, L. (2019). Banned Emotions: How Metaphors Can Shape What People Feel. New York: Oxford University Press.

Silk, S., & Goldman, B. (2013). “How Not to Say the Wrong Thing.” Los Angeles Times. 7 April.

Tannen, D. (1990). You Just Don’t Understand. New York: HarperCollins.

This article originally appeared on Psychology Today.

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