Ring Theory: How to support someone in crisis, from a transgender perspective

A couple of years ago, when a mutual friend was going through a hard time, someone I know shared a link to an article in a Facebook Group.

How not to say the wrong thing by Silk and Goldman.

I recommend reading the full article, because it explains Ring Theory beautifully in the context of someone with a physical illness. But the theory also works well from a transgender perspective.

In a nutshell, Ring Theory is about how to offer appropriate support to someone who is going through a crisis, while acknowledging the ripple effect of that crisis and how it also hurts people who are close to that person. It recognises that they may need support too.

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The idea of it is that the person who is going through something difficult is at the centre of the rings. Then the people most directly affected by the crisis are in the next circle: partner/spouse or parents/children depending on the situation*. Close friends and family of the person in the centre come next, followed by the wider circle of friends/more distant family and then acquaintances/neighbours etc.

The rules for supporting the people in the circles are very simple.

Comfort in. Dump out.

You offer comfort towards the centre of the circle, and dump/vent your own worries/anxieties and anger outwards.

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In my model, I have the person who is transitioning at the centre of those circles. The trans person gets to vent and offload on people whom they trust to listen without judgement. But the people supporting them need to take their struggles with that person’s transition elsewhere. Just like you would (I hope) never tell a person who has cancer how hard it is for you to see them sick and in pain, a trans person probably doesn’t want to hear how challenging it is for you that they are transitioning.

We don’t need our friends and family to tell us that there is a period of mourning as the person they thought they knew fades away to be replaced by this new, authentic version of ourselves. I’m not saying for a minute that those feelings of grief/loss aren’t completely valid and understandable. But expressing that to the trans person can be harmful.

Believe me. We already know.

The fear and guilt over hurting our loved ones is what keeps so many of us in the closet for so long. We’ve beaten ourselves up about it in therapy, we’ve lost sleep over it, we’ve learned to live with that guilt in order to move forward. We get that it’s hard for you too, and we hate that we’re the cause of pain or distress for people we care about. But when you need to vent about your frustrations, please do that to someone else, because we already have enough of our own pain to deal with and can’t take on yours as well.

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* For someone like me who has children, my kids are obviously directly affected. But I exclude them from the comfort in/dump out rule because being their parent takes priority for me. So they are allowed to dump on me as much as they like.