How To Respond to a Friend in Crisis

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

Whoever is in the center of the story gets to stay there... according to the LA Times op-end piece by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman.

Whoever is in the center of the story gets to stay there… according to the LA Times op-end piece by Susan Silk and Barry Goldman.

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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19 Responses to How To Respond to a Friend in Crisis

  1. Ter says:

    Perfect timing on this! Thank you Shasta… A friend tragically just lost her husband this past Saturday and there’s so much I want to say to her and just be there but it’s her time, her space, her grieving. I am here for her no matter what because she is wonderful and he was just as wonderful and in time,when life goes on again for everyone else is when I will reach out to her when she feels like no one else is there anymore…

    • ShastaGFC says:

      Ter– blessings on you as you navigate this. And I love your awareness of how meaningful it will be to remember her long after everyone else has picked up their proverbial casserole dish. You can do this!!!

  2. Diana Casalino says:

    This was an amazing gift. I’m actually going to study this. In the past others pain and crisis have become my own acting as a catalyst for my own unresolved fears and anxieties and sometimes manifesting in physiological illnesses. Emotional upset and stress weakens the immune system leaving one very vulnerable. When a friend spent the weekend sharing the nightmarish reality of her sudden diagnosis of brain cancer and months of surgeries and treatment the shock of it and the shock of how she’s changed and what she’s coping with wiped me out. My body and mind and heart just blew out. She is coping better than I was. What the heck is wrong with me. I’ve been avoiding seeing her cause I can’t handle it and I’m ashamed. I pray for her everyday and thank God for the huge support of family and friends that she does have. I lost my sister in law to ALS 10 years ago and have never gotten over the horror of it. I feel I will fail to meet my own life challenges when they inevitably arise. Which is why I’m seeking girlfriends. Yes I will need someone to hold my hand. Is that too much to expect?

    • ShastaGFC says:

      Diana– I’m touched by your honesty. Thank you for being vulnerable and sharing how you see this played out in your own life. I strongly encourage you to reach out to your friend, maybe with a “I’m so sorry I’ve been MIA. To be honest, your diagnosis scared and overwhelmed me. But I’m not going to let that prevent me from staying engaged. I may not do it perfectly, but I want you to know that I am willing to be here in a much more active way. What do you feel like you need the most from me?” (Maybe you can be the friend who still goes out with her and does fun things that take her mind off of it? That way it’s not as intense for you? Many people in pain and crisis get to places where they need moments where it’s not all focused on the crisis!) And I love your awareness that you need someone to hold your hand, too. Blessings on you as you move toward healing your own grief and as you practice showing up even when difficult. Hugs!!!!!

  3. Elizabeth says:

    I read that article too and found it helpful. I’m so glad you wrote about its applicability to good times because while you were writing about crisis, I had an ah-ha moment where I realized that it also applied to transitions, including good ones, and I loved what you said. I had my own direct experience when good news for a friend meant them leaving and my sadness at that bled into the experience. Fortunately, they said something, and I processed and apologized and learned from it. And learning takes time, so I am happy to have this lovely reminder of how I want to be in relationships.

    • ShastaGFC says:

      Elizabeth– Love your honesty! What you share happens to all of us more often than we recognize it! How did your friend say something that helped you see it? And kudos to you for receiving it and apologizing– awesome maturity when most of us tend to just get defensive!

    • Rae says:

      I think the fact you didn’t blow up more but instead apologized is awesome. I used to have a friend that reacted with anger when she was hurt or upset. I was too scared to call her on it because I feared a bigger explosion. Thanks for sharing, it reminds me that it could turn out ok.

  4. Peggy says:

    From one who still cringingly remembers a thoughtless remark I said about a friend’s cancer diagnosis (something horrible about God’s ways…) over 35 years ago (!), this blog is very helpful. Better to learn it before it’s needed!

  5. Simona says:

    This is very timely for me. I feel I am about to lose a friendship and I am trying to understand where things started to break down. Thanks for applying the ring theory to “good times”: it’s very helpful.

    • ShastaGFC says:

      So welcome! I do think the good times can be harder because they’re not as obvious to us, and it’s so hard when their good (i.e. job move, baby) comes with us losing something (them moving, them having less time). Not surprisingly it’s hard for both people to do that perfectly all the time. Good luck! I send a little prayer that you might be able to save that relationship or at least end it with as much peace as possible….

  6. Corinne says:

    I lost my best friend of 58 years last February. I always knew the theory of the circle and made sure never to dump in to her two adult daughters. I had been best friends with Diane since I was four years old though and I was feeling a whole mix of emotions – sadness, guilt that I’m still here and she isn’t. Just a lot of pain. I kept that from her daughters. Most of it. Of course I let them know I was devastated by Diane’s death. But they showed so much compassion that they, in a sense, invited me into their circle. We live across the country from each other but I was given third choice of which of Diane’s many crosses she collected. Her daughters seemed to feel comfort in the fact that their Mom had me – a person who could talk about anything – from our grade school crushes to the effects of her chemo.

    Your article clarified that circle theory Shasta. It’s not black and white – we need to use our intuition in all situations.

    In all things, I try to remember two truths. First one is “It is not all about me” to remind me that other see things from different perspectives and I need to be mindful of that.

    The second is my lifetime mantra. I live it every day. “Whatever you say or do – say it or do it with kindness”.

    Kindness is one of my favorite words. When I get news from a friend that leaves me reeling with jealousy — I can’t react with that. You can’t be kindly jealous. You need to work out your personal issues and realize that just because Jane got a new boyfriend does not mean you are going to be single the rest of your life. It could all change in an instant. So you can be happy for Jane!! Genuinely happy – because if it happened to Jane, it could happen to you! Hope is there! So then you can react with kindness.

    Loved this blog, Shasta. It is so thought provoking!


    • Suzannah says:

      I read a interesting comment said-
      Jealously is the point where love and hate meet.
      I found that the perfect defination of such a common emotion.

  7. ShastaGFC says:

    Oh Corrine– what a beautiful post! I am so sorry for your loss…. what wisdom and honesty you have shared. Your mantras would be good ones for all of us to adopt! Hugs!

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