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MIss Conduct

Advice: How to talk about sad things in hard pandemic times

I’m not sure how to discuss being stuck at home with a friend who’s got it worse off.

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You mentioned the ring of grief once, and I’m wondering if the same theory applies to the pandemic. I know everyone has the right to feel what they are feeling. But are we really all in this together? My friend lost his job after moving states and now he’s ineligible for unemployment. I can’t complain to him about being stuck at home with no physical contact when I still have a job (for now). What are your thoughts?

E.P. / Somerville

What you’re referring to is the Silk Ring Theory, a.k.a. “Comfort in; dump out.” Psychologist and cancer survivor Susan Silk developed it with her friend Barry Goldman. Imagine a series of concentric circles, like a target. The person having the crisis — e.g., Susan with her breast cancer — is the bull’s-eye. Her husband and other immediate caregivers are the next ring around them, and so on. If you’re their next-door neighbor, you don’t complain to the Silks that Susan’s cancer is reminding you of your own mortality. Save that for someone else, further removed. Those closer to the bull’s-eye, you only offer comfort.

Silk and Goldman ended their 2013 article with “You’ll get your turn in the center ring. You can count on that.” Well, it’s 2020, and we’re all sad clowns in our own disappearing spotlights now, aren’t we? How does Ring Theory work when everyone is their own bull’s-eye? There are so many ways to suffer you can give yourself a math headache trying to calculate when and how you can express your pain. Is it worse to be a front-line worker or unemployed? Isolated or never able to get a private moment? And it’s not as if any of us actually knows what battles another person is fighting. The same situation — losing a job, for example — can be a setback for one person, a life-derailing emergency for another, and an existential crisis of meaning for a third.

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I think you can complain to your friend about your physical isolation. You’re bull’s-eye for that, or else you’re both suffering more or less equally. What you don’t complain about, to him, is Zoom fatigue and the endless team e-mail chains. See the difference?

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Some other tips for sad talk in hard times:

When friends complain, validate their feelings before saying anything else! Say “That’s awful,” “I’m sorry,” “You deserve so much better than this,” prayers or profanities, whatever your personal vernacular. Don’t skip straight to advice or your own experience.

If you relate to the Original Complainant, saying “I went through/felt something similar” is better than “The same thing happened to me.” Let the O.C. decide how similar your experiences are, otherwise commiseration can feel like hijacking or one-upsmanship.

Don’t act like a member of a pain club you’re not in. Working from home with a bored terrier is not the same as working from home with a hyperactive child. Worrying about your 401(k) is not the same as worrying about making rent.

If you are concerned about these kinds of things, you’re probably being sensitive to your friends. And if you mess up, you are the kind of person they’ll feel comfortable gently calling out. You got this!

This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Barry Goldman’s name.

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Miss Conduct is Robin Abrahams, a writer with a PhD in psychology.