Circles of Impact

Ripples are made when a rock is tossed into a lake and breaks the surface of calm waters. The ripples surround the impact area in rings and gradually decrease in definition as they move out further from the initial area of impact.

There is a picture used in counseling that represents the idea of what I call, circles of impact, or it is also called “Ringtheory” (Susan Silk). I learned about similar concepts many years ago in college, studying Social Work, and Sociology. I had seen it resurface at conferences and in books that deal with pain and complicated situations. I wanted to share some of the general ideas behind it to help us all as we walk beside our friends, co-workers, family, etc. The basic premise of this idea is that the person who is directly impacted by a certain crisis is in the center (immediate point of impact). The surrounding circles are the layers of impact or ripples. The “center” has choices on where these ripples or boundaries lie. The boundaries will depend on the relationship, their typical emotional responses to trauma as well as the center person’s needs, and capacity for interaction. It will look different for different people and situations. Needs and boundaries will be different for different crisis impacts. In essence, it helps in determining boundaries around the emotional reaction to a crisis. It helps us navigate through tough crisis seasons together. I had to learn the hard way sometimes, and my observations are intended to help remove some of the tripping points to navigating crisis together.

It is an excellent place to start

I have had the vantage point of seeing this in action from several points. I have stepped into hurting situations as well as experienced my own crisis points. I have not done this well every time but have learned valuable lessons along the way. I hope that my lessons, learned the hard way, may encourage you no matter where you find yourself in this spectrum.

One aspect of this idea is that it helps determine the flow of care or energy. In the center is where the care flows in. But the center isn’t in a position to provide care or support to the other, outer circles, surrounding the situation. It also means that if you are interacting with another who “resides” in a circle closer to the center than yourself, we shouldn’t dump emotionally upon their shoulders. They cannot carry our emotions. It doesn’t mean we can’t have strong emotional responses to the situation. It just means that we may need to lean on the shoulder of someone who isn’t immediately impacted.

We had all levels step in in incredible ways after my husband and I both found ourselves in crisis during the same time. Our support network was still very mindful of our privacy and boundaries. Approaching in ways that were helpful and yet careful not to overwhelm us in other ways. Even good stuff can overwhelm during crisis.

The first rings out are already pouring into the center or are also in the trauma with the center situation. If we are invited into the spectrum, it is sacred space we have the privilege of being part of. We must please try not to bring additional emotional needs or baggage into it. This can cause hurt that is hard to heal.


If you are in the center, it is ok to decide what and how your information is shared. CaringBridge? Phone chain? Or, as we did, we had my husband send out an email that detailed our circumstances. You can also utilize a couple of friends who can help coordinate between the center and those who wish to offer help. Find your most comfortable means of communication and coordination.

If we are in the circle of communication and perhaps working with the center, try to listen to their needs and desires. I discovered that a surprisingly common experience among people navigating through cancer is that they can be left out of everyday life activities or even job responsibilities. Sometimes it is out of the concern and, more often than I liked discovering, it can be a way to remove the person from groups. Especially workgroups. Please Don’t say behind someone’s back, “She’s not “ok” “after she’s shared trials or “He’s not able to…because he might get sick.” Error on the side of inclusion and communication. Ask the person- it may be a good day, or it might be a rough one- but it is always good to give the person the option of participating. I was surprised to discover this oversight even happening to healthcare providers.

Being in close proximity doesn’t give us any ownership over another’s situation. Crisis doesn’t create open season on one’s privacy or ability to have boundaries around it. He/She must have safe areas to be completely vulnerable.  Encourage life breathing engagement so that you don’t force someone into social isolation. If you are honestly concerned about your friend- figure out how to approach them with love, in a way that respects their boundaries. Again, it will look different for different situations and people. Allowing some variability around this season is important. 

Also, it is critical that we avoid using this as an opportunity to gossip about the “center” for our own satisfaction. Please don’t use their vulnerable position and our perceived access to it to wound or undercut. If things are shared- we must not dish it out recklessly. Pray with them not about them.

Ex. She may not want the greater community to know she’s having a body part removed. In a time of life feeling out of control don’t also pull her privacy from her.  Let the center choose what defines him/her and how. 

Even this far out from diagnosis, I can still find myself blindsided by unexpected sharing/exposing tender parts of my story (parts not shared here). Always ask someone before sharing hard parts of their story. It then prepares them for the attention and reaction. Even their own. It’s like going along on a sunny day and suddenly hitting a brick wall that throws you back to your hardest day(s) ever. A heads up is nice. PTSD is real.


As the crisis impact lessens or becomes more normalized, the circles may widen or shift. Or not. An introvert may never invite a lot of people into that sacred space. He/She may still opt to keep clean and well-defined boundaries around intimate details. One must respect this. It’s not personal to you- but is to the “center.”

Be patient and be adaptable. The rings may shift and move. Try to approach with loving kindness and gentleness always. I realized recently that sometimes it is ok to be quiet and present. The answers to life’s hardest seasons are sometimes not readily available in a nice easy package. Loving people often means empathizing and listening. Praying. Laughing. Crying. Hugging. Feeding someone. Putting my needs second. Realizing that I can bring joy in or chaos. Praying, I bring joy. It is not always easy. My mind has raced to offer that perfect word of empathy or condolence…but sometimes there isn’t any. Sometimes offering up the cliche’s end up stifling the sharing or adding additionally complicated feelings.

When I share my fears with someone and they tell me they believe” I am healed and will be fine”, tells me that they are not comfortable with my discomfort. Sometimes I just need to sort through the complex feelings and ponderings. There may not be a need to make it go away and shush it out of the room.

It is hard. It isn’t pretty. It is crisis. It can be messy. Be careful. Love gently. If you are in the center- take a deep breath. Lean in and take one step at a time. Expect people to wound you unintentionally. Try to show grace. Maybe shift your boundaries, if necessary. But find a few that you can trust to be in the inner circles. Because this is hard enough without having to do this alone. If you are in the circles of impact, love generously and be ok with where you land on the spectrum and where our stories intersect. We can do this together.


I need to acknowledge with gratitude some of the insights and processing I did with a dear one while writing this piece. This woman was so wise in the areas of metastatic breast cancer as well as therapy. She patiently answered my questions as I navigated complicated areas post-diagnosis. She also generously shared her experiences, as well as her observations of working hard to re-establish life post-diagnosis. I miss her thoughtful yet straightforward sharing and guidance. It was hard to push the publish button without her here. I hope this would have made her smile. Although I am sure she probably would have told me to go in boldly.

I have also noticed that there are a handful of people finding this blog through another site that is an excellent resource for breast cancer. If you have found yourself here looking for support as you navigate this season, I would be more than happy to offer up any assistance I can through sharing my experience. What do you want to know? Are you currently facing this diagnosis? Do you have a friend or family member recently diagnosed? You can respond below or privately. I will try to add some of those topics into future posts.

This is a way I can bring a sense of purpose to my diagnosis. I have also been very grateful to others who have gone before me. Those who have been generous in sharing their perspectives, experiences, and showing me kindness and compassion while answering my questions. I would be honored to pay it forward.

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