Growth as a Spiral Staircase
One of the most common thoughts I have encountered in the mental health field, from others in my personal life and even myself at times is the notion that the growth we have experienced wasn’t real.
How this usually plays out is self-improvement has taken place and the client, friend, myself, or possibly even you reading this faces a setback and finds themselves confronting a problem they thought they had moved past. It could be negative self-talk, it might be anxiety regarding things like social situations, or painful memories, etc.
Whatever it is, there was hard work to fix it, and usually over a long period. True growth doesn’t happen immediately after all. But was it “true growth?” If we end up still experiencing the same thoughts and feelings did we actually change? The answer is “yes.”
The best metaphor I have ever heard to address this phenomenon is a spiral staircase. I would like to give the credit that’s due to its source, but I can’t say for sure who came up with the idea. It appears it may have its roots in the Yiddish tradition. In any event, the spiral staircase metaphor works like this.
Throughout your life you may come to the “same spot” multiple times but that is deceiving. You are actually further than you were the last time you came to this point. You are higher up, and for our purposes you have grown. You have more coping skills than you did before, you most likely have a deeper understanding of yourself, and you have demonstrated resiliency in coming to this point.
Chances are if you are working on yourself, and you find yourself thinking “I thought I was past _______” this is what’s happening. It’s not that your growth and healing haven’t been taking place like you may feel, it’s that the problem you’re confronting now is an echo of the past. It’s that our problems very often have been patterns in our life, and might come up again in some manner.
Unfortunately for us that is normal. It would be nice to focus on our personal growth and never again encounter the negative thoughts, memories, and feelings that we realized we needed to address, but that isn’t a very common outcome. It’s more likely they will remerge at some point. If/when they do, try looking at your journey as being a spiral staircase.
Instead of focusing on what is the same about how you’re feeling or thinking, try looking at what’s different:
- Is the problem at the same level, or is it a diminished version.
- Moving from having negative thoughts about yourself all day to half the day, for example, is progress.
- If the problem is at the same level, how have you changed?
- What new knowledge and understanding do you have about yourself?
- What new skills have you developed along the way to deal with these thoughts and feelings?
Don’t become discouraged. This is part of the process. You weren’t imagining your growth, you’ve just reached the next level. Remember what you’ve learned, who you’ve worked to become, and when you’re ready, keep going.
Sean Kuhns, LPCC