The Upward Spiral

by Afshan Mohamedali, Ph.D

A patient once said at the end of session that he felt like he was going in circles. He was exasperated and couldn’t see the progress he was making because he had seemingly ended up right back at the beginning. Rather than let this comment linger and unfold naturally in the next session, I felt pulled to mark the progress that I could see and was also a part of. I reframed his comment, observing an upward spiral, involving “going in circles” but moving in some direction.

The upward spiral became a metaphor in the remainder of our work together. And while my response originated from motivations to validate and provide hope, I began to see that this metaphor was very powerful. It speaks to the patterns we often find ourselves in, especially in relationships, but the potential to change our patterns, as well. We have a basic set of relational models that we gravitate to and find comfort in. After all, they’re familiar, we know how to navigate them, and they usually serve some function. For example, at times we test the people who mean the most to us so that they have opportunities to prove themselves and when they conquer one obstacle, we give them another test of greater difficulty. If they make it through these tests, we achieve a positive feeling of nurturance, care, and stability that we lost sight of momentarily. If they don’t, a theory we’ve always held is supported once again.

In any given chain of events in the upward spiral, however, there are a number of points to intervene, to think, feel, or act differently. Take the example above. We might present others with less tests or easier ones the next time. We might feel secure in our relationships after less obstacles than last time. We might simply be more aware of our thoughts before we set up tests. Even though the pattern of testing still continues, it has the potential to occur differently and the direction of difference can be one toward progress.

Going in circles can be a rather solitary activity, if I must say, one that can be lonely, confusing, and perhaps infinite. In patterns that are so deeply rooted, we may struggle to recognize what we can actually change. So how many circles upward does a spiral have? Ever hear that breaking a habit takes 21 tries? Well, that’s long been deemed a myth. The deeper a pattern is rooted, the longer it takes to achieve a healthier way of relating. Growth can be seen instantly, though, if you choose to see it. Each circle in the spiral is slightly different than the one before. Similar to how recalling a memory actually subtly alters that memory, re-experiencing a pattern after reflection will not be exactly the same, either. As a therapist, I encourage patients to let me observe and participate in these patterns. Standing both on the edge of the circle and outside of it provides an advantage that I can share, joining in the growth and upward spiral.

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