Life is Like a Spiral Staircase

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By UB therapist Kiya Immergluck, PhD, LCPC

I have an image that I share with clients to help explain the repetitive nature of long-term issues. So often, clients come back to see me after many months or years, and they are disappointed in themselves that an old issue is bothering them again.

Sometimes my clients feel exasperated. “We spent months helping me heal from my abusive childhood. Why is it in my face again?”

Often, clients feel hopeless. “Here I am again! All the way back to Square One!”

What I notice is that sometimes a client is more triggered by the idea of a repeating pattern, than by the pattern itself.  For example, “Susie” did a lot of work with me about her controlling mother. She learned to set strict boundaries and remind herself that she is an adult and doesn’t have to take on her mother’s demands or criticisms.

Yet after all this work, Susie came in months later stating, “I’m doing it again! Mom criticized my new boyfriend and I lost it!” She believed that she had to start her recovery all over again.

I pointed out to Susie and others that they may very well be triggered again, but it doesn’t negate their progress in the past. The theory and image I draw encourages my clients to think of life like a Spiral Staircase.

When someone first comes to see me, they are usually just beginning to climb the stairs. I encourage them to imagine ugly old furniture stored at the bottom of the stairs to represent all the problems and bad memories in a client’s life. The furniture looks very large and foreboding when you look down at it from the first floor landing. But as we keep ascending the Spiral Staircase, the furniture looks smaller and smaller.

By the time you come back to therapy, you may have climbed up many flights of stairs and never looked down at the ugly furniture. However, there may be a time in which you did glance down and you got triggered.  I will talk to my clients about the fact that old memories never disappear completely, but as we climb the Spiral Staircase of life, those memories become smaller and less significant.

I tell my clients that they are always welcome to come back and see me. Many say that the image of the Staircase helps them to better handle “looking down at the problems,” but knowing that they are getting smaller and smaller!