Once you understand the spiral nature of change, you can recognize and respond skillfully to each stage.
“Why can’t I just let go of my old painful patterns?” I often hear some version of this question from my highly sensitive clients. I’ve asked it of myself, as well. It sounds like a request for information. Truly, though, it is a cry of pain.
Underneath the words, the question that is actually being asked is, “What is wrong with me? Why am I still struggling with this, after all the effort I’ve put into therapy, journaling, bodywork, etc.?”
When you ask, “What is wrong with me?”, you are already off to a rough start. The question itself implies that there is in fact something wrong with you. It also implies you should have fixed it or figured it out by now.
“Shoulding” yourself adds an unnecessary layer to the pain you are already feeling. Being in pain does not mean there’s something wrong with you. It only means that in the past, in the face of unbearable pain or stress, you adopted coping strategies that are now restricting you, burdening you, or causing you to feel anxious and depressed.
Next time you catch yourself asking, “What is wrong with me?”, try replacing that question with more helpful ones. Instead, ask, “How am I feeling right now? Can I find a way to be present with that? Do I need to take action around that?”
To support you letting go of the mindset that there is something wrong with you for being in pain, I’d like to talk about the spiral nature of change. Once you understand that pattern, you will stop judging yourself for “backsliding.” You will gain compassion and patience to take as long as it takes to heal.
The spiral nature of change
Some therapeutic healing modalities use the word “spiral” to describe the pattern of visiting and revisiting a traumatic event over time. That is one helpful way of applying the spiral metaphor to the healing process. For significant trauma, a single course of intervention (such as psychotherapy) is typically not enough. We have to revisit these formative experiences again and again over time in order to shift our trauma-induced patterns of behavior in a tolerable, gradual way.
Here, though, I’ll look at the way spiral patterns appear within a given course of therapy, coaching, or other healing work. Many thanks to Patrick Summar for introducing me to this concept. Any errors of translation are entirely mine.
Imagine you are standing on a point. High above, you can see where you would like to be. If you were a bird, you would take off and spiral up, lifting higher with each circling move. You would ride the wind currents until you reached that desired place high above you.
You might drop at moments, as birds do when the wind drops suddenly. But your overall trajectory would be upwards. As humans, though, we get caught in linear thinking around change. We try to fly straight up, believing our healing path should look like the trajectory of a rocket ship after blastoff.
In truth, though, growth more closely resembles the spiraling flight of a bird. In the healing process, half of each circle consists of a breakthrough stage, in which insights come and positive changes happen. Then, like night follows day, the other half of each circular swoop is a breakdown stage.
In other words, the spiral pattern does not reflect a continuous breakthrough state. We chronically wish we could skip the breakdown part, seeing it as a pain in the backside, to be endured as a necessary evil. Don’t make this mistake. Each breakdown is, in fact, caused by the breakthrough that preceded it…and it creates the essential conditions for the next breakthrough to come.
Breaking down to break through
To use another metaphor, when we embark on a path of healing change, we become a construction zone. Trauma has created walls within us. Those walls have to come down if we are to access all of ourselves and experience more integration, more freedom, and more joy.
However, you can’t do construction without making a mess. You can’t do a significant remodel without knocking down walls. This is the heart of the spiral nature of change.
For example, let’s say you’ve begun to let go of an old belief that you don’t deserve to speak up for yourself around other people. What happens next? You begin to speak up more for your needs. This is progress! However, because you haven’t had much practice yet, what comes out may be edgy or forceful.
You are going through what Nonviolent Communication® founder Marshall Rosenberg fondly called “the obnoxious stage.” Your family wonders who you are, and where aliens took the “real you.” Your friends are confused, and possibly hurt or angry. In place of the old status quo, you have created a construction zone.
Do you see, though, how this stage is necessary? Messy, yes. But essential. In fact, you couldn’t skip it if you tried. This breakdown stage is the direct result of the life-changing breakthough you made when you spoke up for yourself for the first time.
The problem is, we can’t just go in and forcibly destroy the inner patterns that were put in place long ago in an attempt to keep ourselves safe. If we try to do that, our efforts will backfire. We only reinforce the “walls.” In this regard, we’ve reached the limits of the construction zone metaphor.
Instead, let’s imagine you are trying to approach a dog that has been beaten in the past. He may cringe and back away from you, for fear of being hit. To teach the dog you are safe, you have to approach him slowly and repeatedly, backing off each time he flinches. You can’t rush this process. It takes as long as it takes.
In other words, you show the dog that you are trustworthy by being attentive and responsive to it. Attentiveness and responsiveness form the essence of a loving, healthy relationship. If you approach the dog this way, he will come to trust you over time.
The same is true of the traumatized places in you. You must move slowly, be attentive, and be responsive to them. Soon, you will discover two (or more) layers. One is the original feelings caused by the traumatic event(s). Another is a layer of protection, put in place in the past to protect you from ever again feeling the pain you felt from the trauma.
When you do healing work, you work with both of these layers, starting with the outer protective layer. You create (with support, if needed) an attentive, responsive container in which you can relate to these protective parts in a new way. It is at this point in the healing process that the breakdown-breakthrough cycle appears.
Being with your protective parts
With your attentive, responsive presence, your protective parts will begin to soften. But their job has always been to remain vigilant. So, having relaxed a bit, they may pull back. Sometimes they pull back hard. That’s not a problem, as long as you understand what is happening.
Unfortunately this is the moment where other parts can crowd in, judging the process. They say things like, “I’ll never heal. What’s wrong with me? Why is this taking so long? I’ve worked on this lots of times before in therapy! Why isn’t it better by now?”
When you hear these voices, remind yourself that you can choose how you respond to them. These worried parts are scared. They are just like poor Chicken Little, who ran around screaming, “The sky is falling! The sky is falling!” If you join them and run around yourself, you can’t help them see the truth, that you are actually OK at this moment.
Instead, you can respond to these voices with the same attentiveness and responsiveness that you’ve been offering to the original trauma. You can empathize with them, while simultaneously knowing they are mistaken in their belief that something is wrong. As you hold them kindly but firmly in the embrace of this bigger awareness, they will gradually calm down.
Every breakthrough causes a new breakdown
There’s no way around it. Any progress you make towards dismantling painful patterns will upset your inner apple cart. Painful patterns are just that: painful. However, they are also familiar…and our vigilant parts prefer the “painful familiar” to the “new and untested.”
You, however, know better. Once you understand the spiral nature of change, you can field these “breakdown” phases with more equanimity. Eventually you will go beyond toleration: you will actually welcome breakdowns, recognizing them as signs of progress. Now it will be easier for you to facilitate the next phase of the inner relationship: the trust-building phase.
Picture the sweet but traumatized dog we met earlier. It will take weeks, even months of your gentle approaches—and attuned, responsive retreats, when necessary—before the dog relaxes and allows you to pet him. He will still jump if you make a sharp movement.
You wouldn’t fault the dog for needing this time. Don’t fault yourself for that, either. If you notice yourself flinching or constricting, remember that this is a part of you that still needs time to believe it is safe now. Once again, remember that you can be that safe place for your inner parts, by recognizing them, then being attuned and responsive to them.
As long as you are alive, you will never stop experiencing breakthroughs and breakdowns. You will get better at handling them and trusting them, though. Stay with your inner parts through the process. Be trustworthy, by attuning and responding over and over. They will come to trust you. That is the spiral nature of change.