Note: Today’s blog entry is an adaptation of the intro from one of the books I’m working on. Also, it’s the first time I’ve tried to use an illustration in a post!
In my work as an individual and group therapist, there’s an image I like to use when someone is discouraged about a personal setback. A client might say, “I thought I was making progress, but now I’m back to square one.” Or “I was feeling so much better, and then I started feeling bad again. What’s wrong with me?” Or “I’ve already learned this! Why do I keep making the same mistakes?”
When I hear people say these things, I often draw a spiral or coil that looks something like this:
(Honestly, what I draw might be sloppier than that, but it does a better job implying onward and upward movement. But, hey! the above is the best coil I’ve been able to find online, so far.)
I tell people this image is based on the work of Carl Jung, who described the ascending coil as the typical way that people grow, learn, and develop through life. Jung said that people keep going over similar territory, encountering similar issues along their way. And those circles can feel like we’re stuck in a pattern, going through the same damn thing over and over again.
However, notice that every time we circle around, we’re also in a different place. Jung said that the same time we’re going around, we’re also simultaneously moving up and ahead. Each time we come around, we’re further along, with experiences and knowledge we didn’t have before. Therefore, we can never go over the same exact territory the same way. It’s impossible. We simply cannot fall back to square one (or square anything). We may be re-visiting similar territory, but we’re different, and we’re doing it differently every time.
I’ve drawn and shown this ascending coil to many people over the years. When I talk to people about it for the first time, I often see reactions that look similar to how I felt when it was first shown to me. When I first saw and thoughts about that coil, I felt recognition. I felt relief. I realized that I was not alone in struggling with (and often judging) my progress through life. And, best of all, I felt a reassuring acceptance about where I’d been, where I was, and where I might be going.
Each of us has our own ascending mortal coil, our own path of learning and growth. For most of us, the early, crucial go-rounds included some difficult passages. Perhaps we encountered some unexpected calamities, too early. Perhaps we didn’t get some things we really needed. Perhaps we lost track of our basic worthiness. Not surprisingly, those early go-rounds tend to influence and shape what territories and lessons we re-encounter as we move upward.
For me, those early, formative passages included my being born with an unusual heart, which resulted in my being hospitalized a lot when I was a kid, and my needing a cardiac pacemaker when both I and pacemaker technology were quite young. (Bragging point: I am the longest surviving person with a pacemaker, in the world.) (Yes, I am.)*
A lot of those early hospital experiences have lingered for me in challenging ways — making hospitals places I’ve tended to avoid, whenever I’ve had that choice. Yet, I have recently chosen to return to the hospital in a different way: as a treater, not a patient, and doing work I love. Do those early memories add fearful echoes to my current experience? Of course they do. But I’m getting to do things differently this time around, and it feels great (if exhaustingly scary at times).
Whatever your formative passages were, wherever you are in your life right now, I assume you also have re-encountered certain important issues in your life — learning and re-learning lessons as you move up your own ascending coil of Life.
These issues may cause pain, they may create self-judgment, they may be an incredible pain in the ass, but they are undeniable. They’re important. They’re difficult lessons to swallow or learn. Otherwise, we wouldn’t keep bumping, slamming, and stumbling into them.
I know it always helps me to imagine moving up, always up, as I wend my way around my progress through life — my personal ascending coil. It helps to visualize myself on that path, moving slowly but surely, especially when I feel lost, confused, stymied, disappointed, angry, fearful, and judgmental of myself and others.
I hope it can be a helpful image for you, dear reader, too.
© 2013 Ann Koplow
* Actually, no, I’m not, which I found out in 2014. See here for more about that.
This is elucidating and useful, Ann. It surely resonates and makes so much sense. Very helpful post!