Recently, I had a long, heart to heart talk with a dear friend I’ve known since college. As close friends always do, we have many similarities and we know each other well. My friend and I were talking about a certain set of life challenges she’s been facing lately, and suddenly I saw with clarity, a pattern among them. Since I’m always pulling for her personal growth as much as I know she’s always pulling for mine, I decided to share my insight with her as gently and honestly as possible.
“It seems to me like the common denominator here, the root of all these problems, is that you’re allowing everyone else’s needs to take priority over your own,” I said. These are the kinds of wisdom nuggets I believe we need our true besties to shine a light on for us, to nudge us along our healing paths.
“I know!” she exclaimed. I was relieved that she had made the same connection, and didn’t seem to find my unsolicited opinion out of line. “And, I’m so frustrated,” she continued. “This has been my big issue my whole life and I thought I dealt with it years ago. But here it is again.”
I knew she was right. This had been a familiar theme not only for her, but also for me and many of the loving, nurturing, compassionate women I count as my friends. Some of us were raised in families whose particular brand of dysfunctions led us to adapt by being overly “good”, helpful and accommodating to others. Yes, it is possible to be too kind to others, when it ends up meaning you’re unkind to yourself.
Some of us grew up with the mistaken belief that we needed to “earn” love and approval. Somehow we missed the memo that we all inherently deserve love because we exist, that just being ourselves is enough. So we became over-compassionate caretakers for everyone around us while sublimating our own needs and desires in a misguided attempt to guarantee ourselves the love, security and approval we all crave. While this imbalanced approach to relationships helped us survive and cope as children, as adults it leads to exhaustion, resentment, confusion and unhealthy relatonships.
“I’ve worked so hard and gotten so much better at acknowledging and expressing my own needs, and at finding ways to meet them,” my friend continued. “So why is this coming up again now?” Her frustration and despair was palpable and I could relate.
Sometimes all our attempts at self-transformation can feel like an unending loop, coming back around to the same issues over and over. Just when we’re starting to feel like we’re making progress, that same old self-destructive pattern shows up again. So I decided to share with my friend an analogy that my therapist gave me many years ago, which gave me clarity and eased my frustration.
Personal growth doesn’t happen in a linear progression. It’s more like climbing a spiral staircase. You start at the bottom where you see a certain view of the space around you. Think of this view as your perspective on your world. With work, you take some steps up and notice that you’ve achieved a higher level of functioning. The view from here is different. You see the world from a new angle, and your new success motivates you to take some more steps, moving you toward more growth and another new perspective. This pattern repeats until, before long, you find yourself seemingly at the place where you began. “Damn, I’ve been here before! How did I get back here?,” you wonder. At first glance it seems you are seeing the world from the same exact angle as where you started. You don’t realize that although it’s a very similar view, you ‘re actually seeing that view from a slightly higher level now. Your view from this new height is wider and you can see a bit farther. You’ve made it once around that spiral staircase. The same issue is back, but now it’s time to deal with it on a more comprehensive level. It’s not exactly the same after all.
I love this metaphor because it teaches us that we can make a choice to leave the endless loop of surviving and step up instead on to the spiral staircase of healing. As we climb, we may encounter those same old issues, but at each new turn we see them with a fresh, new, better perspective. And the more we examine the view and our place in it, the more we come to a place called thriving.