stone spiral staircase

The spiral staircase of growth

Image credit: Spiral steps by Matti Mattila on Flickr. Used via Creative Commons licensing.


We tend to think of growth as being like climbing a ladder (for example, “the ladder of success”). The image is one of continuous upward movement in a straight-line toward the goal. Each lesson along the way is learned once (one rung on the ladder) before we move on to the next lesson.

But that image just doesn’t match my experience on my journey. Not only does growth often feel to me like downward movement into greater depth, it’s seldom (if ever) anything that approaches a straight-line.

Over time, I’ve come to think of my personal growth more as resembling a spiral staircase that I am slowly descending, and that image makes all the difference.

Rather than visiting each lesson once and being done with it for all time, I keep cycling back through various lessons as I come around the spiral again. Each time I come back to a lesson, I find that I see it from a slightly different vantage point and in slightly greater depth.

Each time through a particular challenge both highlights the way I’ve grown since I last visited that challenge and shows me the areas where I still have more room to grow into greater depth.

I had the opportunity to revisit an area recently that has been a long-time challenge for me. This time around the spiral, I found myself noticing familiar patterns and changing them faster than I’ve ever done before. I made different choices than I once would have made and was able to listen more clearly to my own intuition about the situation in order to make those choices. I’m seeing places that were once broken that are now seams of gold.

It feels really good to be able to see the results of the work I’ve done over the last several years, and I am grateful for that.

Of course, it also shows me that I still have more work to do to be the person I want to be. There are still a number of places where I could have chosen better, responded better, and paid more attention. There are still broken places that are awaiting their kintsugi repair. I imagine that will always be the case in this life.

But the greatest gift of all is noticing how much more grace-filled it is for me to live into this image of growth than into the traditional ladder image.

When I imagine growth as a ladder, I beat myself every time I re-visit one of these challenges rather than seeing how much I’ve grown in my handling of it. It feels like failure not to have learned the lesson and be done with it when I’m in ladder mode.

When I imagine growth as a spiral staircase, there is no judgment in revisiting an issue. Because I expect the staircase to lead me back into familiar territory, I find myself noticing instead how I’ve grown on this visit compared to the last one, so I respond with gratitude instead of condemnation.

When I think of myself descending the staircase into greater depth instead of ascending to the heights, I not only find my journey to be one that I can more easily trust and relax into (actually helping me open to greater growth), but I also find myself less tempted to compare myself to others around me because it’s harder for me to visualize competitive progress on a spiral descending deep into the earth than on a ladder reaching up into the sky.

The spiral and the descent are, of course, both more feminine images than the masculine ladder image, so perhaps it’s natural that I would gravitate toward them. But as my self-understanding grows deeper (see what I did there?), I am also convinced that they are better representations of my reality on this journey and therefore better guides to empower continued growth.

What images of growth do you use for your journey? How do those images facilitate greater growth for you?


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4 comments

  1. I certainly resonate with and appreciate the spiral imagery and any imagery that allows for the return to familiar territory…but with a difference. You put it so beautifully! I’ve often gone back to the difference between envisioning time as chronos (like a clock’s linear progression) versus time as kairos (ballooned spaces of significance which are non-linear). There are significant, kairos areas for all of us . . . areas of blessing as well as curse and, regardless, areas of significance which it’s APPROPRIATE for us – as living, growing, changing human beings – to return to.

    Thanks again for your reflections!

    1. Thanks, Callie! I appreciate the connection you make to kairos time. I think that’s a beautiful connection to the idea of the spiral-like re-visiting of familiar territory at different levels. Thank you!

  2. I guess when I think of growth I have had several images at different times. Your deeper lessons of the spiral staircase definitely resonate with me, but I have also experienced images of a flower blossoming or the change of seasons. I suppose there are times when I feel I am very much an onion uncovering my true self layer-by-layer, but I think it depends what growth I am referring to. I certainly don’t think my growth has been a straight and narrow path, but rather a meandering trail of discovery.

    1. Thanks for sharing all of these different images! I can relate to the meandering trail image also. :)

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