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Articles > Mental Health July, 06, 2021

Progression is a rollercoaster, not a staircase

Charlie Theobald
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I’m sure you have heard of at least one of these phrases: “keep moving forwards”, “things are looking up” or “It can only go up from here!”… All of these supposedly motivational quotes have one thing in common – they portray success and an upwards and forwards journey.

To some extent, I like these quotes as they imply a heaven-style location of success that we can all work towards giving us all a goal, vision or idea of the reward of our hard work. However, when we look at the journey of progress rather than success, they simply couldn’t be more wrong.

Firstly, let us look at the simple idea of a staircase…

If the queue for the lift is too long or there isn’t a working escalator, we will reluctantly take the stairs to walk from one floor to another. For this example, we will be looking only at walking up a staircase. As we walk up this staircase, one leg at a time, complaining about the out of use lift, we make the same motion through each step until we eventually reach the floor we actually want to be on (in this case, let’s call the first floor the start and the second floor success).

When we walk up this staircase, we are always in view of the goal we want to reach, each step requires the same amount of effort and we also have a handrail for when the steps get too much for us. This is not progress, this is an ideal world. Especially over the last couple of years, I am sure most of you have realised this isn’t an ideal world, so we need a new metaphor.

At this point, I would like to introduce the rollercoaster…

I would like you to imagine walking into a theme park with a blindfolded and start to contextualise your senses…

What can you hear? For me this is usually the background noise of clinks of rollercoasters and excited screams. What can you smell? I would imagine most of the aromas are sweet, maybe doughnuts or ice cream.

As the blindfold remains covering your eyes, you are now going to be put on a rollercoaster (still blindfolded). As they strap you in, I would like you to imagine what you would be thinking in this bizarre set of circumstances.

Would you panic? Maybe you would stay calm and just wait until the ride finishes. Maybe you would reach out and ask the person next to you to describe the rollercoaster that you are about to experience. All of these would be completely natural reactions to the situation and also are completely natural responses to whenever you may experience any kind of stress or struggle in your life.

At the start of your journey, you may not even know what the finish line looks like, however one thing is for certain, you certainly won’t know what the path will be like to get there.

The path will be unexpected (like being blindfolded on a rollercoaster!) and sometimes all you will be able to do is hang on for dear life until you can take a breath again. Just to upset the motivators, sometimes the rollercoaster will bring you to the top of a loop and back down again, or you may even start travelling backwards or upside down during your journey… and that is okay! Progress is messy, sometimes it may feel like you’re moving backwards when actually, this is just part of the journey.

I wrote this piece to challenge the stereotype of always feeling the need to move both upwards and forwards (whatever that may mean!) but I can’t not include some specifics on how important this analogy can be in a mental health setting.

Often therapy or counselling can also feel like being blindfolded on a rollercoaster, with no clue where you’re going, sometimes feeling like you’re going backwards and no real clue when it is all going to end, and that is okay. Mental health is a challenging thing we all have to manage in one way or another on a daily basis and we often go into therapy expecting progress to be like the staircase but it is never that simple.

So to sum up, I want you to challenge the idea that you always need to be moving forwards and upwards in order to progress. We all love a good metaphor but the staircase to success really isn’t a good one and can often distort our expectations a dangerous amount. So you have my permission to skip the stairs and take the lift, tell people off when they tell you to keep moving forwards and resist the urge to tell people things are looking forwards because…

Progression is a rollercoaster, not a staircase.


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  1. Holly

    I think…that the author has used a series of techniques to give the reader a clear mental image of progression being more akin to a rollercoaster over a staircase, and how process is a gradua, where more effort may be needed in different situations during sometimes unknown or difficult processes.

  2. Hannah

    I think that the writer has clearly explained that progress is a gradua, difficult and sometimes unknown process, and that at different points in life needs more or less effort.