On “Growing Wings” by Martha Beck, from Oprah, January 2004
The Phases of Human Metamorphosis
I used to assume caterpillars became butterflies by weaving cocoons and then sitting inside growing legs and wings and so on. I was wrong. In fact, the first thing caterpillars do in the cocoon is shed their skin, leaving a soft rubbery chrysalis. If you were to look inside the cocoon early on, you’d find nothing but a puddle of glop. But in the glop are DNA-coded instructions for transformation to the butterfly, the angel of the dead caterpillar.
Humans do such transitions too – not physically but psychologically. All of us will experience metamorphosis several times during our lives, exchanging one identity for another. Even after you’re all grown up, your identity isn’t fixed. You may switch careers, change marital status, become a parent, get sick, win the lottery. I don’t know if this is stressful for caterpillars, but for humans this can be hell on wheels. The best way to minimize trauma is to understand the process. Here are the four phases.
Phase One – Dissolving
The first phase is the scariest, especially because we aren’t taught to expect it. It’s the time we lose our identity and are left temporarily formless. Sometimes it is just a “blip” and at others we run into a welter of “dissolving” experiences. You’ll get through it; you won’t have a choice. It’s scary though. Many so-called primitive cultures have rituals designed to teach the art of dissolution. They obscure faces with paint or ash, take names away, or are sent to spend time in wilderness or dark womblike enclosures. We don’t have such traditions, so when we’re dissolving we may get hysterical, fight our feelings, try to recapture our former lives, or jump immediately toward some new status quo. These measures actually slow down Phase One and make it more painful. Here are 4 strategies that work better:
~ Live for one day (or ten minutes) at a time. Focus on the now.
~ “Cocoon” by caring for yourself in physical, immediate ways.
~ Talk to others who’ve metamorphosized – a wise relative, friend, or therapist
~ Let yourself grieve; cycle through denial, anger sadness, acceptance many times.
Dissolving isn’t something you do; it’s something that happens to you. The closest you’ll come to controlling it is relaxing and trusting the process.
Phase Two – Imagining
Phase two can be as welcome as rain after a drought. This is when the part of you that knows your destiny, the imago in your psyche, will begin giving you instructions about how to reorganize the remnants of your old identity into something altogether different. You’ll know you’re beginning when your mind’s eye starts seeing images of the life you are about to create. They can’t be forced, and they are never what you expect, they just happen. You’re becoming a new person and you’ll develop traits and interests your old self didn’t have. You may feel like changing your clothing style or redecorating your space – the old no longer fits. You begin to reorder your outer situation to reflect your inner rebirth. Here are some ways you might want to respond:
~ Cut out magazine pictures that appeal, or draw/sketch/list/write something.
~ Let yourself daydream. Your job is to try out imaginary scenarios until you have a clear picture of your goals and desires. Save time, effort, and grief by doing this in your head before you attempt it in the real world.
Phase Two is about images; making them up, making them clear, making them possible. Writing down both dreams and schemes to create them leads to an action impulse.
Phase Three – Reforming
The itch to make dreams come true signals Phase Three, the implementation stage. You take steps like submitting work or inviting others. You’ll feel motivated to do real, physical things to build a new life. And then… (drum roll please)… you’ll fail. Repeatedly. Through my own experience and that of hundreds of clients, I’ve never seen a significant scheme succeed on the first try. Inevitably there are problems you didn’t expect. Phase three demands not the starry eyes that are so useful in phase Two, but the ingenuity of Thomas Edison and the tenacity of a pit bull. So:
~ Expect things to go wrong and to keep working through lack of success.
~ Be willing to start over. You’ll return briefly to Phase One feeling lost and confused, but this is an opportunity to release some of the illusions that created hitches in your plan.
~ Revisit Phase Two to include the truths you’ve learned.
~ Persist. Keep de-bugging and re-implementing your improved plans.
If you’ve followed all the steps above, your plans will eventually work.
Phase Four - Flying
Phase Four is like crawling out of your cocoon and waiting for your wings to dry and expand. It’s the payoff, when your identity is fully formed and able to fly. The following strategies can help you optimize this delightful situation. They are about fine-tuning:
~ Enjoy! You’ve just negotiated a scary and dramatic transformation. Savor your new identity and focus on gratitude for your success.
~ Make small improvements, little techniques for less stress, more pleasure.
~ Know that another change is just around the bend.
Don‘t attribute your happiness to your new identity; security lies in knowing how to deal with metamorphosis whenever it occurs. Phase Four may last for days or decades.
As the Buddhist Nun Pema Chodron writes, “We are always in transition… If you can just relax with that, you’ll have no problem.” At times you may feel it’s the end of the world, but remember that dissolution of the caterpillar leads to the butterfly.