I used to think I knew how some caterpillars become butterflies. I assumed they weave cocoons, then sit inside growing six long legs, four wings, and so on. I figured if I were to cut open a cocoon, I'd find a butterfly-ish caterpillar, or a caterpillar-ish butterfly, depending on how far things had progressed. I was wrong. In fact, the first thing caterpillars do in their cocoons 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 that glop are certain cells, called imago
cells, that contain the DNA-coded instructions for turning bug soup into a delicate, winged creature—the angel of the dead caterpillar.
If you've ever been through a major life transition, this may sound familiar. Humans do it, too—not physically but psychologically. All of us will experience metamorphosis several times during our lives, exchanging one identity for another. You've probably already changed from baby to child to adolescent to adult—these are obvious, well-recognized stages in the life cycle. But even after you're all grown up, your identity isn't fixed. You may change marital status, become a parent, switch careers, get sick, win the lottery.
Any transition serious enough to alter your definition of self will require not just small adjustments in your way of living and thinking but a full-on metamorphosis. I don't know if this is emotionally stressful for caterpillars, but for humans it can be hell on wheels. The best way to minimize trauma is to understand the process.
The Phases of Human Metamorphosis
Psychological metamorphosis has four phases. You'll go through these phases, more or less in order, after any major change catalyst (falling in love or breaking up, getting or losing a job, having children or emptying the nest, etc.). The strategies for dealing with change depend on the phase you're experiencing.
Phase 1: Dissolving
Here's the Deal
The first phase of change is the scariest, especially because we aren't taught to expect it. It's the time when we lose our identity and are left temporarily formless: person soup. Most people fight like crazy to keep their identities from dissolving. "This is just a blip," we tell ourselves when circumstances rock our world. "I'm the same person, and my life will go back to being the way it was."
Sometimes this is true. But in other cases, when real metamorphosis has begun, we run into a welter of "dissolving" experiences. We may feel that everything is falling apart, that we're losing everyone and everything. Dissolving feels like death, because it is—it's the demise of the person you've been.
What to Do
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 ("rebound romance" is a classic example). All these measures actually slow down Phase One and make it more painful. The following strategies work better:
In Phase 1, Live One Day (or 10 minutes) at a Time
Instead of dwelling on hopes and fears about an unknowable future, focus your attention on whatever is happening right now.
"Cocoon" by Caring For Yourself in Physical, Immediate Ways
Wrap yourself in a blanket, make yourself a cup of hot tea, attend an exercise class, whatever feels comforting.
Talk to Others Who Have Gone Through a Metamorphosis
If you don't have a wise relative or friend, a therapist can be a source of reassurance.
Let Yourself Grieve
Even if you are leaving an unpleasant situation (a bad marriage, a job you didn't like), you'll probably go through the normal human response to any loss: the emotional roller coaster called the grieving process. You'll cycle through denial, anger, sadness, and acceptance many times. Just experiencing these feelings will help them pass more quickly.
If you think this sounds frustratingly passive, you're right. 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 2: Imagining