The Vulnerability and Loneliness of Transformation

My son and I just received this year’s caterpillars for our Butterfly Pavilion kit. Five little caterpillars arrive in the mail inside a plastic cup and within a week or so, they all climb to the top of the cup, position themselves head down, and transform into a chrysalis. A week or so after that they emerge as butterflies. It’s really quite extraordinary to witness their transformation; my son and I spend endless hours engrossed in each stage of their process.

As I was reading the instructions tonight on the Insect Lore website for what to do after they’ve all formed their chrysalis, I was struck by the language and how similarly it describes our human processes of transitions. It comes as no surprise, as many people use the caterpillar to butterfly transformation as a primary metaphor for transitions, but I just had to write about it here. This is what it said:

The caterpillars will climb to the top of the cup and hang down “head first.” It is crucial that they not be disturbed at this point as this is their most vulnerable stage. Although this seems to be a time of resting in the butterfly’s development, it is really a time of rapid change. Within the chrysalid, the old body parts of the caterpillar are undergoing a remarkable transformation to the beautiful parts that will make up the butterfly.

Four chrysalides

Isn’t this exactly what we experience during the liminal stage of a transition? It may seem as if we’re doing nothing when we’re holed up in bed or sitting outside staring into the sky, but it’s actually the time when we’re enduring our most crucial internal changes. The nothingness is, in fact, essential for the change to occur. If the caterpillar keeps moving it will never grow into a beautiful butterfly. Yet we, as a culture, think that a life of continual movement is a life of continual progress and achievement. We think we’ve moving forward and upward when we’re on the move. While moving and doing have their place, the real juice, the time when we make great leaps in our internal growth, is in the stillness. This is when “the old body parts” are released and the new parts can emerge.

The liminal stillness is also our most vulnerable time. It’s when we may feel the need to retreat into solitude in order to make sense of and allow for the transformation to occur. The outer world and even people closest to us may feel like intrusions. This can feel especially confusing to those immersed in the marriage and parenthood transitions when the cultural focus and emphasis on the partnership is so high. I often hear from my clients, “I feel so much pressure to connect with my fiance or husband right now but the truth is that I just want to be alone.” And she should be alone. Just like the caterpillar enters the chrysalis alone, so the one in transition needs time and space in solitude, regardless of who else is affected by the transition.

This stillness and vulnerability need to be honored and respected in order for the transformation to occur. One in transition needs a space to grieve, to let go, to feel the raw fear that accompanies the leap into the unknown of the next stage. He needs to feel lonely and understand that loneliness has value, that it’s within the chrysalis of loneliness that he slows down and turns inward enough to feel the feelings that need release. Once again, let’s turn to nature to see how it should be done. For when we observe nature closely, we know all we need to know about what needs to occur in each stage of a transition in order for it be complete.

Butterfly emerged

4 comments to The Vulnerability and Loneliness of Transformation

  • Gabrielle

    This post really spoke to me today and expressed a lot of what I’m feeling about a recent career transition. Thanks for your wisdom! It always seems so timely.

    • admin

      Nice to hear from you, Gabrielle. It’s amazing how the basic principles of transition apply to every life transition, isn’t it? It’s really a blueprint or roadmap that can help ground us during the tumultuous time of the liminal zone.

  • Love it, Sheryl.
    Especially the permission to be alone when we know we’re hanging upside down in a rapid growth phase. For me it also points to the experience of meditation – which gives the same permission to be quiet, alone, and transform.

  • Your comment reminds me of the upside down yoga poses – meditation in action where all the blood rushes to the head and creates that sense of calm.