Growing Wings: The Power of Change

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 (aka Death & Rebirth)

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 I Mantra

“I don’t know what the hell is going on… and that’s okay.”

Phase 2: Imagining (aka Dreaming and Scheming)

Here’s the Deal
For those of us who have just a few tiny control issues, Phase 2 is as welcome as rain after 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.

The word imago is the root of the word image. You’ll know you’re beginning Phase 2 when your mind’s eye starts seeing images of the life you are about to create. These can’t be forced—like dissolving, they happen to you—and they are never what you expected. You’re becoming a new person, and you’ll develop traits and interests your old self didn’t have. You may feel compelled to change your hairstyle or wardrobe, or redecorate your living space. The old order simply seems wrong, and you’ll begin reordering your outer situation to reflect your inner rebirth.

What to Do
Here are some ways you may want to respond when you begin spontaneously imagining the future:

Create a “Vision Board”
Cut Out Magazine Pictures You Find Appealing or Interesting. Glue them onto a piece of butcher paper. The resulting collage will be an illustration of the life you’re trying to create. Look at the images and “feel them” or imagine yourself experiencing them for up to 10 minutes everyday.

Let Yourself Daydream
Your job is to try out imaginary scenarios until you have a clear picture of your goals and desires. You’ll save a lot of time, effort, and grief by giving yourself time to do this in your head before you attempt it in the real world.

Phase 2 is all about images: making them up, making them clear, making them possible. Moving through this stage, you’ll start to feel an impulse to go from dreaming (imagining possibilities) to scheming (planning to bring your vision to fruition). Write down both dreams and schemes, then gather information about how you might create them.

Phase 2 Mantra

“There are no rules… and that’s okay.”

Phase 3: Re-forming (aka The Hero’s Saga)

Here’s the Deal
As your dreams become schemes, you’ll begin itching to make them come true. This signals Phase 3, the implementation stage of the change process. Phase 3is when you stop fantasizing about selling your art and start submitting work to galleries, or go beyond ogling a friend’s brother to having her set you up on a date. You’ll feel motivated to do real, physical things to build a new life. And then…(drum roll, please)…you’ll fail. Repeatedly.

I’ve gone through Phase 3many times and watched hundreds of clients do the same. I’ve never seen a significant scheme succeed on the first try. Re-forming your life, like anything new, complex, and important, inevitably brings up problems you didn’t expect. That’s why, in contrast to the starry eyes that are so useful in Phase 2, Phase 3 demands the ingenuity of Thomas Edison and the tenacity of a pit bull.

What to Do
Expect Things To Go Wrong
Many of my clients have an early failure and consider this a sign that “it just wasn’t meant to be.” This is a useful philosophy if you want to spend your life as person soup. To become all that you can be, you must keep working toward your dreams even when your initial efforts are unsuccessful.

Be Willing to Start Over
Every time your plans fail, you’ll briefly return to Phase 1, feeling lost and confused. This is an opportunity to release some of the illusions that created hitches in your plan.

Revisit Phase 2
Adjusting your dreams and schemes to include the truths you’ve learned from your experimentation.

Keep debugging and reimplementing your new-and-improved plans until they work. If you’ve followed all the steps above, they eventually will.

What goes on in the cocoon of change isn’t always pretty, but the results can be beautiful. Martha Beck talks you through the four phases of human metamorphosis. Get ready to fly!

Phase 3 Mantra

“This is much worse than I expected… and that’s okay.”

Phase 4: Full Flight (aka The Promised Land)

Here’s the Deal
Phase 3 is like crawling out of your cocoon and waiting for your crumpled, soggy wings to dry and expand. Phase 4 is the payoff, the time when your new identity is fully formed and able to fly.

What to Do
The following strategies—which can help you optimize this delightful situation—are about fine-tuning, not drastic transformation.

You’ve just negotiated a scary and dramatic transformation, and you deserve to savor your new identity. Spend time every day focusing on gratitude for your success.

Make Small Improvements
Find little ways to make your new life a bit less stressful, a bit more pleasurable.

Know That Another Change is Just Around the Bend
There’s no way to predict how long you’ll stay in Phase 4; maybe days, maybe decades. Don’t attribute your happiness to your new identity; security lies in knowing how to deal with metamorphosis, whenever it occurs.

Phase 4 Mantra

“Everything is changing… and that’s okay.” 


36 replies
  1. Sandy
    Sandy says:

    I have begun reading “Growing Wings – the Positive Change”. I will finish reading it later on because I feel as it may help me to accept my daughter’s (Dawn)passing and give me some measure of comfort.
    My daughter passed away just over 3 months ago. She was 37 yrs. old and passed suddenly of a massive heart attack. No one (including my daughter) knew that she had any heart problems. Her heart valves were 80 – 90% blocked and her left ventricle was enlarged.
    I will be turning 64 this week. I have suffered several losses (parents, grandparents, friends, pets, etc…) and have experienced my fair share of sadness and heartache. This loss, however, has caused me more anguish and pain than I have ever experienced before.
    I know that grieving is a process and I am living thru it every day and every night. At this point in time, I have come to be more aware of what triggers my sadness and sobbing (a song, a photo, seeing a little girl running down the street, something I see on tv, etc.. – could be just about anything) but it is almost impossible for me not to ‘react’. I know I must allow the grief, tears and pain to wash over me (it does feel like a giant wave that engulfs me) – and I am aware that, at some point in time, I will feel a little better. As I stated, I am seeing the ‘process’.
    To make matters worse, I am living on my own (except for my 2 little adopted dogs) in Florida. All my family (except for a cousin who hardly speaks to me now that I moved here from Jersey) is in Jersey. I moved to Florida a year and a half ago (due to not being able to afford to live on my own in Jersey). I had to stop working a few years back due to health issues (fibromyalgia, chronic fatigue, severe arthritis, depression) and could not afford the property tax. I sold my home and moved here to Florida and I absolutely hate it. I miss my family (ever since I got here) but there is no way they I can return right now. I resided in NJ all my life and I feel I just didn’t think this thru.
    Now I’m here – far away from my grandchildren and my older daughter – and I am mourning the loss of my youngest daughter.
    I have been reading a lot about grief and I read a lot about the Buddhist philosophy of ‘life’. It has helped somewhat. I just finished reading When Things Fall Apart by Pema Chodron. I have been practicing daily metta meditation for the past 2 months and trying to do some type of formal breathing meditation (for maybe 5 – 10 minutes each day). Some of my anxiety/distress eases up sometimes – but not all the time.
    Anyway – I found you on Oprah then I googled you and began reading about ‘grief’.
    Right now, ‘Florida'(being so far from my home state and my family) and mourning the loss of my sweet daughter is causing me to experience feelings of overwhelming sadness.
    Maybe – after reading more of your suggestions/advice/wisdom, I will realize that the angst I am experiencing will pass and that it is not the end of the world for me (as I percieve it).
    Thank you.

    • Editor
      Editor says:

      Hi Sandy –

      So sorry to hear of your loss. While the sadness of loss never completely leaves your life, it does stop feeling so paralyzingly impossible after time. The key is to mourn the loss and then move through it and not avoid it. Martha’s article is an abbreviated version of “Finding Your Own North Star” so you can find a lot more on the change cycle in there. And her book “Steering By Starlight” has more resources for moving through pain. If you’d like to read another article by Martha on grief & loss, check out an article from O Magazine last May:

      I would also strongly recommend checking out Certified Martha Beck Life Coach Cath Duncan’s work on wholehearted living after loss at Her work is exceptionally good. I have found it helpful in my own journey with loss & grief.

      I have found this quote helpful as well:

      When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and you shall see that in truth you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
      ~Khalil Gibran

      Jessica Steward

    • Heather
      Heather says:

      Hi Sandy, I recently read the comment you posted on Martha Beck’s page. I live in NJ. I’m hoping you are having a easier time in Florida. I too suffered a loss almost 4 years ago and I could really relate to how you are feeling. Hang in there. Your a Jersey girl and I know that you are strong:) If you’d like, keep in touch. Many blessings to you.


    • Jehna
      Jehna says:

      Hi Sandy,

      I started crying as I read your post. Thank you for sharing your story. The losses of your friends, family and especially your daughter. I have lost much myself these last four years…both of my parents, sister in-law, went through a divorce and 2 other break ups, additionally, I lost my home, moved eight times and laid off from two jobs. For a long while I was numb but finally the metamorphosis is coming to an end, I can feel the phoenix rising…

      Hang in there, your post really inspired me, your vulnerability touched my heart deeply. Thank you for sharing your story. I hope it is a little easier with each passing day, I noticed it was written back in April 2012 and we are now in Dec 2013

      Thank you and wishing you peace.

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      I just happened to see your post this morning and felt compelled to write. We have so much in common. I lost my oldest son to colon cancer in October, and the grief is not something anyone else can truly understand. Losing a child is like no other experience. My son was 37, had only been marrried a few years, and had touched the lives of so many people. I have been a crazy person off and on and cannot even describe the feelings to anyone. At the same time, I am trying to honor him by believing that one day I will feel the enthusiasm for life that he always had. Right now I am still “broken” and can only hang on to the faith that one day I will be whole again – although with a huge hole in my heart. I promised him I would always carry him with me, though, so I hope I will do that. And I hope you find your right path and your strength to move on, too.

    • Nicole Masci
      Nicole Masci says:

      Wow, I just read your letter and realized it was about 3 years ago. I hope you’re doing well!! That’s all!!

  2. Sandy
    Sandy says:

    Hi Jessica –

    Thank you for responding and for your kind words.

    I will continue reading Martha’s articles (she is quite amazing) and probably purchase the books.

    Thank you for including the quote. So very true!

    With gratitude,

    • Tara
      Tara says:

      Hi Sandy,
      I am so sorry for your loss. I was going to leave a comment of my own , but I was so moved by your comment and bravery I wanted to respond. Not only will I be thinking of you, but it is so inspiring to me to hear you reaching out, not practicing avoidance behavior ( I am new to Martha, and she had a recent post about this), and sharing what you are going through. Thank you. Again I will be thinking of you…
      btw, I too live with a little dog here in Florida!

  3. Onalee Martha Marsh
    Onalee Martha Marsh says:

    “I don’t know what the hell is going on…..and that’s okay.” Thank you Martha. Wow! I needed your wisdom today and you were there and right on. It’s gonna be a good day and a wonderful life.

  4. Julie
    Julie says:

    Thank you for this post. I think it can be especially difficult when we get caught in comparing our phase 1 events to other people’s lives (that appear to be smooth sailing).

  5. Judy
    Judy says:

    This article is dead on with my life. My son has moved on with his life and is not responding. We had some hard moments between us and it feels like as you described death. I have made my vision board and like the lady above moved to Florida. I have struggled for the last18 months with living arrangements. Now I am trying to create a new life my new vision includes a social life and being healthy and happy. Now that things have settled I am working through my grief with lots of tears and trying to find a way to financially afford becoming involved in social functions. This area is blessed with a strong meet-ups web sight that includes walking clubs dinners etc which requires additional budgeting

    Webb sites like yours and the daily love have been a blessing. Thank you ever much for your insight

  6. Gabrielle
    Gabrielle says:

    I am so happy I came across your website and this post in specific. Without always consciously realizing it I have been in my own state of transition for years now. Starting in my early high school years I become involved with drugs and excessive drinking. This lasted through college causing me to graduate two years later than planned. While I am grateful for the fact I was able to still obtain my degree I have been blaming myself for who I was during this time and not accepting the fact that this phase does not define my entire life. I’m finally at a point where I can accept who I was then and realize that I am a changed person (for the better). I now want to help others and I think right now I am between Phases 3 and 4 because I have an idea of what I’d like to do but I have yet to put much into action. I’m hoping to gain the strength to push forward soon!

  7. Kathleen Levy
    Kathleen Levy says:

    Hi Martha. I loved today’s metamorphosis article. I am 68 and have lived long enough to experience many significant losses. I have also noticed that some people I have known, also suffer losses and seem to, ‘bounce’. That is, they seem to be able to pick themselves up, dust themselves off and begin again without ever experiencing any of the, ‘dark night of the soul’ stuff. I have done SO much of that. I get it…the whole death/rebirth/transformation thing. However, after a certain number of those, they began to seem, ‘overrated’ to me. I never, ever want to go through another one of those periods and yet I do want changes and a better life for myself. I am willing to work hard and do just about anything (legal/moral, etc) to learn how to, ‘start again’ and skip the hell part. I welcome your comments.

  8. Terri
    Terri says:

    Oh my!! This! It’s all I can say, I am so thankful to have received this today, I have been navigating(?) or better yet, feeling like I am going crazy, through the most significant growth of my life so far. S.c.a.r.y. as hell! Part of the struggle is exactly as you said, there is a part of me that says “nnoooo, please go back, I am terrified!” But there is a bigger part, also scary, that says “Sorry my love, you cannot go back you must move forward” but I have never felt so stuck ever. I do not know where “forward” is, but recently have resigned to just let it flow to the best of my prior non existent flow ever. And then I read this and it tells me just that, just be. Thank you!

  9. Lynne
    Lynne says:

    Sooooooo… when you are in the midst of this change, actively trying to make it happen, sometime what you are trying to do is just too huge. Last year at age 58 tried out for a mountain ski job, my skill set was just horrible but I got a job at the resort in a different capacity. Lo and what ho, the resort offered free ski lessons to employees. Whelp, 30 hours of on snow training and constantly scaring the be-whosis out of myself I finished the year a much better skier. And today I am going up the mountain with the team for the job training that I failed last year. Kind of scary though, but here we go. Make or break, on the journey I met so many nice people who helped me along and I am grateful. I also know that year of training can never be ripped away, so I can do this job. Yep, as the New Zealand Haka goes "A Upane, Kaupane"; one upward step, another upward step.


Trackbacks & Pingbacks

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  9. […] Martha Beck explains this well as she explains that we humans do this—not physically but psychologically. All of us will experience metamorphosis several times during our lives, exchanging one identity for another. […]

  10. […] the MBI program.  What I do know is that I am in true “Phase One” of Martha’s Metamorphosis model of change.  She likens her model of change, or “change cycle” to that of the metamorphosis of […]

  11. […] work situation, what Jim Collins calls “the sweet spot” and Martha Beck describes as the “Promised Land” Slim calls it “dangerous.” You are not challenging yourself to hone your core mastery and […]

  12. […] Coach and O Magazine columnist Martha Beck has written a great deal about this time of transition in our lives — a time when we have let go of the old, but the new is yet to be born. […]

  13. […] For a much more eloquent exploration of the butterfly analogy, read Martha Beck’s blog post Growing Wings: The Power of Change  or her book Steering by Starlight. I attribute much of my resilience and success to this book; a […]

  14. […] I reflect on Martha Beck’s work about the cycle of the butterfly and how, as I hear it, the chrysalis state is when the caterpillar goes into a liquid state and all […]

  15. […] the help I needed wasn’t forthcoming? What if it made me feel worse? What if I was seen for the person soup that I was? And so I didn’t. I said I was fine. And in time, I was fine. But I imagine at some […]

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