Cycling Through Change: 4 Miraculous & Mystifying Stages
Updated: Mar 7, 2020
Change. It’s something we avoid, flee from, fret over. It’s perhaps the one thing we can count on in life. Heraclitus, a Greek philosopher, perhaps captured this notion best with his quote,
“Change is the only constant in life.”
Funny how we don’t want to believe in change’s constancy. No amount of fretting, worrying, or denying can keep change from coming. It’s ironically predictable. Just as nature flows from season to season, so do we. It’s quite amazing that our species resists change so vehemently. No other animal seems to do this. They appear to live in the present moment; adapting accordingly. It seems our ability to remember the past and project the future gives us both a blessing and a curse.
I am no exception to this rule. It’s just as easy for me to underestimate change’s impact as it is to overestimate it. But I find it hard to come up with an example of a change that was worse than what my thoughts anticipated. More often the result is different than I could have ever imagined. As one of my favorite authors, Maya Angelou, says in her book, I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings,
“Hoping for the best, prepared for the worst, and unsurprised by anything in between.”
While that sums it up pretty well for me, I know there’s more. Change is so much more.
Metamorphosis: Change Echoed in Nature
One of the best ways to understand “change” in our human lives is to view it in the context of nature. Whether it’s the change of the seasons or the complete metamorphosis of insects like butterflies, the natural world has quite a lot to teach us on the concept of change and to accept its ebb and flow.
First, let’s understand change in the context of a butterfly. There are four stages to metamorphosis which are set into motion by a catalytic event -- the laying of eggs:
Catalytic Event: An egg is laid by an adult butterfly on a leaf that will sustain the soon to hatch caterpillar until it is mobile.
Square 1: Now hatched, the caterpillar wanders the earth eating a lot. If it doesn’t become bird food in its larva state, it goes through many stages of growth and shedding its exoskeleton along the way. When it reaches its fourth molting, it’s ready to pupate by attaching to a stick or leaf and forming a chrysalis around its body. Now safely encased in its cocoon-like surrounding, the caterpillar proceeds to dissolve into a soupy mixture of DNA.
Square 2: Now fully dissolved into its DNA parts, the once-caterpillar reforms into a butterfly within the chrysalis.
Square 3: Now fully formed, the butterfly emerges from its chrysalis and begins the process of stretching its wings, drying the bug goo off, gaining strength, and practicing flight. If a butterfly doesn’t go through this painstaking process, it will die. So don’t help a butterfly!
Square 4: Now fully strengthened, the butterfly is can flutter off to fulfill its divine purpose—pollinating, finding a mate, laying some eggs, and eventually completing its life plan with a trip to butterfly heaven.
Entering into Our Personal Change Cycle
Turns out we humans aren’t so different than butterflies when it comes to how change affects us. We follow a similar process. Of course, we are a bit more complicated and can go through many of these change cycles both in succession and simultaneously before we “complete” this life’s plan. But the essential parts are the same.
Martha Beck, in her book Finding Your Own North Star, articulates the change we experience as a four-stage cycle that mimics the metamorphosis process. Here’s my visualization of her idea.
First, a change happens and our life as we know it is no longer—this is called the “Catalytic Event.” Sometimes the event is massive; we don’t see it coming. Sometimes, an opportunity comes along, and we leap. Other times, we consciously choose the change. A catalytic event can be planned or unplanned. No matter its origin, it sparks a similar cycle of change.
We then proceed to “Square 1: Death and Rebirth.” In this phase of the change, we dissolve. Something “dies” in us and we must be “re-born” to move forward in life. During this phase, we continuously shed our former selves (especially those that are not serving us) until we are ready to completely melt down. This is what Martha calls “bug soup.” But before we can take on our new identity, we must grieve the old self and start getting comfortable with our fresh circumstances and how we must change to adapt.
When we start to dream about possibilities, that’s our clue we’re shifting into a new state of existence—“Square 2: Dreaming and Scheming.” Now we can start imagining what we want to do next and fantasizing about who we want to be. Our inner work starts manifesting into ideas about our outer work. We become more comfortable with our new self in this stage of change until we are ready to move to action. And that’s our clue it’s time to move to the next stage of the change.
“Square 3: The Hero’s Journey” is where the action happens. We re-form and begin to implement the new life we dreamed and schemed about in Square 2. Sometimes our plan falls into place effortlessly. Other times we fall in the implementation phase. Square 3 often requires course corrections—trials and tribulations are a vital part of the process. We feel tested, but eventually, all our hard work pays off. When we have finally discovered what we were supposed to learn through our Hero’s Journey, it’s time to advance.
In “Square 4: The Promised Land,” this change cycle comes to completion. We take "full flight" and begin to live our purpose at this point in our life with the understanding that change is part of the plan. Sometimes we stay in Square 4 for years; sometimes we stay for what seems like hours or days.
Then it’s time for the next opportunity for growth. And wham, bam, thank you ma’am, a new catalytic event sends us back to Square 1. Of course, staying in Square 4 as long as possible is the goal. But I’ve learned we don’t grow when we aren’t cycling.
The Drivers of Change
It’s possible to get stuck in a square or find a square we don’t want to leave. It’s also possible to jump around a bit—another catalytic event hits when we are in Square 3, we skip Square 4 and go straight to Square 1 again. It’s like getting that “Go to jail, do not pass go, do not collect $200” card in the Monopoly Game. Like it or not, we start over.
Of course, there are also varying degrees of this cycle. Devastating events don't drive every change cycle. We can go into Square 1 on purpose (e.g., getting bored with a job and deciding to find a new one; deciding to get pregnant and then having a baby). Even though we choose these catalytic events, we still go through the four squares. We mourn the old job and miss our old predictable co-workers even if we love the new job and our new office mates. We wistfully reminisce about our double income no kids life even as we coo and fawn over our new adorably cute baby. The definition of who we are changes when we take a new job or become parents. We take on an new identity, even though it’s of our choosing.
Opportunity can also drive us into Square 1. We win the lottery. That recruiter calls with a dream job opportunity we can’t pass up. But even with all the excitement of good fortune, the process is the same. A new identity is on its way. There will be moments of mourning our old life.
But when the catalytic event is something big like a health crisis, a long-time relationship break up, unexpected loss of a job, or death of a spouse, parent, or child, we can feel smacked down. These are the events that make it seem like we’ll never leave Square 1. In these cases, there's an opportunity for a complete makeover if allow a full "melt down" in Square 1—one that may mean we don’t even recognize ourselves in the aftermath. Big crisis can mean big growth...if we let it.
My Experience with Change
I’ve had all three types of catalytic events in my life. Some were planned, others unplanned. Some were welcome, others not so much. I have a hunch that my propensity to get bored in Square 4 means I have leapt into the arms of change more than I’d like to admit. I also wonder if Square 4 sometimes has felt too good to be true, and I unknowingly ended a really good thing with the thought “this won’t last.” And so of course it didn’t, and I was cycling again.
I've also had some incomplete cycles where I didn’t go through a full meltdown and held on to some past versions of myself that weren’t serving me well. I like to think about those incomplete change cycles like traveling with a backpack full of rocks that I picked up one at a time along the way. The weight wasn’t anything to notice at first. But without a full meltdown, I never pulled rocks out or bothered to put the backpack down. So in my mid-40s, my backpack got so heavy that something had to change big time. And thus, I got a my big whopper for a catalytic event at 46.
My health crisis was one of those unplanned catalytic events. I didn’t see it coming. All my rocks tumbled out of my backpack, and I went through a complete and utter meltdown. Not much of my old self was left after my molting and transformation into my version of bug soup. I saw the message in this event—I wasn’t fully on my path to my divine destiny (aka my north star, my purpose). So, I took the opportunity to shed a lot of my life I didn’t really like in Square 1. Anything that felt like an obligation or a should/should not went.
Once I had shed that backpack, I started to dream again in Square 2. I saw a way forward that was true to my essential self and kept my social self and her band of chatty monkeys in check. I dreamed about an alternative way to heal myself along with how I wanted to make a living and the kinds of relationships that would fill me up the most.
In Square 3, I moved to action. In addition to implementing a way to heal myself with alternative treatment methods, I also went back to school to become a life coach, found a new tribe of soul sisters (and a few brothers), and shifted every relationship that was dysfunctional either up or out. I learned to rest and how to have fun again. I revised my work life so it felt more like play. I discovered how to nourish myself in both literal and figurative ways.
Of course, Square 3 offered me plenty of setbacks along the way (e.g., healing issues, friends and family who didn’t approve of my choices, work that still felt like work) and many times my own fears and doubts threatened to send me back to Square 1. But through my hero’s journey, I found a happier, healthier and more whole version of me. I’m not yet at my Promised Land (Square 4), but it appears to be just around the corner.
With my catalytic event, I had the ultimate get out of jail free card and I didn’t want to waste it worrying about what other people would think. If I was truly going to hell and back, I wanted it to be worth it. I didn’t want to hold on to aspects of my life that weren’t lifting me up…that weren’t sparking joy. And I wanted to take on new aspects in my life I had always wanted but for some reason never grabbed. I stopped worrying about being self-ish. It was time to become self-full!
Thoughts to Noodle On and Share
Where are you in the change cycle in your life?
Have you ever felt “stuck” in one of the squares? Which one? How?
How can you more fully experience the square you are in rather than pushing through to the next square?
How might you more fully embrace the change you are going through?