Midlife is a time to challenge our perspectives and to change the way we are living our lives. We can all benefit from a shift in the questions we ask ourselves, such as, “Where should I go on vacation?” and “Is that all there is?” to deeper questions like, “Who am I now?” and “Who do I want to be in the time I have left?”
Midlife search for meaning
Although each person’s journey or life odyssey is unique, there are common challenges we all face as we age, especially as we search for deeper meaning. An innovative way to look at our midlife transition is to understand the lessons we can derive from nature, for example, the journey that the caterpillar takes as it transitions through its life stages from caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly.
The Caterpillar Stage
From birth or the egg phase, a caterpillar emerges and enjoys its life, busying itself with its daily activities. As it ages, it sheds its skin several times to accommodate its growth. This is analogous to our lives, where we busy ourselves with our daily activities, guided by our understanding of what is expected of us and the roles we are to play. These roles, shaped by social conditioning, result in our being accepted and rewarded with security, power, money, and belonging. Periodically, we feel the need to change our work, relationships, and homes so we can grow and evolve into full adulthood.
However, there often comes a point where we feel we are being constrained by this social conditioning. And this is a midlife crisis. As a result, we lose interest in what once seemed more meaningful to us – whether it is our work, our relationships, or our activities. We may lose our spark and start to focus on aging and the feeling that our time is running out. We realize that the roles we have been playing in our own lives were conditioned by our families or social networks.
We were doing what is expected of us, living someone else’s agenda, not one shaped by our true selves. Anger and resentment may surface as we either realize life didn’t turn out the way we expected it would or we simply feel stuck.
Our responses vary: we can carry on, pretending nothing is changing within us; we can rearrange things like our marriages, jobs, houses, or faces (through plastic surgery!); we can withdraw, soothing our resentment with anger or addictions; or we can move forward to confront our beliefs about how we want to live our lives. For many, this is a very destabilizing time.
The Cocoon Stage
Entering the next stage, the caterpillar chooses to hang upside down from a branch, weaves a protective layer around itself, and remains motionless while undergoing a series of changes within its cocoon. (This stage is also referred to as the Chrysalis stage.)
This is the stage when we realize that our life is shifting and the old ways of doing things are no longer working for us. We have outlived the caterpillar stage, the stage where we have been living according to the social conditioning and needs of others and now need to move on to seek a deeper connection to ourselves, our identity, and to the rest of our life.
The cocoon represents the protective space we need to enter this transformation, a time and a place to reflect and figure it all out. It is a metaphor. We may not be physically running away from our lives – it’s more of a metaphysical concept where we may withdraw from some activities in our work and from interactions with our friends to focus on understanding what isn’t working for us anymore and on what we want for the future.
As the cocoon stage is about change, it is a challenging time, as we surrender the life we were living in order to forge a closer connection to who we really are at our core. We may feel like we are losing our way, risking our social connections and our sense of belonging, fearing that, if we let go of certain aspects of our lives, we might end up making the wrong choices, as success during this transition is not guaranteed.
But something is stirring within us. We realize we need to put the events of our past in proper context so that we can move into our new life, getting ourselves ready for new experiences. During this time, we are challenged to confront ourselves, to discover the hidden aspects of ourselves and to stretch ourselves in new ways. We realize that we are living in two worlds – the old one (which is no longer working for us) and the new one which is yet to reveal itself fully to us.
Some people enter the cocoon stage but soon want to retreat back to the caterpillar stage, to the perceived security and perhaps excitement of their youth. Others remain stuck in their cocoons for the rest of their lives, afraid of change, afraid of what lies ahead, ignoring the call to transform, unwilling to move forward.
The Butterfly Stage
Moving from the cocoon to the butterfly stage represents the shedding of the outer, protective shell, shedding what is no longer needed, in order to release what is inside. Trusting and surrendering to the process of transformation allows the butterfly to emerge into a new life. Although it takes time for its wings to strengthen, the butterfly can now fly, gaining a larger perspective of its surrounding world. This is analogous to us freeing ourselves to live our true life, no longer weighed down by our social conditioning and the expectations of others.
It is interesting to note that the potential to be a butterfly was always within the DNA of the caterpillar. And the caterpillar is still within the butterfly but with a new form, new skills, and a higher awareness of itself and its surroundings. In a similar fashion, our destiny is already implanted within us – we just might not be aware of it and may still be blocking the expression of our true selves.
The more we let go of the previous stages of the caterpillar and the cocoon, the closer we will be to connecting with our true nature, our core essence, our authentic self. The more authentic we can be, the easier it is to accept ourselves for who we are, not focusing on what we do, what we have accomplished, how much money we have in the bank, or who others want us to be.
By living a less constrained life, it becomes easier to see and understand the deeper meaning of our everyday encounters and the larger meaning of our lives. We all have unique life journeys with unique obstacles placed on our paths to challenge us in our process of transformation. We all find meaning in different ways as we deepen our experience with life. Trust that your life is unfolding as it should to teach you how to understand and then express your true nature. Accept and surrender to the process of transformation, for it is your unique journey …from caterpillar to cocoon to butterfly!
Written by: Elaine Dundon Originally appeared on Psychology Today Republished with permission.