Posted by: Edward | October 1, 2008

Seven Stages of Self Transformation

Throughout my life I’ve engaged in self transformative processes on several occasions, at times without understanding that this was what I was doing. Perhaps the best way to understand this process is to think about the transformation of a caterpillar into a butterfly.

The caterpillar reaches a point in its life cycle where it is ready to change. It ceases its normal life activities and retires from the world. It constructs a cocoon to shelter it and structure the change. Inside the structure of the cocoon it introduces an agent that dissolves it, it liquefies itself. After it has dissolved itself it reforms as a new being inside the cocoon structure. And once it has solidified in its new form it breaks away that shelter and re-enters the world to engage in new life activities. These are the seven stages of self transformation.

We can adapt these stages to enable radical changes in ourselves and in our lives. One of the more profound uses I’ve put this process to was curing myself of clinical depression.

Stage 1: Resolving

In order to make a self transformation you have to be ready to change. When you honestly want to change enough, you resolve to go through the next six steps. For people with substance abuse problems this is usually characterized as hitting bottom. While hitting bottom can sometimes be necessary to motivate change it isn’t the only way that resolving occurs. Another way it can happen is by hitting a ceiling, when things have been going well but now improvement has plateaued. When you hit the ceiling you can’t improve any further the way you are and you are going to need a more significant transformation. Understanding this can lead to resolving.

When I was depressed I reached a point where I hit bottom, this experience lead to me getting antidepressants. I stabilized and stopped getting any worse but eventually I realized I wasn’t getting any better either. I decided that the medication wasn’t enough and I resolved to make more fundamental changes.

Stage 2: Retiring

Once you have made the resolution to change you need to separate yourself from your day to day existence. The places, people and habits you fill your life with all act to reinforce your current way of being. The caterpillar separates itself completely from its normal way of life. Depending on how major the change you need to make, your retirement might not need to be that extreme but better to err on the side of severity and success than laxness and failure. Separate from anything that encourages or supports what you are trying to move away from. You own habits are the most important. Those routines are what define you more than anything else.

My retirement when working on my depression was rather extreme. I stopped associating with almost everyone and detached myself from my commitments. I even broke my habitual sleep-wake cycle. I wouldn’t necessarily do it the same way if I had to again but I required a near total break from life as usual. Other changes I’ve accomplished with a week in a different city.

Stage 3: Structuring

When the caterpillar retires from the world it builds a cocoon to shelter it and to structure the coming changes. We need to do a similar thing. WE need to create a space for change to occur in and a structure to keep ourselves alive while we go through the process. The structure provided by routine can be as or more valuable to us that the physical space. WE create a space and routine free of the anchors and distractions of our old way of being and supportive of the new way. A good example of this is a buddhist meditation retreat. They have a clear and austere space free of the distractions of day to day life and routine of practice and chores to keep the attention concentrated on the process.

When I’ve gone through transformative retirements I clear away the normal objects of my life and install a variety of new routines to fill the time. Things like journaling, new sleep schedules, exercise routines and I combine them into a ritualized structure for the period of the retiring.

Stage 4: Dissolving

Once the caterpillar is secure in its cocoon it secretes and enzyme that liquefies its body. After we have created the structure that we are going to change within, we want to dissolve our sense of self. We also want to introduce an agent or method to make the normally solid construct of our identity more fluid and flexible. There are any number of ways to achieve this end. People have used meditation, sensory deprivation, psychoactive substances, ecstatic dancing, and many other methods. What is important is that you lose yourself in it and your boundaries between you and not you become uncertain or fuzzy. When the existing lines are blurred or erased new lines can be drawn, a new self can be born.

While working on my depression I used severe sleep deprivation to dissolve my self. I wouldn’t necessarily recommend that method as it’s not particularly healthy but it was very effective for me at the time.

Stage 5: Reforming

Liquefied in its cocoon what was a caterpillar reforms itself in its new shape, that of a butterfly. Within the structure of routine and ritual we created for ourselves we too must reform our liquified sense of self. A new outlook and new body of practice are forged. We tell ourselves a new story of who we are and what we are capable of and we let old beliefs and old habits be forgotten. Affirmations and mantras can be very useful at this point. This is also when we stop or at least cut back on whatever agent we were using to dissolve ourselves. We are no longer trying to break a pattern, now we are trying to set a new pattern. We define our new self and let go of the old. Frequently some kind of ritual action is taken to mark this rebirth. Some people get tattoos.

When I was reforming after my depression I stopped the sleep deprivation, adopted a personal slogan and threw away my pills. Although the pills had been useful the new depression free me didn’t need them any more.

Stage 6: Solidifying

After the butterfly has formed its new body it’s still not ready to rejoin the world it needs to solidify and dry out. We too need time to solidify after we have formed our new selves. If we were to rejoin the world too quickly we would find our new selves too fragile and it would be very easy to fall, or be pushed, into old habits. So we give our selves time for the new way of being to solidify and gather some momentum of its own. This is probably the least glamorous phase but no less essential. We just keep being our new selves and doing our new habits until it feels comfortable and normal. Thirty days is a good length of time for this if you can manage it. If you have to make a partial return to the world, say for work, just keep as much of the structure you created in place as you can and avoid temptations of old patterns.

After I threw away my pills I had the patter part of a month before I had to face the day to day pressures of life as usual, this made a great difference for me.

Stage 7: Returning

Now that the butterfly is fully formed and solidified in its new body, it breaks out of its cocoon, unfolds its wings and returns to the world. When our new habits and self have stabilized it’s time for us to return as well. Some times we can find this difficult as we can grow comfortable in the routing and simplicity of our hermitage. However, we didn’t transform ourselves to hind in the cocoon. So we break apart the discipline that sheltered us and go out into the world with new habits and attitudes. We go out and flap our wings. When returning you should go out and have some fun, enjoy your new self. A good way to mark your return is with a party.

When I returned after transforming my depression I had to go back to school, back to work, but I made sure to go and enjoy myself as well. Why shed depression if you don’t go and have any fun?

You might have some resistance from people you know to your new way of life but some people will always resist change. Just go out in the world and be the butterfly.

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  1. […] post by Edward and software by Elliott […]

  2. Finishing that article might jolly well bring an insight or two about your past to you merely upon finishing!

    The StumbleUpon service refused to cooperate; proceeding to Digg it.

  3. Hey Edward,

    I find this article so fascinating! I have gone through all the steps you’ve described. I’m currently well into the seventh stage: Returning. It always amazes me when I come across info that reinforces something I’ve experienced personally šŸ™‚

    • I find such discoveries quiet affecting as well. I think part of the reason this accords with your experience so well, is that it more of a description of my experience than something I created. It’s a pattern I noticed.

  4. This article opens thoughts…I was feeling hopeless and felt suicidal..Now I should try this out before i go insane…

  5. Is this coaching available Sydney Australia

  6. Amazing analogy.

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