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How to Fully Embrace the Transformative Process of Illness

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Most of us are familiar with the butterfly as a symbol of transformation. The tricky part is, it is the symbol of manifested transformation, rather than the path that brings us there. And while it’s nice to have the final goal in mind, it can be overwhelming to try and figure out how to transform ourselves, especially when our desires for transformation are often large in nature and involve changing beliefs, habits and so forth that are holding us back from full transformation.

In my mind, if you seek transformation, you might chose the caterpillar as your muse. Caterpillars are born knowing the one thing they need is nourishment to grow. Bit by bit they take small bites that grow their bodies and energy stores, trusting they will know what to do and what they need. The energy is slow, deliberate and purposeful. They are in tune with their process, they know when it is time to rest and time to do. When the urge comes to construct the chrysalis in which they will cocoon themselves for the final stage of transformation, they find a safe and protected place to settle. They stay inside their cocoon until they know they are ready to emerge. Even once the transformation is complete, they take the time they need to open up again, prior to lift off.

Many of us who are diagnosed with a life-threatening condition hope the experience will help us transform in some way. It is the silver lining of facing death. Yet, the experiences we have gone through to heal ourselves are often traumatic, and it takes time to process what our body, mind, spirit and self have been through.

Recently I was working with a cancer survivor who is about to end treatment, and with her permission I will share some of what we discovered. In the session, she was identifying how some old patterns of thinking and feeling have begun to re-emerge as treatment comes to an end. Patterns she had gotten a reprieve from while she was going through treatment. Her artwork reflected an empty circle in the middle (representative of identity confusion she has experienced throughout her life), with a chaotic dance around her of the parts of herself she values but feels unsure of how they can cohabitate. The added layer of this dilemma is wondering which of these parts were authentic expressions of who she is and which parts she developed to please others.

As we were exploring how this was impacting her through art, her own wisdom spoke to her to give her guidance about her needs. There was a visible relief, because she truly wants to benefit from the transformative power of facing cancer and was dismayed to feel old patters re-emerge.

Nietzsche once said, “When we are tired, we are attacked by ideas we conquered long ago.” As a psychotherapist, I have seen this be one of the driving forces that brings people into counseling. For nothing is more disheartening than to find ourselves slipping into mindsets or behaviors we thought we had mastered. Major life events can often trigger a resurgence of these old patterns, in part because when we are being challenged to confront a major life event, we are being simultaneously pushed to examine our unfinished business.

So find your inner caterpillar. Trust any sparks of inspiration that help you connect to that concept. Be gentle and patient with yourself, for you are in a tender and vulnerable point in your life. There is no need to rush. Finding small “bites” to tap into your experience and feeling them will allow you to grow and ultimately transform.

At the end of the session I described above, I asked my client if she wanted to draw an angel card at random to see if it would offer a bit of insight or inspiration for moving forward. She did, and we both got goosebumps when she discovered the word she drew was birth, or in this case, rebirth. I am with you in solidarity, whether it is through this blog or in person. I hope you can feel it.

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The Mighty, in partnership with Fuck Cancer, is asking the following: Write a letter to yourself in regards to a cancer diagnosis. What would you say or wish someone had told you? Find out how to email us a story submission here.

Image via Thinkstock.

Originally published: December 14, 2016
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