From Caterpillar to Butterfly: Tips for Change

From Caterpillar to Butterfly: Tips for Change


We experience all kinds of emotions about change, all of which are caused by our thoughts—thoughts like:

“This will be hard.”

“I’m unsure about this.”

“I’m excited to see what will happen.”

“Why is this happening?”

“How will this turn out?”

“I just want things to stay the way they are.”

“Why can’t things change already?”

“Change is just so hard for me.”

While we sometimes look forward to change (like anticipating having my baby finally be potty trained!), typically we resist change. Why? There are probably several reasons, but three stand out to me: fear of the unknown, our brain’s love of homeostasis, and our resistance to leave our comfort zones.

Fear of the unknown—everybody gets that, right? But homeo-what??? Homeostasis simply means to remain in the same state. Our brains love homeostasis, because they want to be efficient. They are designed to be. And they can be most efficient, and thus conserve energy, by doing what they have always done. They want to stick to the thoughts and actions that have been done so many times they are now on autopilot.

Another human trait that often makes us resist change is our love of comfort. Change is usually not comfortable. Whether you are moving to a new city, adding a child to your family, or making changes in your health, all change will take you out of your comfort zone and require you to do things that are new to you. Our brain doesn’t like this. It has to work much harder, and will try to convince us that the change is just too hard. It is interesting to see that we will often resist change that will actually serve us well. We would rather stay in our comfort zone of misery than step outside of it to find more happiness. Recognize when this is happening and just tell your brain, “Thanks for trying to protect me. But I’ve got this!”

And so change requires two things of us: a little faith, and a lot of conscious thought. And acceptance helps as well. A few months ago, my 8-year-old daughter brought home the following writing assignment from school. I took a picture of it because I thought it was so insightful.

“The catapillar feels good about change. He feels good about change because everything changes. And someday he is going to change. And he is going to change into a beutiful butterfly.”

The caterpillar accepts change. He understands the inevitability of it, and so moves forward with faith and consciousness. (Ok, so maybe it is just instinct, but play along…) Imagine if we approached change with the same attitude as the caterpillar! What could we accomplish? How much could we change? Change is inevitable. Nothing stays the same. We might as well own it. Accept changes that we cannot control, and control the changes we want to see in our lives.

Just as the caterpillar goes through various stages of change before finally becoming a beautiful butterfly, self-directed change (not changes in our circumstances, but the changes we have power to make) also happens in stages. I had never really considered this until I recently studied behavioral change in my personal trainer course. The Transtheoretical Model (TTM) explains that individuals progress through a series of stages, and that behavioral change is more of a cycle than a straight line. This is because often we don’t succeed in our efforts toward change, and fall back into an earlier stage of change. Let me explain the different stages of change, especially as they relate to making healthy lifestyle changes (although they can be applied to any change we are trying to make.)

  1. Precontemplation—In this stage, we have no intention of changing anytime in the foreseeable future. We may be uninformed or misinformed about the consequences of our lifestyle. Maybe we have tried to change in the past, and have not succeeded, and we have decided that it is easier to not even try. We are apathetic about taking care of our bodies, and can even be defensive about any pressure we feel to change. We will avoid reading, talking, listening, or thinking about the topic of healthy living.
  2. Contemplation—In contemplation, we are considering making a change in the future, but have not made a commitment. We are typically weighing out the pros and cons, doing our research, waiting for the “right” time, etc. People often get “stuck” in this phase, which is referred to as chronic contemplation.
  3. Preparation—The preparation phase is the time when we actually decide to make a change in the near future. Typically, we have a start date chosen, and it is within the coming month. We may take preparation-type action, such as buying a gym membership, starting to pin healthy recipes, or buying home exercise equipment. Although people in this stage are more likely to progress to following stages than those in precontemplation or contemplation, this is not a stable phase.
  4. Action—This is where change truly starts to happen! When we are in action stage, we are actually making specific behavior changes that improve our health, such as planning and eating healthy meals or following an exercise program. This stage only lasts six months or less, and is not stable. People are at high risk for relapse during the action phase. (Think January….over and over.)
  5. Maintenance—After six months of consistent action, we move into this phase, which is a fabulous phase to enter!! Although relapse is still possible, the chances of regressing all the way back to precontemplation are very slim. Typically, when relapsing once maintenance has been achieved, we only slide as far back as contemplation or preparation. Compared to the action phase, which only lasts six months or less, the maintenance stage is a long one. We stay in this stage for five years before moving on to the final stage of change.
  6. Termination—This is the final stage of change in the TTM. In this phase, we have zero temptation to engage in old behavior and are amazingly consistent in making good choices. Even when faced with negative emotion, such as boredom, loneliness, anxiety, and anger, we know that we will not return to old, unhealthy habits as a way to cope. Many individuals may not ever achieve this phase, and may remain in Maintenance phase throughout their lives, which would still result in good health.

For me, learning about the stages of change was eye-opening, and helped me better understand where I am in different aspects of my healthy habits (or not-quite-habits). I have been frustrated many times in the past year at my continued temptation to eat “garbage,” or foods that I know do not provide me with any nutritional value. I also am still tempted to overeat at times, and continue to work on dealing with emotional eating. When I learned about the stages of change, I was able to have much more compassion and understanding for myself. For some reason, I had the expectation that I should already be in the Termination phase, and have been upset with myself for staying in maintenance for so long. But the reality is, I’m supposed to still be in maintenance, and will be for at least another four years, and maybe for forever.

I think the high expectations of myself have come because I have achieved Termination in my exercise habits. Whether or not to exercise regularly (at least five days a week) is a non-issue for me. I feel zero temptation to skip it, even when on vacation, or when I am stressed about time. It is a priority that I stubbornly will not budge on. And I guess that I thought once I realized how much I do enjoy healthy eating, and when I saw how beneficial it is to me, that I would be able to jump to that same level of uncompromising commitment. And so when that wasn’t the case, I have felt a lot of weakness and shame.

SHAME, I learned recently, can be defined in an acronym: Should Have Already Mastered Everything.  Why do we allow this thought? Don’t we understand that it is all a process? The TTM model for change has helped me see change in a whole new light. While commitment is important if we want to make changes, being patient with ourselves and understanding where we are is just as crucial.

Caterpillars, once they enter the chrysalis, stay there until they change. Some remain inside for a few days. Others, over a year! But they don’t doubt the process. They don’t bail out early, thinking they should already be a butterfly! When observing a chrysalis, we may think that nothing is happening. We can’t really see any motion or change yet. However, while inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar’s structure is actually broken down and rearranged—into legs, a body, and it’s beautiful, defining wings!

Let’s be caterpillars. Have faith. Lean into change.  Keep at it. Trust the process. Believe in what you will become. Love your body, and your body will love you. 

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