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When Life Changes: Understanding The Cycle Of Change

The only thing constant is change, right?

Change is part of our lives, whether we invite it in or it smacks unexpectedly into our world. Small changes usually end up as a blip in our lives. Their effects are minor – it doesn’t take much to adapt to them.

But big changes, the ones that rattle our foundations, these can have a profound impact. The life you thought you were living comes to a screeching halt as the terrain becomes unfamiliar and uncertain. Perhaps you have navigated one (or more) of these life-altering transitions already? If not, you will.

You may not know in advance when a big change is coming to alter your life, but the good news is that when it happens, the process of change is predictable. Change follows a cycle.

It may feel messy, but there is a pattern to it. And when you know the cycle, you can understand where you are in it, what’s happening, what will come next and that it will run its course.

As Martha Beck describes in her book, Finding Your Own North Star, there are four stages to the change cycle. This cycle of change in our lives parallels the metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly. The caterpillar-to-butterfly transformation is a helpful metaphor for tracking the change cycle.

The cycle is kicked off by a catalytic event, meaning any disruptive event that marks the end of one phase of your life and the beginning of another. It could be a divorce, a diagnosis of a serious illness, or the death of a loved one.

But it’s not necessarily a loss – it could be winning the lottery, landing a new job, or becoming an instant internet celebrity when your latest cat video goes viral. No matter what, it changes the way you see yourself.

The catalyst can also come from inside you. It’s when you decide you can’t keep living your life like the way you’ve been up until this point. Even if that life looks good from the outside, it’s become unbearable to you.

Whether the push comes from outside or within… welcome to the change cycle!

The first stage is Meltdown. This is the death (and rebirth) of your identity. Just as a caterpillar completely loses its old form as it changes into a butterfly, the person who you thought you were is disappearing. This can be a very uncomfortable, disorienting time – like everything about you has been turned upside down and you don’t know which way is up. What was familiar is no longer there. While it can feel chaotic, this is where transformation begins.

The second stage is Reformation. As the old identity is released, a new one begins to form. The butterfly begins to take shape. You start imagining new ideas about your new life. The ideas come spontaneously – little glimpses of the life you could create. As the ideas grow, they become more detailed, like a blueprint for the new you, and you start making plans for how you will achieve these dreams.

The third stage is Emerging. The new you is ready to go. The butterfly emerges; you take action. This is where the dreaming and scheming in the second stage becomes real. You start doing things to create the life you imagined. It’s not always easy, nor is it a straight line to your new life – you’ll hit obstacles and zigzags along the way – but you get closer with each step you take.

The fourth stage is Full Flight. The dream is realized – the new you that began in the meltdown is living the life that was once dreamed. Enjoy it here, you’ve arrived. And keep in mind that change can (and will) throw you back into square one again. But next time, your ability to navigate it is stronger because you know how the cycle is going to go.

Understanding the four stages and how to navigate each one can make the whole process of change less stressful and help you cope and adapt more effectively.

In my next blog posts, I’ll talk about each of the four stages in detail. Stay tuned!

“The only way to make sense out of change is to plunge into it, move with it, and join the dance.” – Alan Watts

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