This Change Thing Sure is Wobbly

Well, I must endure the presence of a few caterpillars if I wish to become acquainted with the butterflies.
— Antoine de Saint-Exupery, The Little Prince

For someone who teaches about change for a living, I certainly can get wobbly during big transitions. Change is all well and good when it is happening to other people, but hey, when it’s mine, I just want to slow it down or stop it altogether.

It doesn’t matter whether it is change that I have worked hard for or sought out—at the moment of shifting plate tectonics I look around for the nearest thing to grab on to—the oldest habit, the most familiar protection, the fastest way back.  I want solid ground—even if it is exactly the solid ground that I have been diligently working to move away from. Why does the new place always seem like it’s less solid than the old place?

Part of it is just the way the brain works—the familiar is easier because it requires less attention from us. Even ‘bad’ familiar. We know it, we can use autopilot and we don’t have to pay attention or use extra energy.

And if you add trauma to the mix: the new is the unknown and if there is anything a trauma survivor is more against, it is this: being caught off guard. And the unknown is entirely a world where you can get caught off guard. So once we are on the road to the ‘new’ we begin looking for the exit.

The problem is that the anticipation of change is never actually the same as the actual change. The anticipation of it is usually way worse—the anticipation is what has you turning around mentally in your mind the way I did on the high dive when I was five. You imagine the change, the long trip, the new job, the loss of the relationship, and you panic that there is no solid ground, and you believe that you are up in the air with no where to go.

But actual change is different. If being caught off guard is the kryptonite for trauma survivors, the feeling of surprise and new beginning that can come with change are actually one of the strongest medicines for healing. Those moments that you can’t predict, where you get to experience a new part of yourself, often an untraumatized, unpracticed part of yourself—these are transformational. They shift parts of your being. They help you knit back together, and become sturdy in ways you can’t imagine.

These moments of new beginning can only happen when you let go of an old way, an old habit, and old belief. You have to let go, and trust the fall. You have to let go and feel wobbly. You have to let go and not know for a while. Oh, I wish I could tell you this were easy—but I can’t. The letting go is quick—the wobbly-ness—well, that can last a while.

But the truth is almost all of us have witnessed these moments in others and cheered: the moments of first steps—whether children or foals, the moments of taking the training wheels off of the bicycle and watching them go, the moments of your teenagers confident grin as they head in to a big event. All of those are wobbly moments, but they are also beautiful moments, strength gaining moments.

The problem with the metaphor of the caterpillar is that in the metaphor, it happens all at once—you go from caterpillar to butterfly and the change is complete. And I think secretly, we all believe that if we were doing this change thing right, that this is exactly how it would go. I’d go from flawed and awkward to a beautiful creature with wings.

But really, we are all made up of hundreds of these metaphorical creatures who are all at different stages of change. Some parts of us do have wings, which we often forget. Some parts of us are wrapped up tight, transforming on our own time. And some parts of us are still poking around looking for the right twig to attach ourselves to. We are all of it, and it’s so hard to love all of it. To hold that if we want to feel our wings, we are going to have to let go of the old branch.

© 2016 Gretchen L Schmelzer, PhD