Be That Butterfly!

(Would you rather listen to this blog post than read it? Go to the end of the post.)

We all know the story of a caterpillar becoming a butterfly. But do you know what actually happens to the caterpillar inside the chrysalis? According to an article in Scientific American, “First, the caterpillar digests itself, releasing enzymes to dissolve all of its tissues. If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out.” Ick, right?

Maybe so, but housed within the body of the dissolving caterpillar are certain dormant cells called imaginal discs. They contain all the caterpillar’s potential for future growth, and they become active during this transition period, using the goop to fuel the process that creates the wings, antennae, and all other parts of the butterfly. Eventually, an entirely new, beautiful creature emerges. And this one can fly!

It’s no surprise that the metaphor of caterpillar-into-butterfly is so often used to represent transition, with its three stages of letting go of the Old Way, the In-Between, and the New Way. Look closely at any life transition you have successfully navigated, and you will see yourself in this metaphor, although, I hope, not so goopily.

When your Old Way ends, you have to go through the In-Between to truly and fully arrive at your New Way. While the In-Between is usually the most confusing, messy, or even painful, stage, it’s also the time that holds the most opportunity for creativity, imagination, and vision—if you allow it.

I love that those transformative cells in the caterpillar are called “imaginal.” The definition of that word is “of or relating to imagination, images, or imagery.” And what better time to use your imagination to create your New Way than when your Old Way is dissolving?

That’s the cool part of this process. While you’re navigating the In-Between, you can “try on” various ideas of what you want your New Way to be. If you’ll forgive a switch in metaphors, it’s like trying on a bunch of clothes in a dressing room, peering at yourself in the three-way mirrors, turning this way and that, and deciding which one fits and looks best. You don’t have to buy any you don’t like, and you can keep searching until you find the perfect one.

In a time of transition, your journal is that dressing room. It’s the private place, your chrysalis, where you use writing to envision various scenarios about potential New Ways. Try them on for fit, style, and comfort. Experiment with how they feel and how they might serve you. Keep going until the find the right one—and know that you can change that one, too, later on if need be.

With persistence, patience, and determination, you’ll find the one that will let you fly.

1. If you are in a life transition of some kind, give yourself the gift of 15 or 20 minutes to write about how your New Way might look. Do this several times, with various scenarios. What would your best possible life be in the New Way? Even if it doesn’t seem possible or feasible right now, give your imagination free rein. You don’t have to do anything you write about, but give yourself the opportunity to dream on paper. Even if the whole scenario doesn’t work, it’s possible some good ideas will surface. Be sure to write in present tense, as if you are already living it, so you can see how it really feels.

2. Recall past transitions you have successfully navigated. I’m sure there are many of them. What did you do during the In-Between to move closer to your New Way? What supports did you use? How did you take care of yourself during a tough In-Between? Writing about how you made it through tough transitions in the past will bolster your courage and determination to make it through your current one.

3. Make a list of 10 items you can use to support yourself during your In-Between. This can include inner supports (things you do for yourself, like journaling, meditation, going for walks) and outer supports (things other people can help you with, such as going out to lunch, brainstorming ideas, or simply listening as you talk). Then choose one to write about in more detail for 10-15 minutes. Over time, do this with your entire list. You can even add to the list as you discover more supports.

4 replies
  1. Margaret
    Margaret says:

    Barbara, I love “imaginal” as well. How perfect is THAT? Imagining a new self and then embodying it. Lovely. Thanks!!

  2. Valarie Lee James
    Valarie Lee James says:


    I absolutely LOVE this post! You have described that liminal interstitial “imaginary” place within beautifully and with great clarity. I strive for exactly this kind of clean writing about awe and wonder. 🙂 I’m bookmarking this one and will quote from you with your permission.

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