Midlife Enlightenment and Becoming Your Own Butterfly (or how to move on from being a disoriented grub)

Butterfly Life Cycle / Butterfly Metamorphosis

“The pupa stage is one of the coolest stages of a butterfly’s life.  As soon as a caterpillar is done growing and they have reached their full length/weight, they form themselves into a pupa, also known as a chrysalis.  From the outside of the pupa, it looks as if the caterpillar may just be resting, but the inside is where all of the action is. Inside of the pupa, the caterpillar is rapidly changing.

Now, as most people know, caterpillars are short, stubby and have no wings at all.  Within the chrysalis the old body parts of the caterpillar are undergoing a remarkable transformation, called ‘metamorphosis,’ to become the beautiful parts that make up the butterfly that will emerge”

Turning forty was not a whole heap of fun for me. Things in the years prior hadn’t turned out quite as I had planned or imagined. My work life had turned sour, my dreams of starting a family had gone awry, and this had an inevitable impact upon my close relationships. I didn’t feel much like celebrating. In the preceding two decades I had pretty much known what the next step was, where I was supposed to be headed (note the ‘supposed to’ here. It turned out to be significant), and what actions I was going to take to move me toward those so well thought out goals. As I reached this supposedly momentous occasion however, I realised I was actually at a complete loss.

The realisation came over me that I had lost my way in life. My carefully laid out plan had burst into flames in front of my eyes and, in a confused and child-like manner, I sat on my own hands and said “Right, that is it! I don’t want to play anymore!”

That is largely where I have been ever since.

However, this little existential tantrum disguised much that was going on beneath the surface. Though I had reached mid-life and suddenly had no earthly clue what the first half had all been about (see how I blasély snuck in my admittance of reaching mid-life there, as if it were no big thing at all?), I was doing a great disservice to the many very useful experiences and challenges I had encountered and dealt with over those 20 years – all of which were important information for me to gather. Though I was now rejecting all of this as a complete waste of bleeding time actually, that really was not the case at all.

Please forgive me now as I launch into my butterfly metaphor. I know this may seem a bit clichéd, but the Universe has been throwing butterfly imagery at me left right and centre of late, so I’m just going to have to go with it. Like the stages through which a butterfly must go in its own life cycle, I am starting to consider my own experiences, life events and learning along similar lines.

For example, between the ages of about 21 and 36, I think I was probably a caterpillar. This was my formative stage – where I did all my major growing. Eagerly eating up all the things put in front of me, with no awareness or consideration of what the alternatives might have been. Certain that this consumption was my purpose – to eat, and eat and eat all that life presented me with was the point of me. Ask no questions, this is your life.

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I thought …

“I am a caterpillar. I know how to do this, I am going to be the best damn caterpillar and I know what I have to do. I’m sorted. Here I go, doing my caterpillar thing, I’m so good at being a caterpillar and I’m just going to get better and better and ….. Oh! What happened? Where did my legs go?!”

At the age of 36 my legs were taken from under me, and I no longer recognised myself. I had been a caterpillar, I knew what I was doing, I had a great little caterpillar plan. Now what they hell was I?

To stretch this ‘losing my legs from under me’ metaphor some more, a counsellor at the time told me that what I was experiencing – these feelings of completely having lost my way in life – was much like a milking stool losing all of its legs all at the same time. This ‘Milking Stool Me’, had a clear purpose and was supported by 3 equally important legs – one relating to work, one to home, and one to relationships and family. One minute all the legs were there, letting the stool serve its purpose just like it thought it was supposed to, and the next Wham! A mallet is taken to its legs and now it is just a blank table top crashing to the floor thinking “What the Hell?!”

This catastrophic structural failure inevitably resulted in feelings of panic and confusion. Everything I thought I knew had been taken out from under me. And how do you go about growing new legs anyway? The depression that followed put me into a state of limbo. I did not have the energy or the knowledge as to how to go about forming new legs. This was the denouement of my little caterpillar existence (I’m enjoying the French words today obviously 🙂 and I retreated into a chrysalis for my own protection.

Jeff Foster, whose writing I find really inspiring, describes depression in a way that I can really connect with. Rather than a negative force to be feared or expelled, it is a necessary resting place for people who are deeply exhausted. A time to be gentle with oneself.


“The word ‘depressed’ is spoken phonetically as DEEP REST.

We can choose to view depression not as a mental illness, but on a deeper level as a profound and very misunderstood state of DEEP REST entered into when we are completely exhausted by the weight of the false self, the mind-made story of who we are.

Depression is an unconscious loss of interest in the second-hand, a longing to ‘die’ to the false and free ourselves from the exhausting drama of personhood.

Depression’s call to spiritual transformation needs to be listened to and understood, not medicated, analysed or meditated away.

There is no shame in depression.

It is an ancient invitation to rest”.

~ Jeff Foster

And so, I am now ready to accept and respect that putting my life and my forward momentum on hold for a little while was a much needed pause. Rather than panic and thrash (as I did for a good long while, with nothing constructive to show for it), I was meant to place myself in this safe chrysalis state, letting what needed to transform do so, allowing the shedding of my old skin, my old ways, and the parts of my life that no longer served me. To the outside observer, my friends, my family, even my husband on occasion, this could cause frustration. They might think …

“What the hell is she doing? Why isn’t she making plans, taking action, moving forward? She doesn’t seem depressed anymore, but she isn’t moving? Why?”

But which way should I have moved? Could you tell me? Because I couldn’t. I thrashed for years with this question – you saw me. And it was awful. It was awful to live and it was awful to watch, and ultimately entirely fruitless. If they were frustrated, that was nothing compared with how much so I was myself. I beat myself up endlessly because I knew that a change was required, but not matter how hard I tried to think up the answer, force myself in the right direction, make something happen, ANYTHING! It got me to no place good, and I became utterly, utterly exhausted – until there was no option but to stop.

My counselling taught me to take a step back, calm myself down, stop the thrashing. Quiet the noise.

And stopping is incredibly scary.

This can induce panicky feelings when the old me kicks in. The me who constantly has to have a plan, know my next move, the goal I am working toward. I have learned through counselling that what may feel like procrastination may in fact be quite the opposite. Having looked at all the energy I expended trying to move forward, I realised that without my new legs having been given the time to form, this was never going to get me anywhere. It just resulted in a very sore head from all the hard thinking. I have learned that no amount of force or will can make this transformation happen any sooner than it is meant to. Nature has its cycles, it knows what it is doing, even when the poor caterpillar has no earthly clue what is going on ….

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With a new found acceptance for just exactly where I am, conserving my strength by staying still for once, cocooned in a safe space whilst the future takes care of itself, I can finally feel some momentum building. I can feel energy rising. I feel a metamorphosis bubbling, just as any aspiring butterfly will have done before me. I don’t know when I will emerge with all the true colours I was born to display, but I know that a transformation is underway and that I just have to let it take its course.

I cannot in fact put it better than John O’Donohue in his poem below where he suggests

“Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning”

That is exactly my intention. This period of transformation, though a bit weird, and uncomfortable, new and unnerving is a right of passage. It must be gone through in order to enable the unfurling to happen. So I am going to try my best not to fight it, or stress, or worry about what happens at the other end. Because I have utter faith, I have a butterfly in here somewhere, it is time to let her emerge.


In out-of-the-way places of the heart,

Where your thoughts never think to wander,

This beginning has been quietly forming,

Waiting until you were ready to emerge.

For a long time it has watched your desire,

Feeling the emptiness growing inside you,

Noticing how you willed yourself on,

Still unable to leave what you had outgrown.

It watched you play with the seduction of safety

And the gray promises that sameness whispered,

Heard the waves of turmoil rise and relent,

Wondered would you always live like this.

Then the delight, when your courage kindled,

And out you stepped onto new ground,

Your eyes young again with energy and dream,

A path of plenitude opening before you.

Though your destination is not yet clear

You can trust the promise of this opening;

Unfurl yourself into the grace of beginning

That is at one with your life’s desire.

Awaken your spirit to adventure;

Hold nothing back, learn to find ease in risk;

Soon you will be home in a new rhythm,

For your soul senses the world that awaits you.

~ John O’Donohue (1956 – 2008)

5 thoughts on “Midlife Enlightenment and Becoming Your Own Butterfly (or how to move on from being a disoriented grub)”

  1. Such a beautiful and honest post. Thank you for it. And what great realizations!
    It’s so important to be still at times (and sometimes for longer periods, ha) and let things fall into place. We truly can not force things. I’ve been there a couple of times… Feels frustrating till we surrender.
    Much strength to you on your path <3 You're doing great <3

    • Thank you so much for your comment. It is good to know that you recognised some of it from your own journey – very reassuring :). Surrendering can be very hard initially, but when you start to feel the benefits of that calmness it all starts to fall into place as you say. Thanks so much for reading 🙂

    • I’m so pleased this was meaningful and timely for you. I don’t know what colour my wings will be yet, but I can feel them forming. I wish you well in your own transformation. Thank you for reading and for your comment. Much appreciated 🙂

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