The lifecycle of a caterpillar is a beautiful process. Eggs: small and incapable of supporting themselves, yet filled with potential beyond words. Caterpillars: new life ready to see the world for all it is worth. The chrysalis: dark, strong beyond belief with something magical growing inside. Finally, the butterfly: beauty epitomized. From crawling to flying, dull to bright, naive to wise, the butterfly has experienced life and is ready to recreate this precious cycle.
Our mental health cycles a lot like this butterfly.
The Caterpillar Stage
Like caterpillars, we are naive to this world and all of its wonders. After hatching from the egg, a caterpillar begins its journey. This stage requires exploration and consumption. Caterpillars roam freely, noticing the texture of the ground, the temperature of the air, and the things that surround them. The world is new. During the caterpillar stage, the critter needs to consume as much as possible. By constantly eating, the caterpillar can grow, a necessary step if the intention is to outlast Darwin’s Survival of the Fittest. As the caterpillar grows, it sheds its skin time and time again to accommodate for its new, larger body. Suddenly, the caterpillar is no longer the smallest bug in the field. It now has a new perception of the world in which it lives.
As humans, it is part of our human nature to burst bubbles and try new things. Whether it be applying for a new job, asking someone on a date, moving to a new town, or pursuing a new hobby, we have all stepped out of our egg and outside our comfort zone. Clueless of what is ahead, we aimlessly wander, noticing the people we pass, the words we hear, and the emotions we feel. Our metaphorical consumption phase is the consumption of knowledge. Here we learn about the world and our place in it– good, bad, and otherwise. As we absorb knowledge about the world, our old thoughts “shed” several times in order to make room for the transformative experience the new world has in store. While learning can institute personal growth just as consumption does for a caterpillar, being inundated with information can overwhelm and shatter our worlds.
The Chrysalis Stage
Once the caterpillar has consumed all it can handle, it retreats to its safety blanket: the chrysalis. The chrysalis is dark, isolated, and comforting to the small bug. While in this stage, the caterpillar is undergoing a major transition the rest of the world is blind to. The cocoon is a hearty but fragile structure. Once formed, the cocoon shows no signs of change to the outside world, yet inside magic is happening. The body of the caterpillar is literally dissolving at this point to make room for the imaginal cells, the blueprint for the flying creature. The caterpillar always had these blueprint cells, yet they weren’t previously able to show because of the dominance of the young genes of the caterpillar.
Gaining new knowledge is an essential part of development; however, it can be equally catastrophic. Learning that change is the only constant in life and that we are wrong far more often than we are right can be hard. It seems we learn these lessons out of the worst circumstances; that’s just the way life works. Anxiety, depression, and trauma can all result from this forced growth. Oftentimes, we use these opportunities to return to our cocoons. To the world, we mask this transformative process with a smile and a laugh, a surging work ethic, or an extra attentiveness to detail– anything that we can control. Self-isolation from the world is going on inside of our minds, yet to the world that change goes unnoticed. Just as the caterpillar begins to dissolve itself, we begin to tear ourselves apart. For some, this manifests in a very literal sense, such as eating disorders, self harm, and substance abuse. Yet through the destruction of the foundation “cells” of who we are, we make room for our imaginal cells to shine through and thrive. Our metaphorical chrysalis is a dark and isolating place, but the growth undergone in the cocoon is quintessential in the development to reach our full potential.
The Butterfly Stage
The final stage in a caterpillar’s life-cycle is to become a butterfly. Some may say that this is the most anticipated and beautiful stage in the creature’s life. What used to crawl now flies! The wings of the butterfly are colored with bright shades of orange, red, yellow, or blue. Who knew that such vivid color could be produced from the darkness of a chrysalis? The once innocent caterpillar has undergone its transformation and is now ready to take on a new role in its environment. Emerging from the chrysalis initially leaves the butterfly’s wings folded and wet. It will take time for blood to make its way to the wings, but once it happens the butterfly will have no hesitation in using their new tools, the wings they long prepared in the cover of darkness. Butterflies have many tasks to fulfill now that they have broken free from their cocoon, but paramount of these is to reproduce and help provide for the new generation.
As “butterflies”, we too have to nourish the new generations. The bright, beautiful, new version of ourselves we have become has seen the world and struggled, but made it out on the other side. Our time in the darkness of the chrysalis was necessary in order to complete the cycle of metamorphosis. While difficult, the periods of our life where we feel isolated are often the most opportune times to self-reflect, but this requires a jump out of the comfort of the cocoon. Coming out of this isolation is not easy. Like the butterfly, we may feel the time spent in the darkness as a heavy load to bear on our wings, but we all should take the advice of the butterfly and put those wings to use. The time spent in isolation, whether we realize it at the moment or not, we worked so hard on building our “butterflies” out of just the resources within ourselves. That is an achievement to be proud of! Now, it is our time, YOUR TIME, to nourish the struggling caterpillars of the world because they too will one day become a butterfly.
Mental health is cyclical, and no stage is ever permanent. Throughout life, highs and lows will be present, and that is beyond anyone’s control. The only thing you can take charge over is how you embrace it. Don’t rush or take for granted your time as a caterpillar! See new things, absorb what you can, and be naive in the world. Don’t give up when you are in your chrysalis! Darkness and isolation are scary, but retreating to the cocoon allows for the rest and self-reflection needed in order to be the best self you can be. Don’t hesitate to take flight! That first step is going to be intimidating, as most change is, but life is too short not to take chances. No matter what part of the metamorphosis cycle you are in right now, you are right where you should be. Regardless if you are a caterpillar, chrysalis, or butterfly, you are right where you should be. Permanence doesn’t exist in the cycle of mental health, so enjoy and absorb what you can from wherever you may be in life right now.