Contributor: Crystal Bowlby, Ph.D., CEDS-S – Clinical Psychologist at Laureate Eating Disorders Program
“Change is the essence of life; be willing to surrender what you are for what you could become” (Reinhold Niebuhr)
Recently, I have been contemplating the process of transformation – inquiring how change happens; the path of resistance in response to change and uncertainty; and the processes of acceptance, of letting go, and of surrender. These musings have pointed me toward the butterfly, one of my most treasured of nature’s creatures.
For those who know me, my love of butterflies is no surprise. In fact, the presence of butterflies seeps into almost every space in my life – from art and linens in the home, to garden, to office, to occasional clothing and jewelry. They are simply everywhere in my world.
Interview of Dr. Crystal Bowlby about this article
I anticipate the butterfly season all year long. I plan for it by strategizing my Spring garden. I patiently wait for seeds to sprout, grow, and bloom. I wait again for adult butterflies to seek-and-find the favored sources for nectar and food to congregate in the garden to lay their precious eggs, and then I attempt to protect and safeguard these treasured beings as they embark on their transformations.
The biorhythm of the butterfly is indeed a magical journey to me, and as seasons cycle year-by-year, the process of waiting and expectation fills me with excitement, wonder, gratefulness, and hope. The symbolism of the butterfly is a near-constant theme in my thought processes, luring me with its metaphorical reminder to stay in the process, trust my intuition, and refrain from “fixing.” It reminds me to allow the process to happen organically and in due time, and to hold hope for beauty to emerge from uncertainty and darkness.
We all know caterpillars undergo metamorphosis to become butterflies, but few of us understand the details of this quite magical process. After a period of ravenous eating, the wormy little caterpillar grows and grows until one day, it spins itself a chrysalis that dangles from a twig or branch.
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It goes from frenzied energy to silence. Inside the chrysalis, the caterpillar shrinks, sheds its skin, and its organs completely dissolve. The interior of the chrysalis is essentially a mush of organic ooze. In this phase, the caterpillar is completely gone and resembles nothing of what it will become.
Entomologists suggest that while in this stage, several of the cells die, but within this mush, there are living cells called “imaginal cells” that jump into action to reorganize the free-floating proteins and nutrients into eyes, wings, legs, antennae, and other structures of the adult butterfly.
As the new butterfly forms, its DNA matches the caterpillar exactly. The caterpillar section of the DNA has been deactivated, and the butterfly “instructions” have been turned on.
The path of the larva, pupae, caterpillar, and the butterfly metaphorically aligns the path of recovery from eating disorders. Although the food behaviors of an eating disorder come in all different forms, the path begins with disordered, out of control and/or frenzied eating.
While a true pupa will have ravenous hunger, those with eating disorders present all forms of disordered eating, although all forms are out of control and behavioral symptoms generated from a place of adrenaline and impulse. At first, as one sets out on the path to an eating disorder, things do not seem out of the ordinary, and life is relatively constant.
However, as one becomes further entrenched into eating behaviors, shifts happen that warrant attention. As the eating disorder self grows and develops, it becomes hard to attend to other things, and the person struggling with the eating disorder starts to retreat from their life by withdrawing, isolating, and pulling away from family, friends, activities, and interests.
They become insulated into a chrysalis of predictability, perceived safety, and rigidity. Once cocooned, life begins to collapse, leaving one feeling lost and unraveled. Behaviors spill out, and everything feels a mess. Behaviors are less effective, physical health is declining, relationships are strained, and true identity is less certain or understood.
Yet, when entrenched in the chrysalis, in a fallen apart gooey mess, the healthy self is present. It presents itself through imaginal cells that can begin transforming something new from the old.
The treatment experience is a sacred space for patients to emerge into something new and to open into a new state of being. These experiences, if lucky, hold great potential to transform one’s caterpillar-like self into the beautiful butterfly of one’s true self and life’s destiny.
Breaking free from the chrysalis offers new opportunities to live more fully, letting go so that the new can be born. When the authentic, healthy, true self emerges in eating disorder recovery, the eating disorder self is no longer needed. The chrysalis has served its purpose, but the butterfly has a new home and freedom.
Transformation, or rather the outcome of change, is beautiful and exciting and adventurous. It presents new opportunities, but the process of getting to the good can be filled with apprehension, fear, discomfort, growing pains, disappointment, and grief.
The recovery process from an eating disorder is often very painful, uncomfortable, uncertain, and scary. The patient, like the caterpillar, has not been on this path before and does not know what the end result will be or what it will feel like.
They do not know how the healing is supposed to happen, how long it is supposed to take, or whether they will feel better or worse in the aftermath. It is a giant step into unknown territory, and the steps in the process feel unnatural.
Just like metamorphosis, the transformational/recovery process cannot be rushed, hurried, hijacked, or fast-forwarded. The healing journey can only be lived and surrendered to.
Robert Frost wrote that the best way out is always through. Hijacking the surrender process, clinging to the familiar, sabotaging efforts to grow, avoiding progress, and resistance adds suffering to an already disorienting situation. Instead of clinging desperately to the past, we can choose to become like the butterfly and let the experience spread our wings.
Just as the path of the caterpillar is not to forever remain nestled safely in a chrysalis, our path is also not to remain the same. Without surrender of the old, there is no growth, personal development, or transformation.
The word surrender can mean different things to different people. For some, the thought of surrender can be pre-loaded with thoughts of failure, defeat, losing, giving up, etc.
But what if this was not the case? What if surrender was simply a transformation of the self? What would you not resist if you knew surrender meant the growth of your identity, your life, your soul, your community, and your connection to the interdependent web of all existence?
I have always struggled with the adage, “everything happens for a reason,” because it is hard to conceive any loving heavenly plan to incite suffering – tragedy, trauma, abuse, loss, devastation. I do not know whether everything happens for a reason, but I do believe regardless of what happens, I have an opportunity to grow or to shrivel; to expand or restrict; to lean in or to retreat.
In my interpretation, in the grace of the universe, when faced with challenging circumstances and hard times, I hope that these experiences count for something in my personal development. I hope that I will find a way to use them so that the pain is not wasted.
It is inevitable that life will bring challenges, misfortunes, disappointments, failures, and loss. In response to these challenges, we can shrivel, or we can use the experiences as portals to open us up to new horizons. Elements of life can feel predictable, familiar, and safe, and with this safety, we can often cling to what we know.
Similarly, we all hold intentions, expectations, ambitions, wishes, longings – personally, spiritually, relationally, professionally. The familiar becomes our nestling presence, like the pupa within the chrysalis, nestled in safety.
When the chrysalis begins to shake and release, challenged by some event or arising situation, we become upset and conflicted. When adversity hits (i.e., eating disorder, illness, death/loss, crises, global COVID-19 pandemic, natural disaster), our chrysalises are challenged.
Adversity is the needed push that helps us emerge and grow so we can become open to new perceptions, experiences, relationships, and beliefs. Paradoxically, attempting to push against the natural progression of change, and trying to reject difficult like circumstances, hoping they will just go away, actually makes things worse and leads to greater suffering.
In this “letting go” path, please understand that surrender does not mean to “just give up” or to just “let life happen” with absolving personal responsibility or ability to take action. There is a vital dialectic between will/agency and surrender in the transformation process.
Without an ability to will, we cannot choose our actions, and we become a passive victim of circumstance rather than an agent who can influence our destiny. On the other hand, an exaggerated sense of agency fails to take into account the limits of our ability to control life.
The Serenity Prayer does a beautiful job reminding us to balance letting go and taking action. “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, the courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.”
I cannot say that I am an expert in entering into the process of surrender, or in accepting change. I do, however, know the more I practice letting go, the easier the process becomes, and the quicker I recognize when I am operating in control mode.
In my experience, life presents many opportunities to practice letting go, and the lesson of learning to let go is one of the greatest lessons to learn. When I observe myself struggling to surrender, I typically find that I am feeling fearful of something inside, and in my fear, trying to plan, predict, or prevent something I cannot.
At other times, I find that I have attached myself to an outcome rather than allowing things to happen in their own time and process. The irony is that the more I attempt to control things, the less in control I feel. When I’m micromanaging and obsessing over details, I know I am in my own way.
When I trust that I will be okay regardless of my circumstances, I don’t need to micromanage my world. As a universal truth, I am aware that even when I feel in control, I really am not. Any real measure of control actually lies hidden in the act of surrender itself.
The energy of surrender accomplishes much more than the energy of control. In control mode – clinging to safety, predictability, and the familiar – I am constricted, rigid, fearful, and busy.
My body, mind, and agenda are in frenetic over-drive. My mind shifts from idea to idea, from past to future, and I have little concentration, poor memory, and almost no present-moment awareness.
My outlook gets very narrow and focused, my breathing becomes shallow, adrenaline is pumping, and my heart rate increases. Space for curiosity and gratitude becomes restricted. My mind attaches to perceived outcomes, and I recognize having more expectations as well.
I can become argumentative and unyielding, focused more on being “right” than living in connection. In contrast to control energy, surrender energy is open, flowing, expansive, and flexible. When operating from a place of surrender energy, there is space for breath, curiosity, differences of opinion, creativity, and new alternatives.
In surrender mode, I have greater access to calmness, peacefulness, and patience. Breathing is less labored. I have room to think, and my thoughts do not monopolize the space.
I am more present in the here-and-now moment. I see clearly, and my vision extends out around me, allowing me to see the bigger picture.
Although we cannot will ourselves to surrender by using force or power to get us to a place of letting go, we can cultivate surrender with loving attention, curiosity, and practice. Stay open to the unknown.
Breathe in and hold your breath. Notice how constricted and forced that feels. That is control. Now release your breath. Feel how lighter and freer that feels. That is surrender.
Ball up your hands in a closed, clenched fist. Hold it really tight. Now release and open the palms. Observe how it feels to open. Hold empty palms out and say, “I surrender.”
Say the Serenity Prayer; place your hand on your heart to receive, physically push away to let go. Do something like a ritual to symbolize surrender.
Burn or rip something you have written down that would like to let go. Use visualization by imagining yourself paddling a boat upstream against the current and then letting go of the oars to float down the stream.
Notice when you are attempting to control things and make space for pause. Drop your attention down into your body and notice the fear, uncertainty, and anxiety that are eliciting your control.
Try to stay with this physical sensation in your body, the energy of uncertainty that causes you to grasp for control. Identify what/how you are controlling.
What would be the opposite, and how would you not be controlling? What actions or thoughts support this? Ask yourself this question: “What am I afraid will happen if I let go of control?”
This is a great starting point to begin recognizing when you are in control mode and also in understanding the fears that hold you back. Attempt to observe your thoughts and feelings with non-judgment, with wonder, and with curiosity. “What if I allowed things to be just as they are in this minute?”
Meet your resistance with an open heart— “oh, there’s my resistance.” And then ask yourself: “What’s the invitation here for surrendering?” What loving intention can you set for yourself in this situation? Coming from a place of love instead of fear, what would be the next small step to take?
Identify the sabotage of surrender. What ways do you sabotage yourself when you are on the brink of surrendering or already have surrendered? What ways do you take back control or power? How do you tip your toe into the water and then pull back? What actions and ways do you sabotage? What thoughts and feelings pull you into old ways?
Let us learn to surrender through the example of the caterpillar transitioning into a butterfly. Does the pupa in a chrysalis doubt, worry, and fret over the process of transforming into a butterfly? Or is the creature in a surrendered state held perfectly cradled in the chrysalis? Would nature take such perfect care of that chrysalis and then abandon it?
The beautiful butterfly surrenders to its magnificent transformation and flutters free! We, too, are cradled in a perfect life-force chrysalis, completely loved and fully supported. Transformation is here if we are willing to let go and receive it.
As Gina Battye writes, “When you’ve worked as hard as you can. When you’ve done as much as you think is possible. When you have strived, tried, pushed, pulled, forced, given all you can. When you’ve bargained, when you’ve pleaded, when you’ve hoped. When you have done all you can do and when there is nothing left for you to do. Give it up and surrender. Let go of what you think you want and open up to the possibility that there is something bigger for you.”
About the Author:
Crystal Bowlby, Ph.D., CEDS-S, is a clinical psychologist serving patients and staff for the adult eating disorders program at Laureate Eating Disorders Program. As a therapist, Dr. Bowlby offers direct patient care in the realm of individual, family, and group therapy within the intensive, multidisciplinary program structure. She also supervises clinicians seeking eating disorder specialist certification and supervises doctoral students selected for practicum experience at Laureate.
Dr. Bowlby has specialized in the education and treatment of eating disorders since 2002, upon graduating with a master’s in counseling psychology. She obtained a bachelor of science degree in biochemistry/pre-med, a master of science degree in counseling psychology, a master of arts in theology, a master of arts in clinical psychology, and a doctor of philosophy degree in clinical psychology.
Dr. Bowlby is an active member of the Academy for Eating Disorders (AED) and participates in a special interest group (SIG) designed to help support professionals in recovery and also is on a task force to identify recovery themes. In line with these research interests, Dr. Bowlby published an article in the Clinical Social Work Journal in 2015 entitled “Recovered Professionals Exploring Eating Disorder Recovery: A Qualitative Investigation of Meaning.”
The internationally recognized Laureate Eating Disorders Program in Tulsa, Oklahoma, is designed to meet the needs of individuals with anorexia nervosa, bulimia, and other eating-related difficulties. Our program offers a full continuum of care for eating disorder recovery, including acute hospitalization, partial hospitalization, residential care, transitional living, and outpatient services. A multidisciplinary team of psychiatrists, therapists, dietitians, and nurses collaborate daily to meet the individual needs of each patient in a safe, supportive environment. The combination of our care, our facility, and our highly experienced staff creates a program that provides results. By limiting care to 18 adult women and 12 adolescent girls the Laureate Eating Disorders Program maintains a more intimate environment to ensure individualized, patient-centered care.
The opinions and views of our guest contributors are shared to provide a broad perspective of eating disorders. These are not necessarily the views of Eating Disorder Hope, but an effort to offer a discussion of various issues by different concerned individuals.
We at Eating Disorder Hope understand that eating disorders result from a combination of environmental and genetic factors. If you or a loved one are suffering from an eating disorder, please know that there is hope for you, and seek immediate professional help.
Reviewed & Approved on August 5, 2020, by Jacquelyn Ekern MS, LPC
Published August 5, 2020, on EatingDisorderHope.com