The 5 Stages of Transformation
Have you noticed? Women are waking up. What worked before is no longer working and there just isn’t a way around that for an increasing number of us. But not all of us. No, not everyone will be waking up this time around. Few of our parents are awake, many of our siblings are just toeing the line, and odds are the friends around us when we first begin this journey, may not be the friends around us several years into it. This is why waking up is hard to do. We feel displaced, alone, disoriented, afraid, and yet, unable to go back to what was. It is a rebirth process that can feel like it’s happening in the back of a car without a midwife.
When it all falls apart
How do you know if you’re waking up?
Odds are, you wouldn’t be reading this if shifts weren’t already underway. If you didn’t feel like you were unraveling- at home, in your work or relationships, or in all of the above. You may feel like you’re looking around and suddenly, you are infused with the sense that everything feels different. Like you are looking at the world through new eyes.
You feel an invitation, sometimes a hard one to accept, to just get real and figure out what it is that you’re really here for, because I’m pretty sure that it’s not to just punch the clock, do laundry, dishes, and count the days until that vacation that never even feels the way we thought it would. There’s something that’s possible and you need to know how to get to it.
Walking alone in the dark
Transformation can and does have a roadmap.
This path to yourself will have seeming dead ends, perilous passes, and moments when you feel like you need to turn around and head back. In these passages, you’ll need a guide and you can consult this map to remind you that awesomeness, stability, and a whole new experience of yourself still await you if you continue to commit to your own path.
If you are wondering why I should have any special say on this largely metaphysical issue, I’ll have you know that I’ve undergone quite a tectonic plate shift in the past several years, and this has allowed me to hold space for the metamorphoses that happen in my office as my patients come off of psychiatric medication that has been holding them hostage in arrested development for sometimes up to 15 years. I also happen to be, by profession, a “doctor of the soul” – because yes, amazingly, that is what psychiatrist actually means!
I meet with women every day who are somewhere in this process. As they come off of psychiatric medication or they move through an experience that would otherwise be labeled “mental illness”, they get rebuilt from the inside out. I’ve held space enough times to be able to tell these women what the signposts up ahead might read. I tell my patients and I’ll tell you – buckle up for the ride and let’s go!
My enthusiasm comes from my own experience, as any awakened physician will tell you. I spent 30 years of my life asleep. Righteously asleep. I believed that effort and force of will were the only way to a successful life, and that preparedness kept you safe. Science was my religion because I thought God was for the feeble and I applied myself to the mastery and quantification of human biology. I had a big mouth, lots of certainty about my opinions, and believed that perfect health was just one prescription away. Well, for everyone else. When I was diagnosed with my first health problem – Hashimoto’s thyroiditis – I felt cornered and resistant to signing up for a life of prescription dependency. I consulted a naturopath because I knew that conventional medicine couldn’t offer me an out. I put this chronic condition into remission and knew that there was more to the story about human health and physiology than I had been taught. I began my research and the process of unlearning everything I had learned about what makes us sick and how to proceed when symptoms arise. I began to experience awe and wonder at this human organism, at the power of food as information, and at how little was necessary to heal. I was humbled again and again, learned to surrender, and developed a spiritual practice.
I shed skin after skin after skin until I learned that I could still be myself, even if I wasn’t anything I always thought I was.
Here is what I’ve observed:
- Transformation feels like a stirring within you, like a magnetic pull you are simultaneously fascinated and terrified by.
- Transformation yields new levels of empowerment and fulfillment.
- Transformation allows you to shed who you thought you were in order to become more fully who you are.
- Transformation gives you the opportunity to really ask, “what story do I believe in? What is it that I really want?”
- Transformation brings you into alignment so that what you say, think, and do are all the same thing.
But it requires audacity. It requires meeting massive resistance within yourself and all around you. It is not for the faint of heart, but the experience of beauty and gratitude that await are the very point of living.
And there is nothing more subversive for a woman to do than believe she deserves to get what she wants and to recognize in herself the willingness to fight to get it. – Rufi Thorpe
In my own experience, and with my patients, the roadmap of transformation has 5 stages that I’m going to refer to as:
You can enter at any stage, linger, or even go backwards, but self-empowerment and liberation, joy and fulfillment increase as you move forward through them.
Before we wake up to the truth in ourselves, we rely on authorities to tell us what our truth is.
This stage is euphemistically called sleeping, but in most ways, it’s the hardest stage of all. This is when you move through your life in fear. You struggle to keep up with everything there is to worry about, from terrorists to disease outbreaks, and your sense of reality comes from the news, doctors, and trusted authorities such as the CDC, FDA, and Wikipedia. You accept the logical party lines:
- Medications save lives.
- Technology is solving major global problems like hunger.
- Chemicals and processed food aren’t great but they’re really not that big a deal. We all seem to still be doing fine!
- Making money is a priority because pleasure and business don’t have a natural relationship.
- Marriage and children are benchmarks for life success.
- You’re expected to do it all and do it well.
This is where women have landed after 5,000 years of patriarchal living.
We don’t know who we are, what we are really here for, who’s in charge of our experience, and how to get where we want to go. Women feel isolated, disconnected, and apart from themselves, from others, from any sense of real community.
For many women in this frame, life is toiling in a man’s world. When challenges befall, solutions are immediately and reflexively sought and a sense of random victimization shrouds the experience. “Secondary satisfactions” like alcohol, sex, workaholism, and shopping ease the pain and discomfort but they never get to the core of the hurts that need to be looked at, sat with, and transformed.
When you hit a bump in life – a breakup, loss, divorce, or several months of just feeling like you want to check out – you feel betrayed by your mind, your heart, and maybe your tired body, and you are encouraged to force it into submission. This is where antidepressants, mood stabilizers, and a variety of symptom-managing chemicals come in with the promise of a safer, more stable, more controlled you. There is no model for enduring or moving through this experience with curiosity and an investigative sense that there might be something for you to learn – anything from the fact that your thyroid dysfunction might be at the root of your chronic fatigue diagnosis, to the fact that your job is crushing your soul.
Sarah is married with two children. She works in advertising and feels she is doing ok. She takes Zoloft, Synthroid, and birth control every morning, and occasionally takes Xanax if she can’t sleep. She feels like there is a white noise of worry and to do lists; the general feeling of her day to day is a race to a finish line while trying to avoid any major collisions or catastrophes along the way. She feels tired, irritable, overweight, achy, and cloudy. Some days, she spends the whole day fantasizing about the glass of wine she’ll pour when she gets home. She watches the news and worries about terrorism, outbreaks, public shootings, and political elections. This is a lot of what her friends talk to each other about, in a sea of general complaints. She loves her doctor and trusts him. In fact, she’s been a patient since she was 25. Her children are also on medications – her daughter is on Vyvanse and her son on inhalers and oral medications for severe asthma. He carries an epi-pen wherever he goes. She spends a lot of time at the pediatrician’s office and has to go to the emergency room for various illnesses from cough to fever about 3-4 times per year.
She and her husband are not religious, in fact, she can’t even really understand how and where people have time to be religious. They shop at the local chain supermarket, and often eat pre-made food out of convenience.
It would be accurate to say that Sarah is just surviving until she dies. She feels a profound sense that this is not how life is meant to be lived. That something is missing. That she is outside looking in, disconnected, and disoriented, but she doesn’t feel like she has any idea how to change.
Something or someone forces us to look behind the veil. We are still in Oz, but now know there is more to the story than we had previously thought.
This is waking up. Suddenly there is a before and an after. Truth and lies. A feeling of being divided and lost. Often there is anger and pain. But, this is our first contact with knowing. Knowing is different than the knowing we have done up until this point which was really more mind and intellect based opinion. This knowing is a small voice deep inside that tells us hard things about ourselves and our decisions. One can awaken to a sense of greater possible connection, a sense of missing love, a feeling of having been mislead/abused/duped, or maybe that things are simpler than they are made out to be. But all are characterized by a knowing that is internal that fundamentally challenges a heretofore unconscious/automated engagement with life.
In my practice, some women wake up during their medication taper. It’s like a slow boil, they feel the dissonance mounting and the unexamined areas of their lives are more and more difficult to ignore. Many arrive having learned the truth about antidepressants, awake and ready to begin their next chapter. Either way, this phase is one in which you have a leg in the new story and a leg in the old story. You’re all over the place trying to convince yourself and those around you why you are “disrupting” your life this way when everything was humming along.
To choose to live life against the status quo expectation that your physical, emotional, and spiritual experience be managed with medication is an act of extreme bravery. In today’s culture, it may even be characterized as a self-initiation ritual. Because it is through sitting with ourselves – all of the gross, scary, and ugly parts – that we come to integrate and transcend the limitations that exist when we stuff them into a psychic box.
Sarah brings her son for his flu shot one autumn. He’s 18 months old. She’s rushing to get this appointment behind them because she still has to go food shopping and has an inbox full of work emails glaring at her. But there isn’t ever a “putting the appointment behind them” because everything changed that day. Her son had a seizure in the office within minutes of the shot and was never himself again. Sarah spent months with him screaming, largely unresponsive, in a spiral of fear and disorientation.The pediatrician reassured her that this was not an uncommon reaction and that everything was normal. Sarah soon learned that everything, in fact, was different now. Her son was formally diagnosed with Autism Spectrum Disorder and associated delays, and Sarah knows, in her heart, what happened to her son. Sarah began researching, reading, and talking about what could have happened to her son. She unlocked, within her, a geyser of grief and anger. She no longer believes that the medical system is set up to keep her and her family healthy and well.
She has been brought to her knees in disbelief, anguish, and agony of the experience. She has lost friends, been alienated from her husband, and is guilt-ridden about her neglect of her daughter. But she is awakening to something inside her. A force she did not know was there. It begins to tell her what is true. She begins to research the nature of pharmaceutical product licensure, efficacy and safety testing. She begins to see her doctors as human beings but also as cogs in the wheel of a larger machine. She becomes skeptical, angry, even ferocious in her efforts to recover her child and to channel her energy into further awakening.
We roll up our sleeves and begin the work of personalizing the experience of awakening. We experience our own healing.
There is deliberate, mindful engagement with texts, resources, and individuals including teachers and healers who embody the truth that is now apparent. There is openness. This stage is characterized by uncomfortable growth/shedding/self-reflection and an ambivalence about proceeding forward, almost a longing for the comfort that was, and a new kind of relationship to uncertainty. Marriage, job security, homeownership are all revealed to be investments in the illusion of things staying the same. The work entailed here involves identifying core beliefs and looking at where and with whom they seem to be suppressed – with family, friends, in different roles and environments – where are you not yourself? If you have come to believe that the body can heal itself because you have engaged self-healing and witnessed results, then why is it that you let your mother-in-law bully you into giving your son antibiotics for an ear infection?
As you grow, you shed – shed relationships, identities, dependencies on other’s opinions and reactions. In this stage, however, because you are incompletely aligned and integrated, a “projective identification” may occur wherein others reflect this ambivalence back and challenge/provoke/judge/criticize. People can sense the ambivalent places within you-the insecurities- and they show you that they are there.
Commit to love yourself even if you don’t
To move through this stage, you must commit to a higher standard of self-care. You must walk the walk of potential even if it feels uncomfortable and like an uneasy stretch. This commitment allows us to drain our buckets of accumulated stress to make room for growth. This commitment is a way of loving yourself until you do. It is natural to encounter ambivalence about proceeding through this birth canal of sorts.
Some people in this stage begin to experience impatience and frustration, generating a form of self-punishment and criticism – “why can’t I be happy?!” I say, forget about happiness. It’s not the goal, and it makes sense not to feel access to it at this stage. The goal for this stage is contact with gratitude. Gratitude is the opposite of hopelessness, despair, and anger. It can only exist when you connect to a sense of wonder and trust and a reframing of consciousness to focus on what is rather than what could or should be.
Several years into grassroots activism around vaccination awareness, Sarah had begun to question many of the illusions she had comfortably accepted as real. She explored connections between the agricultural, chemical, and medical system, understanding governmental authorities and regulatory agencies to be operative within a profit-driven system. This system does not acknowledge the sanctity of the environment, the natural world, and very much seeks to commandeer, manage, suppress, and control through force anything that seems to stand in the way of the forward march of science and technology.She changed the food that she ate and her family ate, she began to buy different products, to filter their water, and to see different types of providers.
She struggles through arguments with school administrators, neighbors, and family who feel that she is “a quack” and that she is making irresponsible decisions going against the grain of what is recommended by the FDA, doctors, and associated media. She feels isolated and like she is always arguing. She has been trying to heal an autoimmune disease but her efforts seem to be yielding limiting results.
Sarah has blindspots. These are areas of her life that do not fully reflect her belief. A belief, itself, that is in evolution. She is steeped in the negativity of the world and makes decisions from this place, reacting to a world that still dangerous, it’s just that she has shifted the enemy target…she is still warring with the world, it’s just that she’s on another team.
She’s not there yet. This is the hardest stage of all.
To move through it, she has to look at relationships, beliefs, and commitments in her life that do not reflect her authentic self. Sarah’s job is a source of intense anguish and tension. Her marriage has begun to feel like an impersonal business contract. And she, herself, is still taking psychiatric medication. Medications she’s been told that she needs.
Leave no stone unturned. This is when you use your newfound self-trust to examine all blind-spots, and integrate to radiate a power that bends the universe to your divine path.
Bodily healing and an understanding of body ecology (that the body is a web of interconnections that extends to the natural world) are often a portal to this stage wherein ownership, autonomy, self-initiation, and ultimately, mastery are made available. This stage is marked by trust. As you integrate and shed more and more of your false selves, you will be more and more connected to a sense that life unfolds and we are just along for the ride. There will be less conflict, less tension, less adversarial energy bringing forth a bubble of protection that Gandhi called Satyagraha or truth force. Radical responsibility for one’s co-creation in all experiences of struggle and suffering is assumed – there is no one to blame, no bad guys, no victims. If you hate something about what is, understand that you co-created it and can shift to change it. Deep empowerment arises. Activism and service are a common outgrowth of this stage.
Synthesis means owning the darkness and embracing challenges.
On a Thursday morning, I paid 23 dollars to take a kundalini class with my teacher, Swaranpal. She joked that she likes to do “rebirthing kriyas” when it rains. After some brief warmups, we began the set which started with our arms out in front, hands clasped and index fingers extended, rotating from the shoulders in a circular motion. “We are carving a hole in our subconscious,” she said, “and Yogi Bhajan knew that our subconscious is 8 minutes thick,” she laughed.
Two years and a teacher training certification into kundalini yoga, I knew how to relate to the discomfort that was fast arising in my shoulders, probably only one minute into the exercise. I knew that pain reaches a ceiling and then it lingers there for a while even though your mind tells you it could get worse forever. I knew that the pain, at some point, would transform into a tingling sensation, and if I committed, if I just pushed through, then something interesting might happen.
In this case, the something interesting is an emotional release. As my body shook and my mind screamed, I persisted. The pain turned into a sensation and it happened, tears started flowing down my face. Not of joy, not of sorrow, just of aliveness. Of beingness. Of release of what is no longer needed. And then there was the integration and bliss of putting my arms down and letting it all swirl inside. This is a metaphor for the wave of life experience and for encounters with struggle and suffering. It shifts and changes with time, moving through experience like water.
At this point in transformation, suffering and pain take on a different meaning. You don’t resist them. You allow and accept.
My patients enter this phase typically after they have completed their medication tapers, shifted elements of their lives that were formerly unexamined – relationships, work, self-care – and they look back on the time they were wriggling through the little hole in the chrysalis like a parent smiling with wisdom at their child.
Through the process of physical healing resulting from her commitment to clean living and meditation, Sarah begins to have the experiential knowing that her body has the capacity to self-regulate. Long-standing symptoms like fatigue, constipation, hair loss, cloudy thinking, and irregular periods resolve. She is sleeping well, feeling clearer, more hopeful, more connected. In this process, she tapers her medications. About halfway through the process, she begins to develop an uncomfortable awareness. She begins to feel that she needs to change her job, and to engage her husband in a more conscious connection. She feels the plates moving beneath her feet, and the fear of change is powerful but she has developed a deep sense of trust in what the universe has in store for her. The emergent symptoms and withdrawal effects of her antidepressant taper have forced her to examine what it is that she is committed to and why.She believes that she is ready for a new chapter in her life. One in which she is the ultimate authority on her experience. One of curiosity and investigation instead of reactivity. Her mantra is, when you don’t know what to do, wait until you do. She deepens her meditation practice over time because she finds that the more committed she is to it, the more access she has to a feeling of love.
What is love anyway? It’s a concept that has been stripped of its true meaning, such that we have to use the phrase “real love” or “true love”. It’s a hallmark gesture of benevolence, but the meaning beyond that is illusive. To Sarah, love was something she thought about but rarely felt. Now, love feels like it’s more accurately represented by feelings associated with gratitude. It’s expansive and inclusive. It’s patient and egoless. It doesn’t have names or stories attached to it. It has a feeling of abundance and wonder. It’s oceanic and simply present. She feels moments of this now.
Sarah starts a nonprofit and begins to work in the activism realm around health freedom. She holds monthly meetings for like-minded parents, and develops new and meaningful relationships. She allows some other friendships, ones that begin to feel like clothes that are too tight, to fall away with grace.
As the lenses come together, she notes that she hasn’t experienced criticism, judgement, or scrutiny from anyone in some time. As she heals, her son’s journey back seems to also be accelerated. She decides to homeschool both of her children and to run her nonprofit. She leaves her job. She recognizes that seeing doctors who do not believe what she believes about her body is an act of non-integration, even if they are nice!
Despite efforts to share this experience with her husband, he isn’t ready to engage on the levels that she has. They decide to uncouple, and she finds this liberating on so many levels while also feeling access to an affection and appreciation for him that was obscured by the construct of their institutional configuration.
This is when you let it all go for the holy grail of freedom.
This final stage is an ongoing self-contract that involves working always to relinquish the mind and the ego to the heart. To the knowing. To intuition. At this stage, the heart has been rediscovered and intuition is discernible from impulse. An understanding of sense emerges through the lens of the collective. A self that contributes uniquely to a whole that is impossibly greater than the individual. We ask, constantly – what are my blind-spots, where am I still asleep? Disagreements, seeming polarities, and conflict are held gently, accepted. The mantra is always, “Do I want to be right or do I want to heal”. It dissolves any perceived problem. Vulnerability, self-reflection, curiosity, core strength, and discipline characterize this phase as does community and connection. Community in this phase is both tribal in deep soul connections but also universal in that there is an “allowing and including” of all and a deep desire to enter another’s experience and to understand the totality that leads them to behave as they do.
The only commitment necessary is to self-care and the creation of space for self-awareness and quiet. From this space, decisions get made without force or intellect. Opportunities become apparent, and experiences unfold effortlessly.
Micro and Macro
As you move through this process, you see reflected societally and globally, the same potential for change. You see that just as you once viewed life as something to architect, apply force to, and control for success and achievement, this is how we have treated our bodies, our environment, and our relationship to each other. You witness that science and technology have reflected a deep desire to create, but that they have been applied through a lens that has relegated the natural world to some inanimate object to be manipulated for gain. As the world within you and the world around you is infused with meaning and sacredness, you will enjoy the growing science that shows us a more collaborative model of understanding. Science that explores the microbiome – our inner ecology, the role of nutrition and thought in health outcomes, and how we are not our genes.
Heal the Artists
One of the reasons that you might be waking up is because you are called to use your creative energy to heal the planet and people. To do this, you have to first heal yourself and the fractured parts of your psyche. The parts of your mind that you gave away and the body that you trusted to corporations and government. As you heal, your inner fire will ignite and awaken and illuminate the path for your most incredible femininity.
We are suffering from a lack of guidance, support, and consciousness, leaving us to feel like we have to navigate these choppy waters by ourselves. Modern society resists our coming to life the way it straps birthing women to a metal table- prone, afraid, and dependent. Know that we are doing this together. We are having our babies at home, schooling them there, growing our own food, talking to one another, uniting in a new consciousness. We deserve this!
Kelly Brogan, MD
Kelly Brogan, M.D. is a holistic psychiatrist, author of the NY Times Bestselling book, A Mind of Your Own, Own Your Self, the children’s book, A Time For Rain, and co-editor of the landmark textbook, Integrative Therapies for Depression. She is the founder of the online healing program Vital Mind Reset, and the membership community, Vital Life Project. She completed her psychiatric training and fellowship at NYU Medical Center after graduating from Cornell University Medical College, and has a B.S. from M.I.T. in Systems Neuroscience. She is specialized in a root-cause resolution approach to psychiatric syndromes and symptoms. She is a certified KRI Kundalini Yoga teacher and a mother of two. View full bio. Want to share this article on your own blog? View our reposting guidelines.
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