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January 19, 2019

Our Fully-Formed Selves are Already Inside Us

By Vega Subramaniam

ButterflyThere’s a project I’m working on right now, a book on toxic leadership behaviors in the social justice sector, that I have been “working on” (pfft) for the past four years. It sits on my cyber shelf collecting virtual dust, and every once in a while I’ll pull it down, examine it for a few minutes like it’s a foreign object, and then promptly return it to the cyber shelf.

Mind you: this book is a labor of love. I think about it all the time. I read articles and file them away because I’ll use them in my book. I talk about the problem incessantly. This book is important to me.

But…I don’t work on it. It sits gathering dust on my cyber shelf.

I’ve been in multiple conversations lately with people experiencing exactly the same phenomenon. They use other words: being blocked, or terrified, or even nauseated about doing that thing that they’re actually desperate to do.

What is that about? What makes it such that, even though I faithfully block off time on my calendar each week to work on my book, I equally faithfully over-write it with meetings, trainings…naps, TBH?

What makes it OK for us to continually let ourselves down? To know we have this undertaking in us that’s going to have such an enormous impact, with countless friends and colleagues cheering us on, and yet avoid doing it?

I’ll come back to this question, I promise, but in the meantime, I hope you’ll indulge this slight digression. About caterpillars.

Do you know about the caterpillar-to-butterfly metamorphosis process? Not just about the high-level “caterpillars start out as crawling fuzzy squiggly things, then somehow, who knows how, make cocoons and do this thing called ‘metamorphosis,’ and then emerge, who the f* knows how, as these delicate winged butterflies” story—but about what actually happens in the cocoon?

I did not. You ready for this? Turns out, it’s self-cannibalistic. Inside those cocoons, caterpillars proceed to digest their own selves using enzymes to dissolve their own bodies into goop. Think Wonder Woman in an alley spinning from military officer into superhero—only on a whole other level of grossness.

As the article points out, and unlike anything that would happen if you caught Wonder Woman partway between military uniform and superhero outfit, “If you were to cut open a cocoon or chrysalis at just the right time, caterpillar soup would ooze out.”

Except not completely. Amidst the soup are these things called imaginal discs. Imaginal discs are tiny groups of cells, one disc for each adult body part. The imaginal discs feed off the caterpillar soup to multiply and turn into a fully grown butterfly.

So, to recap: the caterpillar already has within it everything it needs to become a fully-grown butterfly. And it must digest its old self to transform.

This has me thinking: what if that’s a metaphor for us incomplete humans? What if we each already have within us all that we need to become our fully transformed selves? What’s stopping us from digesting our internal blocks and turning them into protein-rich nourishment for our creativity?

Where is it that you need to cocoon? To dig deep inside yourself, confront your demons, and fully digest the events that shaped who you are? Where are the imaginal discs that are, at least at the moment, lying dormant, waiting to burst open? How do you complete your own metamorphosis?

Back to the toxic leadership book, what events do I need to fully digest in order to initiate my own metamorphosis? Mala provides me this list of demons to chew on:

  • I sure did not enjoy or feel successful at my research experience during grad school; do I really want to put myself through that again?
  • Let’s be honest: I would not be writing this book in the first place if I didn’t have first-hand experiences of toxic work environments myself. And with each interview I conduct, each recording I transcribe, each conversation I have, I experience a twinge of re-traumatization.
  • From the “I’m not perfect (no, really, I’m not)” collection: the truth is that I exhibited toxic behaviors myself for years and years that I had to be coached (aka ass-kicked) out of by a friend. It is sure not pleasant to be haunted by those old memories of doing to others what our interviewees describe as being done to them.

Mala reminds me that these demons are also the EXACT reason I’m the perfect one to write the book.

What’s your list? Where is your hard exploration?

Or, for you, perhaps it’s not figuring out how to cocoon. Perhaps it’s a matter of needing the conditions to be perfect. Have you not found the perfect tree or branch or leaf from which to hang and build your cocoon? Which is to say, is the planning spreadsheet not quite perfect yet (and honestly, how can you be expected to start work on the project when the spreadsheet is imperfect?)? Is your project management tool not perfectly configured yet? Is your desk not yet arranged perfectly, with all your pens and papers arranged perfectly, and your online library categorized perfectly? Mala’s therapist once instructed her to make five mistakes a day, on purpose. Just to build her muscle of accepting the reality that “done is better than perfect.” Just so she could surmount the “it must be perfect” hurdle.

Here’s the thing: the caterpillar does not wait for the perfect conditions. The caterpillar does not actually wait for anything. The caterpillar recognizes when right now is the right time, and then…well, starts to digest itself…which—I’m not saying that you should turn yourself into soup. But here’s something more…uh, palatable: if you’re itching to get this done, then find the next damn tree limb to plunk yourself onto, and release the imaginal discs that you already have inside you. I’m off to find my tree. It’s time.

The world does not know what it’s in store for.

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All, Habit Change, Vega