There's a sweet saying that has been plucked from the chamber of anonymous authors and found its way into popular culture and right into my heart: Just when the caterpillar thought the world was over... it became a butterfly. I just adore it. The large blue square-shaped magnet that displays these words is posted at home and at work, as an ever-present reminder to myself and to those around me, that good things are going to happen.
I love the image it conjures up and the message is particularly important to someone who is besieged by despair. The implication that change does not come to pass overnight is unthinkable to someone who is anxious for an immediate reprieve. Transformation in nature or recovery of one's body and soul takes place after untold periods of time, hard work, pain, and discomfort. When healing does take place, it is, indeed, a metamorphosis.
Butterflies are amazing creatures that can take our breath away. How many of us have found ourselves sitting outside in a warm sunlit spot catching a glimpse of a butterfly who was diligently trying to avoid us? Or what about being blessed by a rare occasion of contact with such a creature who for reasons unknown decides to settle somewhere on our body, tickling our knee or perching on our arm? When that happens, we stop breathing for a second. Don't move, we think, lest we lose this precious moment of connection too divine to really understand, while we gaze at the loveliness of it all.
In my work with postpartum women, I rely on butterflies as an icon of good things to come and joy that is possible and within reach. This belief that good things can still happen, perhaps unfathomable in early therapy sessions, will eventually be endorsed by women who long for it.
When discussing butterflies with clients, I tell them there are some people in this world who seem to be surrounded by butterflies. Good things just seem to happen to them. People are attracted to them. Positive energy emanates from them. This is not something you can see, of course, but most who are tuned in, can feel it. Some women respond to this notion with objection, reminding me that they just are not wired that way. I agree that it's hard to find the butterflies in your life if it's not something that comes naturally to you. Try convincing any pessimistic thinker that all they have to do is think optimistically! We know it doesn't work that way. But if I didn't believe on some fundamental level that people could change the way they think and the way they behave, I certainly couldn't do the work I do.
So we look for butterflies. One could make the argument that's it's a cognitive intervention and that we are helping our client engage in a process of reframing their negative thinking. This would be true. I prefer to think of it as increasing their awareness and tapping into their own unsung potential for healing and self-renewal. There are butterflies all around us, I continue, we just have to look for them. Hard to do when everything appears dark and menacing, but important for us to say, nonetheless. Looking for butterflies when your client feels like her world is crashing around her is an instruction that might, quite frankly, infuriate her. Yet, what we are doing is instilling the early stages of hope and providing a hint of reassurance that it will not always feel this way. As treatment progresses, looking for butterflies gets easier.
If a woman isn't sure what this means, I will help her, but most of the time, women bring their butterflies right to the session:
"Sitting in the grass with my three year old looking for four-leaf clovers."
"The look on my toddler's face yesterday when she saw her first balloon."
"A cloudless crystal blue sky."
"My husband taking my hand and squeezing it tight when I least expected it."
"The smell of home-baked cookies when I passed the corner bakery."
What is a butterfly? It's a moment of pure joy. It's an instant in time when everything feels right. It's a thing or a look or a feeling, a sense or an energy that grabs us from behind, often when we are not looking. Most of the time, it is fleeting. Sometimes, it rests right in front of us. We cannot see it if we do not look for it. If we aren't mindful, we will miss it; it will be gone. If we find it, it's exquisite.
Therapy and the Postpartum Woman: Notes on Healing Postpartum Depression for Clinicians and the Women Who Seek Their Help. (Routledge, 2008)