When I started supporting women through radical life transformation over a decade ago, I, with a research-based Masters degree in women’s health (aka total nerd) wanted to dive into the research about what it means for us humans to navigate life transition.
What I found was a bunch of theories (mostly created by old, white, male psychologists) that just didn’t seem to reflect the complexities of the transitions I was supporting women through.
And so, I set out to create something better.
What evolved was something I came to call the Four Elements Model of Radical Transformation.
The Four Elements Model is a guide to traversing radical life transformation that is especially for women, and especially relevant to the context that shapes modern-day women’s lives. It is a feminist and feminine model of life transition that uses rites of passage theory, adult development psychology, mythology, neuroscience and attachment psychology to help you understand and navigate life change.
In other words? It’s legit.
It’s the result of over a decade of work and research with women undergoing the most tectonic shifts life has to offer. And it takes the “old, white, male psychologist”- defined version of how humans navigate change and says: women do this differently.
Women – and you, specifically – exist within an ecosystem of roles, responsibilities, identities and communities that all influence the way you make change, and are all influenced by you as your life changes.
Women – and you, specifically – are also living in a global context that has a profound effect on your life and how it’s changing, or what changes you want to make to it. Because while you are having your own, internal experience of change in your life, we are also all experiencing a global radical transformation. While we are navigating major crises like pandemics, civic unrest and the destruction of ecosystems, we are also waking up, beginning to question the capitalist, patriarchal values that got us here in the first place, wondering how those values have been an unconscious compass by which we’ve navigated our own lives, and how we can slow down and reorient our lives toward things like heart-led work, meaningful spirituality, reverence for the earth, and the creation of mutually supportive communities, to name a few.
As I like to say: the world is changing and so are you.
You are not alone.
You are not alone if you are living a life you feel like you didn’t sign up for. You are not alone if change has run roughshod through your best laid plans. You are not alone if you feel sadness at leaving behind a life or an identity you cherished. You are not alone if everything feels up in the air, and the road ahead is unclear. You are not alone if you’re curious about what’s possible for your life. You are not alone if all of this feels like an awakening.
You are not alone.
And you’re not meant to walk this path alone. In times past and places far away, we had wise elders, midwives and guides to walk with us through life’s transformative times. It’s time to re-create that model of support. That’s why I’ve created the Four Elements quiz, the Four Elements e-books, and the Four Elements and Way of the Wildhearted Woman training videos. It’s my hope that you’ll see your own experience reflected here and that you’ll find tangible, doable practices that will support you along your path.
Want a little sneak preview into each of the Four Elements?
They say, when you’re lost in the woods, that rather than crashing through the underbrush trying to find the trail you’ve meandered from, you should sit down and take stock of your surroundings.
That’s the work of the Earth element. When you’re traversing radical life transformation – whether it’s a change that you’ve chosen or a change that has chosen you – it can feel like a little bit like being lost in the woods. You might find yourself saying things like “I don’t know who I am anymore,” or “I don’t know what’s next.” Often, you’ll hear yourself say “everything is changing.”
And it’s true. Radical life transformation – the kinds of changes that change you – often has a ripple effect in our lives, causing us to question and sometimes reorient our values, our relationships, our careers, or our physical environments, for example.
I first noticed this ripple effect when I began working with mothers who were traversing the tectonic shift into motherhood: it wasn’t just that they were learning to change diapers and make really strong coffee; they were questioning their careers, renegotiating the terms of their partnerships, navigating living in a body that felt like foreign territory, finding new communities of like-minded friends.
And so in the Earth element, which is often the element you experience when you’re at the beginning of a time of great change (or your awareness of how a change has impacted your life) your work is to get your toes in the earth (maybe literally), and orient yourself to where you are now.
It’s a time to reflect on what’s happening in your life and how you feel about it.
It’s a time to ask: what is true now?
It’s a time to ask: who am I becoming?
What often goes unacknowledged during times of radical transformation is that every change we go through, whether it’s wonderful or terrible, expected or unexpected, societally accepted or rebel-hearted, involves release, loss and grief.
Because in order to move forward into something new, we, by definition, are leaving something behind.
While you are becoming, you are also unbecoming. While you are learning, you are also unlearning. As you are healing, you are also dismantling.
When you start a new job, you’re leaving behind an old job, old colleagues, that coffee place around the corner from your office. And, maybe more importantly, you’re leaving behind the path you once chose, the dreams you had for that particular role or position, the way you identified yourself as leader, or creative, or social justice warrior, for example.
When you become a mother, you’re leaving behind your old jeans and the idea of drinking your coffee hot for the next two to three years. But you’re also leaving behind an old self, perhaps a woman who travels the world on a wish and a prayer, or who was pursuing a big goal that required her undivided time and attention.
And so it is that it’s not just times of “obvious” loss, like death or divorce or illness, that grief can arise.
In my work, I’ve come to view every transition with what I call a “grief lens.” It means that I’m always quick to ask: what are you leaving behind? what is no longer? what are you releasing? what might you be experiencing un-tended grief over?
These are incredibly important questions, because I believe you can’t do the growth without the grief.
Untended grief will find other ways to get tended. It cannot be bypassed, despite our desires to do exactly that. So often, I witness women caught in the midst of a life transition or major change and feeling unable to move forward. Stuck. Or I see women desperately trying to re-create the circumstances of the life they actually are being asked to leave behind, hoping that things will go back to the way they were, and then suffering immensely when that’s just not possible.
Looking at these circumstances with a “grief lens” helps us to see where we might be avoiding complex feelings of loss, or where we might be trying to hurry through to the “other side” of radical transformation rather than doing the important work of sitting in the process of it.
Our culture has little time and space for transformations that are slow and unfurling: we feel a lot of pressure to move on, to move forward, to start the next thing. Also, tending to grief and sadness about the change that’s happening for you is hard. It’s uncomfortable. And, especially if it’s grief or sadness about something that the rest of the world sees as a joyful change, like having a baby or quitting your cubicle job, it can feel *not quite right* to express mixed or challenging feelings.
Take the opportunity to view the radical transformation you’re experiencing through a “grief lens,” and explore how you can work with, tend to and release feelings of loss or grief associated with the change taking place in your life so that you can step confidently forward into “What’s Next.”
So often, during times of radical transformation, we find ourselves saying “everything is up in the air.” This is the work of this element of the Four Elements Model of Radical Transformation. The Air Element is the one you traverse when you’ve named and oriented to the transition that you’re experiencing (that’s the Earth element phase) and have had an opportunity to grieve, release or otherwise come to terms with the fact that there is no going back to the way things were (that’s the work of the Water element).
You’re in what’s known as the “liminal space.” The space between. The space of no-longer-this-anymore but not-this-yet.
It can be really uncomfortable.
In our late capitalist patriarchal world, we are rewarded, intrinsically and extrinsically, and often unconsciously, for having clear goals and for achieving outcomes. For getting things done and always moving in a forward direction.
The liminal space is the exact opposite of that. Enter the discomfort. This is a time when you don’t have clear goals or outcomes in mind, and you may feel like you’re stagnating, or lost.
That is part of the discomfort.
The other thing that makes the liminal space so challenging to occupy comes from the sheer unknown: in a world where we can Google just about anything, not knowing what you’re doing, who you are, and what’s going to happen next can be incredibly uncomfortable.
It’s this discomfort that tempts many people to bypass the liminal phase, to skim over the Air element. We do this in one of two ways: we’ll either scramble to recreate the circumstances of our past, trying to fit ourselves into a former self or a former life that we can no longer occupy (cue suffering), or we’ll try to “do” our way out of liminality, setting goals and plowing ahead blindly (cue finding yourself in a job or relationship or location that still doesn’t feel like you, because you were unsure who you were when you sought them).
The result, no matter how you look at it: you avoid engaging with your own process of evolution. You might bypass discomfort, but you’ll also bypass the opportunity to learn and grow.
And here’s the thing about liminal space: if you can find a way to hold your feet to the fire of the discomfort you’re feeling – to find a way to stay here in the messy middle, it can be an incredibly fruitful time. You’ve probably had an experience where you’ve come up with your best ideas while on vacation, in the shower or during a long walk in the woods. These are liminal times – times when your brain is engaged in a different way, when you’re resting. They often, ironically, result in greater productivity and more clarity about the way forward.
The Fire element in the Four Elements Model of Radical Transformation is the element of action, of moving forward. If you’ve landed here, it means you’ve likely been in this process of radical transformation for a while, and you’ve done the work of Earth – orienting to and naming what has changed in your life; Water – letting go of that which is no longer, or no longer serving you; and Air – that oh-so-important liminal space between, where it feels like everything is up in the air, as though you are a blank slate and you haven’t quite stepped into your new path yet.
Fire is the element of transmutation. It’s where you get to experiment with what “What’s Next” looks like for you.
Even though you may feel like you’re a new person now after traversing this major shift in your life, the Fire phase is almost always a time of reconnection – with yourself and what matters most to you.
It’s a time of reclaiming – unearthing the parts of your beautiful, essential self that may have gotten forgotten or discarded along the way as you learned to fit yourself into the expectations and roles you’ve been asked to play.
It’s a time of exploration, experimentation and discovery – learning new things about yourself and how you want to be in the world.
Fire is the phase of radical transformation that most of us want to skip to. We want to bypass all the discomfort of being with the sometimes challenging feelings that come up during life transitions, and move forward. Make plans, set goals, step into What’s Next. That urge is a natural one, a product of our discomfort and a product of living in a capitalist patriarchy where you will always belong more to the collective if you are pressing forward, being productive, working toward goals.
And so it is that it’s incredibly important to approach the fire with reverence, as it were. The process of your expansion into the new identity, roles, behaviours or ways of being that you’re exploring right now should unfold organically, with curiosity, learning and playfulness as its’ central tenets.
This is not about setting more goals and striving to meet them. It’s not about another to do list.
By definition, radical transformation is a shift not to merely the things you do – your behaviours or skills, for example – but a transformation of who you are. Of your identity.
And here’s the thing: we almost always benefit from viewing the changes we make in our lives from an identity shift lens. Though it may be clear, for example, that when a woman becomes a mother her identity shifts into Mother, it may be less clear how this applies to other life transitions. But let’s say you’ve decided you want to make peace with your body. You can buy some rocking clothes that fit and stop dieting, but until you ask yourself who am I now that I am no longer willing to do battle with my body, those changes are unlikely to stick around.
The who am I now that… question is a powerful one. Who am I now that I am in this leadership role? Who am I now that I’m no longer married? Who am I now that I no longer have this person in my life?
While behaviour change is touted as a “simple” process – one with clear steps you can follow toward an outcome, identity shift (and deep, lasting change, in my opinion) is a “complex” process.
This terminology is not my own. It comes from a scientific theory called Complex Adaptive Systems Theory. I’m not here to bore you but rather to say: when you engage in deep, meaningful, transformative change, you have to treat your life as the complex system it is. The fiery work that you’re doing here moves well beyond goal-setting and to-do lists.
In Complex Adaptive Systems Theory, when we want to shift a complex system, we engage in what are called “safe-to-fail-experiments” that begin to gently nudge at how that system could begin to change.
I call these “Tiny Experiments.” Tiny Experiments are not broad sweeping overnight transformations. They’re little shifts that are small enough that it is, in fact, safe to fail at them. They’re exploratory, and actually more about learning than about success or failure.
Tiny Experiments could look like brushing up your resume and taking stock of the skills and capacities that might usher you into a new career. They could be going for a walk every day of the week to experiment with new forms of meaningful self-care. You might pick up a new box of paints and give yourself five minutes each day for a week to play with them.
Tiny Experiments are meant to be playful, gentle, incremental and to help you learn about yourself and explore transformation in a tangible way that gives you real-time feedback. As you continue to experiment you amplify what’s working well by doing more of it or taking the next step, and dampen what’s not working well – as in; cut it out.
I believe this is the only way to truly step your way into who you are now authentically. It allows your intuition and your sense of what feels good and what doesn’t take the lead, rather than your cognitively-held preconceived notions about who you are and what you “should” be doing next. And neuroscientists and adult learning experts agree: Tiny Experiments allow you to actually experience What’s Next, and it’s through actual, tangible experiences that we learn best. In this case, you’re learning what your life looks like now that you’ve traversed this time of great change.
Sweet one, I hope that you’ve been able to find yourself and your experience reflected here. If you’d like more support, head over to the Four Elements of Radical Transformation Quiz. When you complete it, you’ll receive a beautiful e-book customized for the Element of radical transformation you’re in right now. The e-book will offer even deeper insights as well as tangible, doable practices to support you.
And, of course, if you’d like to receive even deeper support, reach out and connect with me about The Elements Sessions coaching + mentoring packages for women traversing radical life transformation.