Let not the desperate-sounding library titles, the pharmaceutical ads, and that woman fanning herself quietly in the corner of your favourite local cafe deter you: menopause is a rite of passage.
But you would be forgiven if, when you hear the world menopause, instead of thinking of a transformative rite of passage, you think of:
a) vaginal dryness
b) the plot line of a joke
c) women hurling plates at the kitchen wall
We in our culture have learned to see menopause not as a rite of passage but as laughable medical phenomenon that renders women periodically crazy.
(You know, kind of like birth)
We in our culture have also learned to see menopause and other signs of aging as something to be avoided, inasmuch as they can be: we are told to zip up the same jeans we’ve been wearing since we were 33 (or die trying), swallow our expensive supplements, hormone therapy and long-simmering anger, and keep our transformation to ourselves.
(You know, kind of like birth and motherhood)
There’s a theme here, and not to go all patriarchy conspiracy on you, but: menopause tends to make women question the rules, and then break them. And it gives them a special cocktail of “I don’t give a fuck” hormones to help with the process.
And so it is that the menopausal woman is dangerous to the status quo.
And so it is that menopause became a joke about dried-up crazy ladies.
Because of all of this, it can be hard to suss out what to do when, in fact, you do want to throw (or have just thrown) a plate at the kitchen wall. A Google search won’t do: the narrative of brokenness and insanity and medicalization runs thick there. But support is needed: most times of deeply powerful change feel disorienting, confusing, and even terrifying; we were never meant to traverse any rite of passage alone.
And here’s the thing: menopause is a radical transformation – a change to who you are, not just a series of symptoms that require management.
(You see, radical comes from the word “radicle” in Latin, which means root. A radical transformation has the potential to unearth the roots of who you are and what matters most to you).
And so it’s common that as we apprentice ourselves to elderhood in these middle years of life that many of us find ourselves not just managing hot flashes but also upending our careers, ending and starting relationships, relocating, or traversing an inner healing or spiritual transformation.
If this is your experience, it can help to have a map to guide you. When I am working with clients traversing menopause and other major life transitions, I use the Four Elements of Radical Transformation model as that map.
If the Four Elements model is new to you, here are the Cole’s Notes: it’s a guide to traversing radical life transformation that uses the elements Earth, Water, Air and Fire as metaphors for the process most people follow as they navigate major change. The biggest difference about the Four Elements model is that it is designed especially for women, and is especially relevant to the contexts that shape modern-day women’s lives. It is a feminist model of life transition that uses rites of passage theory, adult development psychology, mythology and attachment theory to help you understand and navigate life change feeling well-resourced and resilient. In other words? It’s legit.
The Earth element is all about sinking your toes into the reality of the moment you’re in and orienting yourself to the changes that have happened or are happening in your life. Our lives are complex ecosystems of roles, responsibilities and realities, and a massively transformative time like perimenopause and menopause can cause trickle-down shifts in other areas of your life. For example, you may feel really different about your body, your relationships, your career or your spirituality.
Because of this domino-like effect, it can feel like everything is changing, and that can feel overwhelming. And so, the most important work of Earth is to name the changes that are taking place in your life in a kind of transformation stock-taking. That’s all that is needed here: it’s not time to make big plans or even pass judgement on what you’re unearthing, but rather to trust that even just this awareness will have a ripple effect of its own.
Some questions for your journal might include:
What is changing in my life right now?
What is true for me now?
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.
It’s not just times of “obvious” loss, like death or divorce or illness, that grief can arise: in order to move forward into something new, we, by definition, must leave something behind.
It is watery work indeed, often involving tears and the washing away of old beliefs, ways of being, and identities.
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 or body or identity 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.
This phenomenon is never more present than it is with menopause and aging. We may surprise ourselves by scrolling keto recipes in the middle of the night, or breaking the bank on supplements and anti-aging remedies. Or, if you’re like me, pushing up your lazy eyelids for a few minutes before you do an instagram live.
We would be forgiven, though, because it is challenging to divest oneself from the culture’s glorification of youth. The grief we feel about the passage of time is not ours alone to bear; it belongs also to a culture that is both terrified to age and terrified to grieve.
In your journal, take the opportunity to view the transformation of perimenopause and menopause through a “grief lens.” What are you being asked to release, let go of or grieve? Is there a ritual that might support you to do this?
A note for all the totally-thrilled wannabe crones reading this: I see you. I know, you’re scanning your hair for greys and relishing every one. Your keen delight in your aging process doesn’t exempt you from grieving what is no longer. Apprentice yourself to grief, here: you’ll need it for the wise years ahead.
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 where you are no longer who you once were before you began the transformation of menopause, but the journey is not yet complete.
Because perimenopause and menopause can be a slow and unfurling process, taking up to a decade, the Air phase can be reaaalllllly long.
And it can be really uncomfortable. And not just because of the hot flashes: liminality is anathema in a culture that has conditioned us to always know who we are and where we are headed (and to be headed there very, very quickly). If those things are changing alongside the changes your body is making, you can rest assured that you’ll be drifting through the in-between for a while.
The urge to bypass all of this, white-knuckling your way through this experience and ignoring the messages your body is sending you, is strong.
But the result of this avoidance is that you also avoid engaging with your own process of evolution. You might bypass discomfort, but you’ll also bypass the opportunity to learn and grow. In effect, you will decline the initiatory call of true elderhood.
Because this is so hard for so many of us, my advice for people navigating the liminal space is to begin a regular practice that helps you reconnect to yourself, your body and your needs, and to explore what it means to offer yourself really good self care. So many of us arrive on the doorstep of the menopausal transformation feeling like we’ve lost ourselves somehow. This is the time to begin to find yourself again. Start a daily journaling practice, engage in nourishing movement, and spend time with people who are good witnesses and can hold space for you. It’s hard to not know what will happen next, but attending to your sense of wellbeing and self-connection in the present always helps.
In your journal, brainstorm a few ways that you can care for yourself and tend to your needs today, this week, and this month.
The final element of the Four Elements of Radical Transformation is FIRE.
The Fire element in the Four Elements Model of Radical Transformation is the element of action, of moving forward. It’s a time of exploration, experimentation and discovery – of learning new things about yourself and how you want to be in the world.
Even though you may feel like you’re a new person now after traversing this major shift in your life, the Fire phase is also 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, authentic 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 in your life up until now.
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.
And so it is that it’s incredibly important to approach the fire with reverence, as it were. The process of your expansion into who you are becoming as you traverse the territory of menopause and aging should unfold organically, with curiosity, learning and playfulness as its’ central tenets.
When I am working with clients in the Fire phase, I encourage them to engage in the practice of Tiny Experimentation. Rather than setting enormous goals and striving to meet them, Tiny Experiments are actions so small that they are “safe-to-fail.” In fact, Tiny Experiments are even more effective when they DO fail, because failure so often teaches us a lot more about who we are and what matters to us than success does.
So maybe you want to try going for a walk this morning and see how it makes your body feel. Maybe you want to reserve a book from the library that speaks to you and the journey that you’re on. Perhaps you want to reach out to another woman who is also traversing this rite of passage. When you find something that works, do more of it. If it doesn’t, consider what you’ve learned along the way and keep trying new things. This is how you step into who you are becoming and “What’s Next” for your life: slowly, mindfully, and open-heartedly.
Grab your journal and write down five tiny experiments that you’d like to try as you step into your new sense of self and identity. Make a plan to complete them, and take time to reflect on how they made you feel.
May you journey well during this rite of passage that lies before you. Know that you are not alone – not even a little bit – and may you remember that even when things feel hard, this transformative time has the potential to connect you even more deeply with who you are and what matters most to you.
Want more support?
Sign up for Rise of the Wisdom-Keepers: A Wildhearted Woman’s Guide to Perimenopause + Menopause, an online women’s circle happening on Wednesday, October 19th.
Rise of the Wisdom-Keepers is happening inside Chrysalis, my membership program for people traversing radical life transformations. You can join for one month only just to check out this circle, or you can join on a monthly auto-renewing basis or for a year. It’s a wonderfully affordable way to receive tangible, meaningful support and to be held and heard in a circle of like hearted others.
Find out more and sign up for Rise of the Wisdom-Keepers here.
Also, if you’re curious what phase of life transition you’re in, you can take the Four Elements of Radical Transformation Quiz. When you do, you’ll receive a beautiful e-book and 5-day mini-course customized for the Element you’re in right now.
Take the quiz!