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The Narrow Place: Expanding Through Transitions

Lissa Rankin's picture

The Narrow Place

When you’re in transition, you may feel very, very uncomfortable. Whether you’ve lost or left a job, become a new mother, buried a loved one, divorced a spouse, found yourself with an empty nest, or been diagnosed with an illness, you’re likely to find yourself feeling constricted, at least at first.

You gut feels tight. Your heart hurts. You curl into a ball. You shrink. It’s like a mini-death.

You mourn the loss of your former self, letting go of your identity as Mrs. Such-and-Such, or the mother of [insert your child’s name], or the expert in [insert your job title here], or the healthy being you were before your illness. You must say goodbye to a part of yourself that will never be the same again. You are irrevocably changed -- whether you like it or not.

And even if that change is a positive one, it’s likely to hurt.

This week, I gathered together with other doctors who are Finding Meaning In Medicine at the home of Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen, author of Kitchen Table Wisdom and one of my dearest mentors.

The topic of our conversation was “Transitions,” and given that I’m in the midst of yet another transition, having just left my medical practice, I eagerly anticipated our gathering. Rachel’s words about the subject moved me so deeply I wanted to share what I took away from our meeting.

Transitions Are Like Birth

When we are in transition, we go on our own hero’s journey, of sorts. We start out in our usual state -- which may be simultaneously comfortable and miserable, as it is when a marriage is falling apart or you leave a job you hate. No matter how unhappy you are, at least it’s a known quantity. And many of us prefer a state of known unhappiness to something completely unknown that lies on the other side of a transition.

And so we often stay unhappy, choosing what we know over the mystery of the unknown. Until the pain of staying put exceeds the fear of the unknown. Or until we get pushed off the cliff against our will, as happens when someone dies, or we wind up with cancer, or someone divorces us.

When the crisis happens, we begin to transmute. Like the caterpillar becoming the butterfly, we must cocoon into a small place before expanding into whatever is next. We must squeeze through the narrow place in order to get to the other side, and being squished into someplace that small can hurt like the dickens.

It’s kind of like giving birth. When you’re a fetus, you swim happily around your home -- the womb -- until you’re close to your due date, when you start feeling tight and uncomfortable. There’s not much room for you anymore, so it’s time to leave your mother and enter the great big world -- perhaps life’s biggest transition.

Labor begins, probably against your will, and suddenly you are squished down into the birth canal. The entry into the pelvis isn’t so bad. You can still move your head from side to side and kick your legs around during labor -- until a certain point. And suddenly you find yourself in the narrowest part, the part that you must get beyond if you’re going to make it to the other side and begin your new life, the part where the walls around you are so tight you can barely move.

When faced with this narrow, squished place, you may be tempted to retreat in the opposite direction, back into the tight, uncomfortable place of the womb. But doing so would be counterproductive. Babies who go too far past their due date outgrow the life expectancy of the placenta, and the blood vessels that feed them shrivel up. Ultimately, if the baby isn’t born, it dies.

Going backwards isn’t the answer, no matter how tempting it is.

At some point, the inevitability of the forward movement is obvious. There is a point of no return, and you simply can’t go backwards, no matter how much you want to. So you have two choices: you can surrender into the narrow place and transition into what’s next, or you can get forever stuck in the small part, thwarting your destiny and ultimately, dying.

This happens to some people in transition. They never recover from losing a loved one. They can’t let go of love lost. They give up when they find out they are sick. They get stuck in the narrow place, without ever knowing there is this expansive new world on the other side.

Getting through the narrow place takes courage. You have to knowingly go someplace that hurts. You must face the great unknown with no promises of what lies on the other side.

But a gift lies in the process, a gift we may not recognize when we’re in the narrows. When you’re stuck in the narrow place, everything gets boiled down to its essence, and if you pay close attention, this is where you discover the thread of who you really are and what really matters to you.

When people face death, they talk about having their life flash before their eyes, and in that moment, many see the thread. They suddenly realize exactly what matters and why they’re here on earth. If they make it through the narrow place and avert death in that moment, they emerge reborn. Only now they hold a precious gift -- the thread.

When you’re in transition -- as I am now -- you have this opportunity to find your thread.

The process brings up valuable questions:
·      What is that unchanging essence that runs through you and your life?
·      Why are you here on this earth?
·      What most matters to you?
·      Who are you at the core of your Inner Pilot Light?

If you’re brave enough to make it through the narrow place, you’re certain to be rewarded. For on the other side, lies a whole new life. You will be reborn, but you will now hold a great gift. In your hands will lie the thread you discovered in the narrow place. You will know what matters. You will have boiled things down to their essence.

And the next time you find yourself in the narrow place -- since we all endure many transitions in our lives -- you will be able to hold that thread like a lifeline. You might even be able to inch yourself through that narrow place, hand over hand, to speed up the process, so you’re stuck in the narrow place less long.

And even when your world grows to be more expansive, such that you can spin and dance and cartwheel, you will still hold that thread.

And you will never again be lost.

Have you been to that narrow place? Have you found your thread? If you’re in the midst of a transition, I invite you to sign up for this free mini e-course. May it help you find your thread, so that you might find your way out of the darkness and into the light.

Finding my thread,


Lissa Rankin, MD: Founder of OwningPink.com, Pink Medicine Woman coach, motivational speaker, and author of What’s Up Down There? Questions You’d Only Ask Your Gynecologist If She Was Your Best Friend and Encaustic Art: The Complete Guide To Creating Fine Art With Wax.



Lissa Rankin's picture

You're welcome Karen

I have many times written and deleted things. It can be quite healing! So glad we inspired you to do so.

Much love and wishes for peace during your transition

Karen's picture

I Really Needed This

I just wrote and deleted the details of the transition that I'm currently experiencing. I'll just say, "thank you for the glimmer of hope".

Lissa Rankin's picture

Broken Open

Rachel, you're about the 10th person to tell me to read this book. Just ordered it! I can't wait to read it.

And how wonderful that she's a midwife, Stacey. Yes, as you and I both know, when you deliver babies you learn something beautiful about mystery, about trusting the process, about surrender- and of course it makes us all good coaches and teachers if we're willing to learn from the lessons.

Rachel and Stacey- so glad you two connected! I love when Owning Pink becomes a soul sister matchmaker!

Stacey Curnow's picture

soul sister communion

Thank you, as always, Lissa, for creating this wonderful community where soul sisters can commune. BIG love to you!

Stacey is a purpose and success coach who helps you give birth to your BIG dreams. To find your purpose and passion, check out her FREE eBook, The Purpose and Passion Guidebook.

Rachel A's picture

The womb, the cocoon, the bud...


I love, love, love this... (& I've been wanting to read "Kitchen Table Wisdom" for a while now).

Reminds me of an Anais Nin quote in Elizabeth Lesser's book "Broken Open"

"And the time came when the risk to remain tight in a bud was more painful than the risk it took to blossom."

I would highly recommend "Broken Open: How Difficult Times Can Help Us Grow" as it's ALL about this "finding the thread" (a beautiful metaphor, by the way).

I read this book before my sister-in-law was diagnosed w acute leukemia (that was 8/31/09 & she was 32 years old w two young children). We just celebrated her one-year anniversary of her bone marrow transplant last month - she is in remission & doing so well... With a great head of curly hair & an amazing/infectious new outlook on this one wild & precious life we've all been given... She's been an inspiration to our whole family.. And then some!)

I keep returning to sections of the book because it has wonderful short chapters that can be read in any order.

I'll be sending out thread-finding thoughts to all of us still searching - I know I'm getting closer to mine... I think I've found the one with the lower case "t" but am hoping to find The Thread very soon!

Rachel A

Stacey Curnow's picture

I love your references!

Hi Rachel!

Thanks so much for sharing the story of your sister-in-law (and a giant WOO HOO for her head of curly hair and amazing/infectious new outlook!) and all of your fabulous references!

I, too, am a huge fan of Elizabeth Lesser and her book Broken Open. She's probably one of the most prominent midwives in America. Even though she's no longer catching babies, she's still a midwife, because like a good midwife, she's willing to facilitate, support, and encourage women in dark places.

I’ve dog-eared almost every page of Broken Open and heard her speak at Omega NYC last April. Her message of making friends with change and asking every crisis or challenge, “What have you come to teach me?” has helped me more than I can express. Really, that book seems full of what midwives teach their patients: faith in a process of healing and our ability to find our own path back to health.

I also love the Anais Nin quote and your loose reference to Mary Oliver's “Tell me, what is it you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?”

Thanks so much for sharing, Rachel! Do you blog? Or are you on Facebook or Twitter? I'd love to connect with you more! Big love, Stacey

Stacey is a purpose and success coach who helps you give birth to your BIG dreams. To find your purpose and passion, check out her FREE eBook, The Purpose and Passion Guidebook.

Rachel A's picture

Hi Stacey :-)

I just sent you a note through Facebook... (I don't currently blog or tweet & only have a regular Fbook profile, no Page... But I'm looking forward to connecting with you!)


Stacey Curnow's picture


Hey again!

Are you also attending a woman in labor or are you just a night owl?! :o) (It's 3 am on in NC where I write this.) I just checked both my personal profile and business page (Stacey Curnow - Midwife for Your Life) and I don't see your note. Please make sure you have the right me. :o) Can't wait to connect more!

Stacey is a purpose and success coach who helps you give birth to your BIG dreams. To find your purpose and passion, check out her FREE eBook, The Purpose and Passion Guidebook.

Rachel A's picture

Just a night owl.. :-)

Did that baby arrive?? I was just up too late; no laboring women in this house ;-)
Funny though, I was just talking about how I've never witnessed a baby being born.. (other than my own two, of course!), and it's something I would still love to experience. I'm very excited that a friend will be having her first baby any day now. She lives nearby so I'll have plenty of chances to snuggle this one!
I sent you a friend request & found your Page, too.. If you want to put your email address here, I can resend my other note (it's long!)
It's almost 10:30a Eastern on Wed morning. Hope you are getting some zzzzs!

Lissa Rankin's picture

Find the thread, my loves

And remember, you can't rush labor. You will transition through when the time is right. Until then, find the thread, find your peace, and quit fighting against the walls,e even when they feel like they're about to cave in. Surrender your way through the narrow place, and smile when you think about how expansive you'll feel when you make it through...

Thank you all for your beautiful thoughts!

Annabelle's picture

and it keeps on going

Thank you for this post!! I needed a different way to look at it all!
I wish this transition stage would end soon, it seems like it's been going on for over 2 years now, one thing after another, and dang it I'm ready for peace.
It started with hurricane Ike, which brought loss of job, loss of my own place, finding a new jobs, finding a new home, working 2 jobs, finding out I have endometriosis, the loss of my father, more health issues... So, OK, transition it is. Now I'm aware. I want out of the narrow place.

TINAMARIE 's picture

One big transistional mess

Hi Lissa,
I think the reason this resonates so well with so many is that we are living in transitional times. It's one big chaotic transitional mess, and we are all wondering where we will land, will we have the means to support ourselves and our families, will we be safe and free from this perpetual state of worry.

Your reminder to ease through this passage - and I love the metaphor, by the way of birth! - is spot on.

So cliche, so true: fear is false evidence appearing real. Thanks for the reminder. T

Suzi Banks Baum's picture

Mining the Gold In Transition

Dearest Lissa,

I love this topic, having lived through 2 major life transitions in the last 2 years- one being a complete hysterectomy and the other the death of my Mom.

I learned, in the School of the Womanly Arts, to celebrate whatever The Universe is giving me, even if it is agonizing pain or life altering sadness. I learned to research my pleasure in each of these situations, to ask for what I needed-even if I sounded insane, particularly with health professionals.

The resulting joy and learning I gained, the Alchemical Beauty of Life that resulted in how I handled these 2 huge events is what fuels my every breath. It is what I am writing about in my book. It is why I blog. It is what I hope to leave my kids with- the knowledge that every contraction is an opportunity to expand- breath, faith, fun.

Hoping I can translate this learning in to the way I parent my teenagers, who today, are challenging me to the max.

Sending you tons of love and delight, just in hearing your voice in your words, is balm.
Yours, Ever, Suzi

Stacey Curnow's picture

Trust in the process

Hey Lissa!

Thanks so much for this thoughtful and thought-provoking post.

It's SO true that there are striking parallels between the stages of labor and the stages by which any person navigates momentous change. And the result is the same: at the end of these transitions, a person celebrates their own new life while coming to terms with the fact that their old life has changed entirely.

Like you said, it's a challenging, and even painful, process. But it's so worth it! You simply must trust. Thanks so much for your support and encouragement to trust the process.

Big love to everyone negotiating their transitions!

Stacey is a purpose and success coach who helps you give birth to your BIG dreams. To find your purpose and passion, check out her FREE eBook, The Purpose and Passion Guidebook.

Colleen's picture

Another "birth" year....

Wonderful write up. It's what I was sharing with the wonderful man in my life just this morning....the old is gone, give it a proper funeral....thank you and goodbye forever....and rejoice in the new life ....even though you are freaking out because you can't quite see it yet...it's still dark in the place before the light bulb turns on above your head!!

Ann McMahon's picture


You have no idea how much this is resonating for me right now Lissa. Transitions all over the shop: professionally, personally. Now all I have to do is find the thread..... I can do that!

Lynne Hurd Bryant's picture


Wow! And are you!

I find myself in a job transition for the second time in 6 months. In this economy and with just one job skill (we won't count my artwork in this) I took the first one that I thought I could manage with. I have managed, but at a price. I am more worn out, more butt draggin' tired than I was 6 months ago. The actual work of this job is a misery and this the fault of the company I work for. Sure, it has paid the bills and I have benefits, but they weren't honest about those things either. What I am seeing in this being extra tired and frustrated with everyone and everything in my life, is that I am FEELING depressed and if I continue on this course I will BE depressed. This would be the most enormous step backward I can think of.

I have been hired by another company and while it looks like a cut in pay on the surface, I think it is probably even money because the job is not a misery. I trained yesterday, the training was wonderful. They know exactly what they are doing and I'll fit right in. I am also terrified of thought of being that kind of happy in my work again...I have not been in there in about 4 or 5 years.

I can see the light and I need to follow it. Thank you for helping me reaffirm what I believe I already knew, but was so afraid of. Keeping the "status quo" is not always the best course of action.

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