A near miss.
Quick reflexes save me from having to interrupt the call to clean up my morning coffee.
“You know, break out of your shell? Have you ever heard this expression? Do you have an expression like this in your language?” I accentuated “break” with flailing arms, almost sending my coffee, steaming in a pink hot cup across the room.
My intelligent English language learner on the other end of the video meeting laughed. “Well,” she responded pensively. “We say something more like ‘come out of your shell.’”
Ah, yes, we say that too, I noted. I wondered why I went straight to the harsh, difficult-sounding act of breaking. Coming out of one’s shell certainly has a softer ring to it. Transformation can be hard enough. Did I have to be so violent about it?
Later that day, after the remainder of my coffee had cooled off, the synchronicities of the universe gave me a wink with this line in Spirals in Time: The Curious Life and Afterlife of Seashells. “Crabs, lobsters and all their crustacean relatives break out of their shells every now and again, cast them aside and grow a new version one size bigger and sometimes in a wildly different shape from the one that came before.”
This sounded, ironically, fitting to me, as navigating changes, growth, and discomfort during my almost 40 years on Earth have proved to be a constant part of life. The fear and anxiousness associated with transformation. The sadness, anger, and embarrassment when the result is not what I hoped. The unnerving feeling of a turning up in a differently shaped shell.
I watched the uncomfortable process for the crab (scientifically known as molting) thanks to the accessibility of YouTube. Due to the “mounting pressures of its growing body,” its exoskeleton cracks open, and after wriggling around for a bit, it comes out into the world with an entirely new covering. It’s both fascinating and frustrating to watch. I am flooded with relief when the crab finally sheds its old encasement. Until, in this particular instance, a circling stingray waited for the crab to be completely out before engulfing it in a single, swift motion. Gone. Kaput. Stingray’s dinner.
Soft-shelled crab, fresh and vulnerable. The most dangerous 48 hours are in between coming out of the old shell and and the hardening of the new shell. It is also the time when it is easier prey for hungry predators and considered the most delicious for human consumption.
The crab is going through a major life transition. And then we eat it. Ouch.
No wonder we shy away from the discomfort of change. When we do something that asks of the metaphorical breaking out of our old shell, the uncomfortable newness can feel like certain death.
Like when we try a new skill or reluctantly have to make a speech in front of a sea of judgmental faces. When we walk away from bad relationships or choose differently from our regular habits.
The vulnerability associated with such events can feel like a stingray is just waiting to suck us up for dinner.
For us, unlike the crab, there is no predetermined amount of time that we will be flitting about in our soft shells before settling into new armor. However, like the crab, we can’t predict what the outcome will be when we emerge—exposed and soft.
In my mid-20s, living out of the house for the first time, adjusting to having a roommate and loud, smelly, inconsiderate neighbors, the recession of 2008 granted me job loss. I was less than a year into my adult life, generally confused and going out way too much. I was meeting too many loser guys. I was heavier than I had ever been and didn’t feel like myself. I felt like a sh*tty, confused mess.
Finally, amid many meetings with recruiters, more hours than I wanted in a shared studio-turned-two-bedroom apartment listening to the people upstairs bang around loudly and a pivotal night of not being sure whether I got alcohol poisoning or got roofied, I’d had enough. Enough of not knowing who I was looking at in the mirror. Enough of hanging around sh*tty people. I decided to do something different.
Walking into boxing class for the first time felt like crossing a reef in the softest shell. Raw, gleaming prey filled with uncertainty. The boxing regulars floated around the studio, wrapping their hands and shadowboxing with serious faces on. I cautiously crawled my way past them, unfamiliar with the equipment, the lingo, or myself as I looked at the insecure expression reflected back to me in the floor to ceiling mirrors as well as my ill-fitting shell (my body). My lack of skill was put on display for all the circling stingrays to see once the class commenced. I felt silly in too-tight workout clothes that had once fit well.
Perhaps, in that moment of unknowing, I thought I was stepping into the room to learn how to fight. But the years that followed that uncomfortable experience added far more substance to my life, lessons, and relationships that had nothing to do at all with brawling.
As my wise therapist Dr. Kori Propst Miller has written on what happens when we drop the armor:
“It’s not a rumble that we’re stepping into when we embark on a change journey; it’s a reckoning. The reckoning allows for a shift from catastrophic thinking to curious thinking, from conditioned actions to choiceful actions, and from a controlling approach to a compassionate one.”
I didn’t walk into the boxing room to fight my old self. I walked in to meet my new self.
For a long time, I appeared awkward and stiff. It was challenging, and seasoned practitioners saw how stupid I looked as I flubbed around, becoming more coordinated, less heavy on my feet, and generally lighter in my life. I poured over stories about women boxers and enjoyed fight nights with my new fitness community, wanting to know it all, soup to nuts. Prior to finding the right coaches, there were men in the gym who preyed on my vulnerability. When I decided to find a new place to go, it was an uncomfortable choice but not the end of my journey. I navigated my way through, my shell hardening with experience.
I survived as a whole but the truth is, there were parts of me that died through that evolution and that’s not a bad thing. The parts of my life that got eaten made space for other better parts to flourish.
I morphed back into a physique more suitable for me. My confidence built up and the face looking back at me in those mirrors no longer looked unsure, or at the very least, was much more comfortable with a lack of surety. The healthy routine that developed from that first boxing class has stuck with me to this very day. It paved the way for working in fitness, sharing the things I learned with others, which brought me a lot of joy for several years. I can’t imagine how different my life would be had I not gone through each step of that journey. How…empty it might be.
So, in the end, I think there is great danger whether we break out of our shell or come out of it. Because some part of us is bound to die. And that’s almost surely what we need to live.