Contraction Or Expansion? What Kind Of Year Will It Be For You?

Our lives cycle through a constant series of expansions and contractions–and, if you become attuned to it, you’ll see that on something of a regular schedule, there is a macro-level expansion, followed by a macro-level contraction, that affects every category of your life: career, family, health, relationships and more.

These seasons (seasons of life, that is) can be felt as a subtle undercurrent in the body, before the external evidence that they’ve arrived has even presented itself.

During expansion, there is growth–new connections, new friendships, new information, new opportunities, new inspirations and a lot of output. Everything is inhaling wider and life is abuzz with activity circling a new project–whether that’s a “get healthy after being diagnosed with an illness” project or a creative flourishing.

Expansion is not always optimistic or filled with “good” circumstances, so much as it’s a time when a lot is happening at once, and you dance along the line–but not quite over the line–of overwhelm. Something within you seems to be incredibly responsive in a way that is different from all the other times, times when you might have broken down in response to a new stress.

It can be an exciting time when the expansion is accompanied by happier circumstances, a time where work doesn’t even always feel like “work,” as much as it feels like dancing wildly backwards, and laughing at the zany craziness of it all.

Moleskin notebooks get filled with writing that process grief, or post-it notes with new creative ideas line the bottom of the computer screen. Energetic or creative output is running on all cylinders.

Then there’s contraction.

Contraction is a time of going inward. There is evaluation of all of the new things that have come in during the cycle of expansion–what fits? What no longer works? Alongside the evaluation there’s confusion, uncertainty. There’s less output and more input. When my own life is going through a time of contraction, I seem to release friendships, spend more time reading and studying (input) than writing and sharing (output), and–gulp–make less money, because my ideas are marinating within me and productivity is down.

Contraction is quieter. There’s more listening. You’ll likely crave silence. You might want to give away everything you own, pare down, keep things really simple. Things that once seemed important might seem less-so, the urgency diminished.

Contraction & Fear

Times of contraction used to scare the shit out of me (confession: sometimes, if I’m running too many Stories, they still can).

My own life seems to recycle itself to one or the other on an annual basis, seemingly out of the bounds of my control. 2010? Growth. 2011 (inward). 2012? Growth. So–2013? Oy. I admit to some nervous apprehension.

I can feel it all over my life, already – the pull towards contraction. It shows up in the inclination to spend the day on the sofa surrounded by books, the consideration of a new creative project without the impulse to take action, the prioritizing of yoga.

When your life is stepping into contraction, you’ll feel it in your body and your bones: the pull to assimilate and integrate rather than flourish outwardly. The call to be taught, rather than to teach; to listen rather than to speak.

The Hungry Ghost

The apprehension we feel about times of contraction is rooted in a scarcity mentality.

The “hungry ghost” is that Buddhist term for when something external is desired, but even in the attainment of it, it’s never “enough.” It’s the “hungry ghost” voice within that says, “But you’ve worked so hard; you’ve come so far. How can you…sit back and read books? Take time off of work? Not plan out a series of profitable business projects for 2013? That would be crazy. If you want this lucky streak to continue, you’ve got to work harder.”

You can fit this dialogue to your will: How can you…not enroll your kids in all of those extra-curricular activities? Volunteer to take on that extra project for the boss? Organize the garage after you’ve sworn you’d do it? Work as hard as you’ve been working to be more compassionate or patient?

The expansion cycle, as it gives way to a contraction cycle, can feel unwieldy, maybe a little painful.

But here’s what I’ve learned about these expansion-contraction cycles: The natural rhythms of life are going to play themselves out anyway.

Trying not to follow the very alive current during an expansion season? Just about impossible. The requests for your time or the calls to action will flood in, until you can’t ignore them or resist them. When you update your friends on your life, they won’t believe it’s only been a week since you last spoke; so much has happened. If you’re in a creative flow, the words and message flow with ease.

By contrast, I’ve learned that if I ignore the internal signs of a contraction season at work, and if I push to do a lot during a contraction season, I won’t get much done, anyway.

Whatever I do get done during a contraction season is going to be like pulling teeth–and the quality isn’t going to be as good. For me, it’s not the inner critic saying this; I’ve reviewed writing from such seasons and can see, really clearly, how it’s as if I were writing “around” the truth during a time of contraction, instead of honing right in on my target as I do so easily during times of expansion.

At such times, it can feel like the cosmic joke is on you: you’re doing all the things you did so well during an expansion season, but the Midas touch is…gone. You’re pushing yourself to function at the same level of productive output–whether it’s for a creative project or to “be there” for others during a time of crisis, and…you can’t.

And yes–this can feel slightly devastating, confusing and (really) scary. It can feel so out-of-control.

Going With the Flow

Breathe in–expansion–hold it. Keep holding it. Notice how awfully uncomfortable it is to keep holding it, until you simply can’t, any longer. You exhale. You can’t help it.

Working against the natural rhythm of the exhale is effort.

Try exhaling, but not inhaling. Notice the same–how you’re working against the natural inclination to bring the breath in, and when you finally can’t hold yourself back any longer and you breathe in…relief floods the body.

Everything in the world is changeable, and there are micro- and macro- cycles of expansion at work in the body, with our finances, within our relationships, with our cells and biochemistry, with our creativity, with our personal and spiritual growth.

If you want to suffer less, you’ve got to “go with the flow.”

If life is calling for you to expand, you can resist the call for as long as you like, but every sign around you is going to be calling you forth. Sometimes, the call forth will come in a way that feels painful–like getting laid off as the final push to do the work you know you’re meant to do, or a relationship will hit its final straw, and that’s what gets you to move towards your new paramour.

So–pay attention to the clues, and go with that flow. Notice what happens when you start saying “YES” to what life seems to be ushering you towards.

If life is calling for contraction, you can resist that call, too–if you wish. In our productivity-oriented society, most people resist this call and it typically leads to burn-out, illness, numbing-out, depression. Most people who are feeling “stuck” think they need to work harder or “do” something to relieve themselves to get “un-stuck.” In fact, they’re “stuck” because they have been ignoring the cues for rest.

To them, also: notice what happens when you start saying “YES” to what life seems to be ushering you towards.

It’s in joining with the natural rhythm of our lives that we can discover the truth: the expansion has its place, as does the contraction. Neither place needs to involve suffering, unless we set it up that way by going against what everything seems to call to us to do–unless we try to inhale with exhaling, or exhale without inhaling.

Look around at your life, your world, as the calendar year changes, as the seasons change. What’s it calling you towards? Expansion, or contraction?


Kate Swoboda, a.k.a. Kate Courageous, is a life coach, writer and speaker who teaches people how to practice courage in their lives and livelihood. Learn more about her and how you can practice courage in your own life and business on her website , or follow Kate on Twitter or Facebook.
  • Marlene

    Thank you so much for this Kate. I have been going through the contraction period and I begun thinking about how often I notice this ebb and flow in my life. You articulated the personal human experience so beautifully and accurately. It is frustrating and I was almost certain I was alone but your piece has shed lots of light on what I have to do next….or not do. Have a lovely day! 

    •  You are most definitely not alone, Marlene! The contraction times can seem as if they’re not “supposed” to be happening, until we notice that they provide great space to rest.

  • Zanabites

    Perfect timing! I have been fighting a contraction phase for months already and was beginning to get really down about my lack of capability or performance. It always came so easy and now I can see why… And why it isn’t now. Very helpful. Thank you 🙂

    •  Fighting against either cycle is like an uphill battle, isn’t it! 🙂

  • Heather O’Neill

    Kate this was wonderful. I really needed to read this right now. I am quietly smiling at yet again the finding of words for what I am going through from another amazing soul willing to share. And I feel alot less guilty for the quietness and stillness I am longing for right now and in allowing myself that I feel comfortable that I will be recharged and ready for the expansion period. Thanks again. 

    • Trust me, some really awesome things happen during the contraction periods! 🙂

  • Celeste Chalmers

    wow wow wow! thank you – didnt imagine i would receive such a perfectly timed gift (this blog post) as my first gift in 2013. isn’t the universe wonderful in the way its perfect timing never fails?

  • Apanda

    This was so insightful and right on! Thank you!!

  • Beth

    I bought myself a ring this year, it is waves of silver like the ocean, and I live on the ocean and Im a pisces so I know about this ebb and flow. But you really did articulate it beautifully and of course the idea of accepting this within myself instead of keeping up, is what is so lovely about your writing. The ring reminds me of change and I must accept what comes. My year has been in contraction but also Ive moved out of a relationship which I was caught up in for two years, while my job ended and I learned a new career. So there was movement in one area of my life while the other was so painful and toxic, so that finally changed as well. I am surrounded by books and time alone and have been since summer. Thanks for the message that this is ok! I will check out your website and fb…..

  • This is incredible!  I couldn’t agree more.  I love how you put it all into words so eloquently. 

    I’ve definitely felt the expansion and contraction periods in my life.  Mine don’t seem to last a year, I don’t think.  But then again I don’t know that I’ve really paid attention to the timing of the cycle. 

    Right now I can tell I’m in a contraction time though.  I’m feeling the pull inward.  I want to be alone more.  I’m re-evaluating my current romantic relationship even.  I’m struggling to do the final read-through of my latest novel and get it published.  I haven’t written as many short stories (none in fact, in quite a while), as I did just a couple of months ago. 

    Perhaps I need to accept this contraction period and let it be.  Don’t beat myself up if I’m not as productive (outwardly) as I have been before.  Do what feels good and right for me right now. 

    Hm…lots to think about…


    • “Perhaps I need to accept this contraction period and let it be.  Don’t beat myself up if I’m not as productive (outwardly) as I have been before.  Do what feels good and right for me right now. ” 

      Yes–this is what those contraction periods are all about. It’s amazing how much trust they require, isn’t it? 😉

  • beababy

    Great article, as I needed to hear it at this moment… I have always been aware of the ebb and flow of my life, and I dont resist it.  But it seems that it is happening more frequently.  For example, if there was expansion one year (say 2010) and contraction another (say 2011).  It seems there was expansion and contraction both in 2012.  Is this an indication of something different perhaps? what does this frequent change means? Any thoughts?

  • Doreen

    Exactly what I needed to read at the start of the New Year my year of self-discovery, understanding and love…Thank you so much!!

  • Thank you so much! I have been trying to understand these seasons all my life. In my case, they are very extreme and are not just felt in situations, but also hit me hard physically. Thanks to what you pointed out, I am now looking back and seeing that I do maintain strength throughout each time, but, the strengths change according to the expansion and contraction – whereas before, I felt weak during the contraction, I now see I did have an ability to store, stow and learn during those times – and I also see that that has saved me and made the best use of the contracted time. It’s unfortunate that general outlook, appetite, and the seize of the ego have to also be a part of the contracted time for me but I also know those are things I can bust through. If you do have more tips on how to make the best use of the contracted time and maybe even routine maintenance examples from your own life, I’m sure we would all like to hear them! 🙂

  • Kim

    Kate, THANK YOU SO MUCH!  I cannot express in words how my spirit feels lighter after reading this article.  You articulated these two phases beautifully.  WOW!  I have been “awakened” to a new understanding of both expansion and contraction (not ever giving either any thought before this moment).  It explains so much about myself.  I can now give myself permission to enter either phase and stop working against both.  I SOOOO do that.  Thank you for putting this so beautifully into words that my spirit was ready to receive this morning.  BIG HUG!

  • Kate McCormack

    This is such a great article Kate – a great way to approach the new year in 2013 when thinking about setting goals or plans. To go with the flow more and think about these cycles is just a great way to move forward for me I can totally relate to this and so might find a little less resistance in some things I want to do. Thank you!

  • Renpic

    This is so interesting.  I’m feeling the need for contraction right now (going inward) but it is for the purposes of productivity.  Whereas the holidays were very social, and I felt a lot of expansion interacting with people, but I was not very productive.   I suppose that I hope that this contraction time will give way to expansion once I fall into a better, more focussed path of writing and organizing a business plan. 

    As an introvert, I feel the need to contract (hopefully not retract) from social situations to regain energy frequently, but that is sometimes when I get my best work done.  Maybe it is different for everyone!  Maybe this past year was for contraction mostly, and next year I’ll be ready to greatly expand.  I have high hopes.  

    Thank you for writing out this interesting analagy.  I will keep it in mind as I continue to breathe.  xo.   

    • I’m also very introverted, and I think you’re on to something–the contraction giving way to expansion. Expansion need not necessarily look like extroversion–expansion can also be about creating a great body of work. I think it looks a little bit different for everyone; the important thing is to notice (for ourselves) how it is that it shows up so that we aren’t emphasizing one, without creating space for the other.

  • I definitely feel the cycles of expansions and contractions in my life. Mine come in forms of over-all seasonal: Spring and Fall tend to be more expansion [writing] over-all, and Winter and Summer, more contraction [planning] over-all; and also, somewhat a weeks-by-weeks process.

    I also suffer worries during times of contraction, especially, because I’m a slow-mover compared to others even in my expansion cycles. But if I tried to force writing when the time wasn’t right, I’d end up hating my work, regardless of its quality. And even when I let myself have some time I needed to recover, I’d guilt myself about it or try to push through it faster. All I end up with are bad vibes, extreme stress, and general depression.

    So, I’m trying to step back from it. The cycles will happen with or without my permission: my only job is to ride the waves as best I can. It is hard, though, watching other people pushing themselves forward relentlessly. I know I can’t handle that, and that I don’t really want to be that person, but it’s hard not to be jealous of the results. I’ve been working on the first novel, which I hope to self-publish, for 9 years between other still-unfinished projects, and seeing other writers put out books year after year makes me dizzy and depressed. I just feel like I’ll never live up to that.

    • ” But if I tried to force writing when the time wasn’t right, I’d end up hating my work, regardless of its quality. And even when I let myself have some time I needed to recover, I’d guilt myself about it or try to push through it faster. All I end up with are bad vibes, extreme stress, and general depression.” 

      –Yes! This is a perfect example of what it looks like to fight the expansion/contraction cycles instead of letting them naturally evolve.

    • Valerie,

      I came back to this blog post because I wanted to link to it from my own blog, and I read your comment.  Since it came after I left my own comment on here, I didn’t see it before.  Anyway, I wanted to tell you I empathize with you.  I feel the same way.  I’m currently in a period of contraction – evident by my total lack of motivation to do anything but work on my jigsaw puzzle or watch movies… the fact that I still am able to rev up enough energy to post on my blog *almost* daily is a feat in itself.  And coming on here, TDL.  But I must say, I read the latest blog postings on this site from today and yesterday, just now, and found so many REALLY inspiring!  If you haven’t checked out Kute’s latest one or Danielle’s, from yesterday, I believe, check them out.  Among others. 

      Anyway… just wanted to reach out and tell you you’re not alone.  And remind myself that I’m not alone either.  I have my latest novel sitting on my computer just waiting for the final read-through and publishing.  I self-publish too, so it’s cool that you said you wanted to do that with your book!  I could have finished the book before New Year’s, and planned on doing that.  Then I didn’t.  I don’t know why, just the motivation completely fell off.  And as hard as it is to sit by and let the days pass, I know, as you said, any work I do in this period won’t be my best.  So I’m trying to be patient with myself.  Something WILL happen, this WILL pass.  It always does.  🙂 

      Best of luck to you in your contraction phase, and beyond!  🙂


  • Barbara Harkness

    Ebb & flow……like the tide, but I liked the way you analysed it as ‘breath’. I think as we get older we seem to understand this life process also. Thanks Kate, you have just aquired another fan.