As a culture, we seem increasingly fixated on feeling good. Our determination to avoid feeling discomfort is growing. The problem is that in steadfastly refusing to engage with pain, we are missing out on the opportunity to grow and evolve.
I know what it feels like to feel lost, in grief, and frightened—wondering, now what? During the past three years, I moved across the country, leaving all vestiges of familiarity and friends behind. At the same time, I changed careers, leaving a financially lucrative career to follow my deeper (and for a time unmonetized) purpose. And sadly, I bid goodbye to my eleven-year marriage.
Change is painful
These changes represented significant upheaval and emotional pain. But the physical changes were just the tip of the iceberg.
It was the psychological process of waiting for my inner world to catch up with the changes that occurred in my outer world and having patience and trust in the process that was unfolding that really tested me. I was challenged to let go of my familiar past, grieve its loss (including my old identity) and enter a period of grey uncertainty. I had no idea how things would turn out or what would be waiting for me on the other side.
This uncomfortable time of letting go of the past without an idea of the future is known as being in limbo. It is nerve-wracking and anxiety-ridden. Everything in your world appears chaotic and amorphous.
There is a great quote by Vita Sackville-West that sums it up – There are no signposts in the sea.
In his book Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, William Bridges describes the three phases of transition as:
- neutral zone
The ending is just what it suggests—the death of something. This is the person, the relationship, your dreams, or your past role that is gone.
The neutral zone follows, also known as being in limbo. You have no direction, and there are no limits as to how long it will last. The confusion can feel overwhelming. It is the most critical phase however, because in embracing the uncertainty of this stage and being open to whatever is presented, your reward is moving into the final stage of transition which is transformation—a new beginning.
(While Bridges presents these three phases as stages of transition, they aren’t linear. You can swing back and forth between letting go, and the confusion of the neutral zone, all while you experience triggers for grief, again and again.)
The trapeze artist
Bridges uses the image of a trapeze artist to depict the limbo phase of transition. The trapeze artist has to let go of the one bar he or she is holding before being able to grab onto the next one. So for a time, the trapeze artist is suspended in mid-air. When we watch this act at the circus, we can see a safety net, but when we are going through this difficult phase in our lives, we can’t see or sense the net. Our blind trust in the process of transition is the net.
Since it is human nature to hang on tightly to what we have and fear the unknown, it is during this limbo stage that people commonly experience strong resistance and are prone to giving in to avoidance motivators such as busyness, dating, substance abuse and buying new stuff – anything to plug the emotional hole.
But instead of avoiding the discomfort, lean into it.
It is during this limbo phase that your creativity is at its peak. New ideas and possibilities emerge. Hidden strengths you didn’t know you possessed surface. It is the gateway to personal evolution. For me, it was when everything was falling apart that I gained clarity. My purpose in life emerged, and I had a new motivation to pursue it.
This is what differentiates transition from mere change: personal evolution.
Using mindfulness to lean in
Mindfulness had always seemed a distant concept for me. I had associated it with meditation and not being able to speak for long periods of time – a horrible thought for an extrovert!
And while quiet meditation aids in becoming mindful, we can all practice mindfulness by agreeing to accept what comes along in our lives without judgment.
Acceptance means you stand rooted in the present. You aren’t wishing you could go back to a happier time, and you aren’t impatiently waiting to feel better and move into the future. You are sitting in the moment and acknowledging the new reality without passing judgment on it as bad or good—it just is. And it doesn’t matter how you got here. You can’t go back, and you don’t yet see the path forward.
This reality seems so simple, but it is really hard to practice.
Asking “what wants to happen?”
Part of being present is acknowledging what is no longer part of your world and mourning that loss. Letting go emotionally of the person, the relationship, or the career is tough because you are also giving up your identity in relation to whatever is gone. You may wonder, “Who am I without this person, career or my familiar surroundings?”
Yet in reaching a place of acceptance, we cease reacting. Instead, we are choosing how to respond, asking, “What wants to happen?”
This is a different question than “What do I want to make happen?”
You are not looking to control the situation; you are looking to see what naturally presents itself, while being open to it. This is the practice of mindfulness.
In navigating my own career and life transitions, I’ve learned that life is comprised of moments, and to appreciate the power in each one. While the next moment may not illuminate the answers, our perception about the situation can change. The key is to believe that this will happen, that new options will present themselves if we will be patient and wait.
In thinking about where you are, how could you inhabit this space without resistance? What are one or two steps you could take to lean in?