Last time, we talked about endings and how identifying and letting go of the losses associated with a change can help as we navigate the change and land on our feet. Now we get to talk about beginnings, right? Nope. There is a critical phase of transition that we must go through first in order to navigate change and land on our feet: the neutral zone.
Part 2: Let Be
The neutral zone, as defined by William Bridges, is an in-between time, when the old is gone but the new hasn’t become fully operational. It’s a state of limbo, where it feels there is nothing to hold onto. The old ways don’t work anymore, yet the new ways don’t feel right, either.
Say you recently got promoted to manager at work. The promotion may have already gone into effect, but you don’t quite feel comfortable in your new role yet. You can’t go back to your old job and the way things were, yet your new position doesn’t feel natural, either. You’re still feeling your way in the dark – and it’s not just because you’re learning new skills, knowledge, or approaches. It’s because you have shed one identity and have yet to fully take on a new one.
Analogies for the neutral zone abound:
- A caterpillar turns into a chrysalis before emerging as a butterfly
- The Israelites wandered the desert for 40 years before entering the Promised Land
- A trapeze artist must let go of one trapeze, “fly” through the empty space, and then grab hold of the next one
The neutral zone is not a very comfortable place, which is why most of us try to rush through this phase of transition. We just want to get on with things.
However, the neutral zone is the heart of transition. Like when a seed is underground, waiting to germinate, there doesn’t seem to be much going on, but it’s a very fertile and important time.
This is where the questioning, growth, learning, formation, courage, creativity, and risk-taking happens.
Going through a neutral zone related to one’s career or professional identity can be particularly challenging when one is very career-oriented, like me. When I moved overseas, I left my job and with it, my professional identity as a successful, hard-charging management consultant at a well-known firm, bringing my expertise to high-profile clients. Although I had ideas about the kind of work I wanted to do overseas, this did not materialize immediately – and in retrospect, I’m glad for that, because I probably would have tried to recreate the exact same career I had left behind. Instead, the neutral zone helped me to shed that old identity and make way for a new one that is an expression of who I am at this point in my life.
Ways to Let Be
When we’re in the Neutral Zone, the task at hand is to “let be.” To many of us, this does not come naturally and does not feel comfortable. Here are 10 ways we can make the most of the neutral zone (and thus shorten it):
1. Shift your attitude by reminding yourself that this is a time of reorienting and redefining yourself, not a time of meaningless waiting – even if it doesn’t look like it from where you stand right now.
2. Readjust your expectations and accept that this will be a less productive time for you – which may bear results much later.
3. To the extent possible, limit additional changes in your life / work / environment.
4. Expect that you may feel some uncomfortable emotions: fear, confusion, even despair.
5. Take time to be alone on a regular basis.
6. Get creative. The neutral zone can be a good time to question, experiment, brainstorm, try things out.
7. Set some short-term, achievable goals to give yourself a sense of accomplishment and forward movement
8. Track your progress by journaling, going on a retreat, checking in with a friend or a coach regularly, or merely giving yourself time to reflect.
9. Resist the urge to skip this phase of transition and press prematurely for certainty or closure before you are really ready.
10. Survive it. It may not feel like it, but you will live through this and come out on the other side.
How about you? Have you had an experience in the Neutral Zone? What helped you get through it? What were its rewards? Please share in the Comments below.
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Photo by Josh Sommers