Monday, May 20, 2013

Transition after Loss: Tips for Navigating the Neutral Zone

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One does not discover new lands without consenting to lose sight of the shore for a very long time.              ~ Andre Gide 

A reader writes: How do you bring back the "drive"? The desire to improve one's self? The desire to learn something new, or to go with your goal? Since my husband died nearly a year ago, I've lost this drive and it seems hard to get it back. I still want to achieve some goals, yet I can’t seem to find the focus, the desire to go for them unlike before. My mind is willing to try again, but my body is tired. One minute I feel like I'm going to accomplish something, the next I feel too tired.
My mind and body have not connected back to where I was before this happened. It gets really frustrating because there are things I want to do. Some days are better than others. I think its grief's way of telling us to slow down, still rest and take it one task at a time.

My response: As painful as it is to be where you are now, my dear, I can only tell you that it is normal and necessary for you to be there.

In his insightful books about coping with significant loss (TransitionsThe Way of Transition and Managing Transitions), author William Bridges writes that every transition requires spending some time in what he calls the Neutral Zone – a seemingly unproductive “time-out” when we feel totally disconnected from people and things in the past and emotionally unconnected to the present. During this time, he says, “We aren’t sure what is happening to us or when it will be over. We don’t know whether we are going crazy or becoming enlightened . . . the old reality looks transparent and nothing feels solid anymore.” Unfortunately, he says, this neutral zone “is the phase of the transition process that the modern world pays least attention to. Treating ourselves like appliances that can be unplugged and plugged in again at will or cars that stop and start with the twist of a key, we have forgotten the importance of fallow time and winter and rests in music. We have abandoned a whole system of dealing with the neutral zone through ritual, and we have tried to deal with personal change as though it were some kind of readjustment. In so doing, we have lost any way of making sense of the lostness and confusion that we encounter when we have gone through disengagement or disenchantment or disidentification (The Way of Transition, p. 130).”

In her book, Tough Transitions: Navigating Your Way through Difficult Times, accomplished author and business consultant Elizabeth Harper Neeld writes that when our old assumptive world has been shattered by significant loss, it takes time to build a new one, and we must allow ourselves the time and space we’ll need for reviewing:

“We have to find new purpose and meaning where the old has been destroyed. We have to examine and reflect on what we now believe, what we now know. We have to establish new patterns. Make new habits. Think new thoughts. In this interim between the shattering of an assumptive world and the building of a new one, we often experience deep sorrow, sadness, sometimes even depression. Often we feel we have lost our identity. We may feel consumed with anger or guilt. We may wonder if anything is ever going to be worthwhile again. Or we may just feel devastatingly tired (p. 49).”

What are some helpful strategies for navigating this Neutral Zone?
William Bridges recommends the following:

Find a regular time and place to be alone – “a genuine sort of aloneness in which inner signals can make themselves heard.”

Begin a log of neutral zone experiences – Pick a day and describe your mood, what happened that day, what you thought about or puzzled over, what decisions you wish you could have made, what dreams you remember having.

Write an autobiography – Reminiscing helps you make sense of the past and suggests possibilities for the future.

Discover what you really want – Use this time to think about and identify what you really want out of your life.

Take a neutral zone retreat – Take some time away to go on your own version of a passage journey. Spend a few days alone, in as simple and quiet a setting as possible, during which you reflect consciously on the transition process in your own life just now.

In a similar vein, Elizabeth Harper Neeld suggests that we use what she calls Reviewing Time to pause and examine: “to take a second look. To reconsider, rethink, and reflect on how this tough transition is affecting our lives. To ask, ‘What do I need to see? What reassessment can I make? What might I do differently?’” She encourages the use of creative activities such as the expressive arts, writing, prayer, meditation, listening to music; and imagining possibility: exploring, making lists, learning just to be (mindfulness), and practicing active waiting (paying attention).

Elizabeth’s helpful and informative Web site, http://www.elizabethharperneeld.com/, contains a number of readings and practical suggestions, including what helps when life gets tough and those things that have brought her joy.

Your feedback is welcome! Please feel free to leave a comment or a question, or share a tip, a related article or a resource of your own in the Comments section below.
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6 comments:

  1. Thank you for mentioning the books about transition - I will definitely want to explore them.

    With regards to the original question: In my experience from working with clients moving through transition, underneath the neutral feeling there is are layers upon layers of deep processes taking place, processes that are not under our conscious control and definitely need to be respected and being taken care of. Sometimes in the form of retrospection (such as the wonderful suggestions above) sometimes in the form of nothing but rest, rest, rest.


    When we're really ready to move on, the drive shows up without pushing, from within, as a natural expression of energy that flows freely again. It's worth waiting for - and it cannot be forced by will.

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  2. Excellent points, Halina, and I thank you for sharing them! As you say, sometimes what is needed is nothing but rest, and a lot more of it than we may realize. (The total exhaustion that accompanies significant loss is a topic addressed quite nicely in the two articles by Dr. Rob Gordon, listed above under "Related Articles.") ♥

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  3. Reading your comment my thoughts were, "this is good," you have your 'want-to' back. You want to go on--you want to accomplish goals. Now, the problem is the ball and chain sluggishness of grief, the painful brightness of life after walking through such dark. This is a sign of your progress, your healing. Now, even tired do the next thing. My advice is simply four words. Do the next thing. Look at the goal and take one small step in that direction.

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  4. Reading your comment my thoughts were, "this is good," you have your 'want-to' back. You want to go on--you want to accomplish goals. Now, the problem is the ball and chain sluggishness of grief, the painful brightness of life after walking through such dark. This is a sign of your progress, your healing. Now, even tired do the next thing. My advice is simply four words. Do the next thing. Look at the goal and take one small step in that direction. **please forgive me if this posted twice**

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  5. Thank you, Doug, for that sage advice: "Do the next thing." Exactly. Sometimes, especially in the beginning, it's as simple as deciding to get out of bed in the morning. ♥

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  6. Thanks Marty, you are so right and I think being able to decide to get up means you've made it through yet another night, a small thing perhaps, but a big sign that you'll also make it through grief's night.

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Your comments are welcome!

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