5 Steps for being in the Neutral Zone
One door closes and another door opens. Are you really ready to walk right into that door? In my experience as a Transition Coach, I would say NO. When one door closes, it is the perfect time to take a pause.
The inclination of transitioning from an ending is to jump right back in. You want to mask the pain, sadness, loss or loneliness that comes from that closed door. You end your career, and immediately start looking for what else will fill your time. A relationship ends and the loneliness is awful, so you immediately start looking for the next relationship. Life transitions can be overwhelming and uncomfortable.
In this article I will help you understand the benefits of the pause and how to apply them to your life.
What does it mean to Take a Pause?
Taking a pause is about stepping away from your normal routine. Maybe it is spending time by a trout stream. Maybe it is reading a book or taking a walk. It is about stepping away from your routine and doing it by yourself.
Because alone time or quiet time can be uncomfortable, we generally fill up time with BUSY in order to avoid the quiet.
I remember many years ago, when I was living in Asheville, a friend suggested to me that we take a weekend completely unplanned. I looked at him in shock. “How is that even possible,” I asked? How do you even know when to get up in the morning or what to do when you get up? At the time I was a full-time student, a single mother and I was just trying to get the finish line or earning my degree. How could I possibly spend a day without a plan?
After a very uncomfortable start, I was able to ease my way through the day. I realized unplanned did not mean doing nothing. It just meant listening to my inner voice and doing what I wanted to do. Starting with coffee! I don’t remember everything about that day, but I do know we got out into nature, sat by a lake, watched the water, looked at clouds. Eventually we got hungry, so we ate. And eventually it stopped being so uncomfortable. It became relaxing and enjoyable. I felt the tension draining from my body. The “monkey mind” of noise about all that had to be done, quieted. It put the HAVE TO DO into perspective.
What do Values have to do with it?
I have found in my coaching that people know what their top values are, BUT they realize that they have been taking them for granted. Other things caught their attention. They were taking care of all the things they thought they HAD TO DO.
We in the Boomer generation are at a time in our lives when we can flip that. I hear all the time that “I am busier now than I ever was when I was working.” The question to ask yourself is, “is the busyness just filling in the space of having quiet time or are you busy with the things that feed your values?”
Think about your values. Is time alone important for you to recharge? Is family and friend time important and something you may not have given the attention that would support that value? Is making a difference one of your top values? Is health and exercise in your top 10 list? How are you living those values?
In my coaching practice all my clients get a copy of William Bridges book, Transitions. In the book, Bridges talks about the three stages of transition; Endings, the Neutral Zone and New Beginnings.
The truth is that most of us have never taken the time in the Neutral Zone. Think about times in the past when you experienced an ending. You left college and most likely went straight into a job. If you were ever laid off, the immediate reaction is to get on the job boards and start networking to find the next job. We never allowed ourselves time to reflect on what we liked about a previous job or what we did not like about the previous job. We never allowed ourselves time to reflect on the type of culture we’d like to find in our next place of work. Now, as you transition to retirement, you have the opportunity to take this time and reflect on what is important. This is what we call the Neutral Zone.
The Neutral Zone is the time between the old life and the new. The time between leaving your career and redefining yourself in your new stage of life. The time between losing a relationship through death or otherwise and redefining yourself as a person without that relationship. The time you spend as a caregiver, and then figuring out who you are once the caregiving is done. The Neutral Zone is a particularly rich time for insights, if you give yourself that time.
Five steps for Being in the Neutral Zone
Recognize the importance of taking a pause or being in the neutral zone.
Understanding the importance of this time can keep you from falling into one of two traps that people – especially people who are upset with the change or transition – may fall into. Let’s call them FAST FORWARD and REVERSE.
Reverse is trying to go back to what was familiar. Your phone is not ringing, and no one is asking your opinion. You start to feel invisible. You try to go back to the “old” company as a consultant.
Or, the loneliness after the loss of a loved one is too much. If you split up, you try to makeup. You want to go back to the way things were. If the loss was due to death, there is no going back to the way things were.
As Thomas Wolfe so wisely said, “You can’t go home again.” Things change. You’ve changed. Trying to go in Reverse will frustrate you and keep you stuck.
Fast Forward has generally been our “go-to” behavior. We don’t like the discomfort of being between jobs, so we jump right back into the job search without taking the time to discover what we liked and didn’t like about the job. We rarely take the time to think about what we might want to do now. Same goes for retirement. People jump right into what they think retirement life should be like and then they find that they are adrift, bored, feeling useless and purposeless. Taking the time in the Neutral Zone allows you to discover what is important to you and what your values are at this time of life.
Find a regular time to be alone for quiet reflection.
I take this time in the morning, with my cup of coffee, a book and my journal. I remember when I was going through my first divorce. I went to a small log cabin for a few days with just some books and a notebook. This was before cell phones, so no one could call me. I knew I wanted to figure out what I was going to do. I realized that I could not figure everything out, but I took the time to know more about myself and what was important to me. I left that cabin more certain about what I needed in my life. I strongly encourage my clients to find some time to be alone. Maybe you don’t have to go away, but spending time with yourself in an environment outside of your normal environment and routine can be very helpful and restorative.
Take the time to write your life story.
Why? Because sometimes it is only when you see where you have been that you can tell where you are heading. Because recalling other life transitions can help you get insight into the changes you are facing now. This is ALWAYS a very powerful exercise for my coaching clients. I give them several tools to use to help them write their life story. The insights they get from this exercise are always meaningful and motivating.
Listen to yourself and discover what you need or want in that moment.
This can be a tough one. We often tell ourselves that this is a selfish activity. We have been taught to think about others and not about what we really want. We offer limiting beliefs to stop ourselves from dreaming about what we really want because we tell ourselves that it is not possible. But what if it is possible? We will never know until we articulate what some of those wants might be. Spending time in the Neutral Zone to listen to our thoughts might shine some light on our dreams.
Allow yourself to feel the discomfort of the pause and process your feelings.
This is the summary step. Recognize the importance of taking a pause. Find a regular time to be alone for quiet reflection. Work on writing your life story. Discover what you really want and need.
It can be uncomfortable to take time in the Neutral Zone and confront any negative emotions that come up. I believe it is necessary for your mental health and personal growth. It provides an opportunity to reflect on yourself and your values, and to examine your feelings more deeply. It also allows you to step back and gain a new perspective on your life and the transitions you are going through. Taking a pause is about being with what matters. It is about living life, not just being busy through life or living up to others’ expectations. Embrace this time, lean into it, listen and you might find that you learn to love what you find in the pause.
I’d love to hear how you apply Taking a Pause to get emotional reflection.
Leave me a comment or drop any questions you want me to answer!
Wendy Green is the host of the Hey, Boomer Podcast and an experienced Transitions Coach who believes we are never too old to set another goal or dream a new dream. She has a passion for helping her listeners navigate their lives and relationships, offering free resources on her website such as the Vitality Assessment and the Hey, Boomer podcast.
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