Embracing Limbo: After A Setback, Time In The Neutral Zone Can Be Therapeutic

By Richard Asa
Chicago Tribune.

Virtually everyone, at one time or another, has been forced to follow, be it by circumstance or choice, the cliched advice to “hang in there.”

Personal setbacks, unemployment, illness, romantic disappointments, any situation involving a period of uncertainty, doubt or fear can keep a person frozen in his or her tracks. And in a world where action is rewarded, this stasis can feel like failure.

But psychologists and grief counselors say that staying put can be a real and valuable life skill. It can provide a way station to gain insight into yourself, find a brighter path ahead and gather the strength to walk it.

The process of moving forward can be uneven anyway, often against a tide that keeps coming back with all the debris you thought you got rid of yesterday.

Gail Gross, a psychologist, educator and author who has written extensively on well-being, calls this place the “valley of despair” in her soon-to-be-published book, “The Only Way Out Is Through.”

Gross says any number of life traumas can thrust your sense of self into a neutral zone that lacks the familiar, “nothing is recognizable,” she says.

Part of the problem when life takes a negative turn is that human beings have a tendency to hold onto a lifetime of detrimental thought patterns and habits, says Lisa Wimberger, author of “Neurosculpting: A Whole-Brain Approach to Heal Trauma, Rewrite Limiting Beliefs, and Find Wholeness.” And, she adds, people tend to “default” to those when they face challenges such as losing a job or dealing with the death of a loved one.

Gross agrees. She believes that many people, facing this new and unfamiliar neutral zone, are too uncomfortable to “hang out” there, which is why they retreat to familiar if ineffective behaviors. But, she adds, those with the courage to remain in this new, unstructured environment (while) doing inner work will “have the potential to move forward,” Gross says. The soul-searching may not be easy, she acknowledges, but having the patience to learn, confront and accept truths about yourself can lead to momentum and change.

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