Humans 101

How to Survive the Uncertainty Surrounding Us

We’re all in a state of flux right now, but that doesn’t mean we’re helpless

A mysterious lone figure standing in a field on a beautiful early misty morning.
A mysterious lone figure standing in a field on a beautiful early misty morning.
Photo: David Wall/Getty Images

The world is full of uncertainty right now, and many people are experiencing the ups and downs of adapting to new ways of living. I’ve had a few emotional dips recently, which took me by surprise—I’m generally an upbeat person.

But William Bridges, author of Transitions: Making Sense of Life’s Changes, has some compelling explanations for these ebbs and flows. He explains that change is external—moving from one city to another, for example—but transition or adaptation to change is an internal, psychological process.

Bridges describes three nonlinear phases of transition: endings, neutral zone, and new beginnings. Endings occur with significant changes in relationships, employment, home life, finances, lifestyle, and inner being. The neutral zone is a place of emptiness, a kind of no-man’s-land — endings are not fully resolved, and the future is not clear. New beginnings are characterized by embracing new possibilities, acceptance, and adapting willingly.

It’s no surprise to find ourselves in endings or the neutral zone now, considering there is no clear end in sight to the Covid-19 pandemic. If you’re in the endings phase, you might feel sad, angry, or fearful. If you are in the neutral zone, you might experience uncertainty, confusion, or disorientation,

The neutral zone is like a twilight zone — neither completely dark nor fully light. It’s gray, foggy; we can’t see clearly. Part of us is still in the ending phase, holding on to what has been familiar, suffering, and resisting. Another part has a foot in the new beginning, trying to adjust to a new world. We know that our previous reality has changed, and we can’t quite get our heads around the future because it hasn’t fully arrived yet. We sense it, but it’s just beyond our reach. So we find ourselves somewhere in the middle, feeling disoriented.

We can’t just skip the neutral zone and jump right into the new beginning. We have to wander through it, getting flashes of the past and how things used to be. Emotions and memories are stirred up. We feel unsettled and angry at the whole damn thing.

Our psyche needs time to process, to grieve, and to let go. It doesn’t happen overnight.

We’re not sure who to believe or trust. We may feel confused, not entirely on our game, but we carry on. We can’t quite put our finger on why things aren’t getting better faster. Something has happened that we didn’t initiate, and now we’re figuring out how to deal with it. We’ve not been here before, not like this. We’re flying without any radar, and we don’t feel like ourselves.

Welcome to the neutral zone.

We have to go through it to get to the other side. Our psyche needs time to process, to grieve, and to let go. It doesn’t happen overnight.

Arnold van Gennep, a Dutch-French anthropologist who studied people, culture, and their habits and customs, wrote about transitions in The Rites of Passage, published in 1909. Van Gennep’s research significantly influenced Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, which George Lucas subsequently studied and integrated into his Hollywood movies.

We are subconsciously drawn to the ancient myth of human beings moving through the drama of life’s ups and downs in stories and on film. It’s in our DNA, and yet, much of the time, we get lost or stuck in the external manifestations of the journey, missing the richer experience within us.

The hero’s journey is easy to spot on the big screen, but it’s not easy to recognize when it’s happening to us. We dig our heels in, we hunker down, we resist, we forget that all personal growth starts with an ending.

In our modern world, we don’t have the same understanding of transitions that ancient cultures did. In many tribal cultures, elders took young people away from the community for a rite of passage to help them transition into adulthood.

When we are in the neutral zone, we look for validation of our experiences.

The rites of passage of today—high school graduations, bar or bat mitzvahs, retirements, etc.—have mostly been reduced to events and parties. We’re more focused on the external events and less on the internal psychological processes. The discussion around the deeper meaning of these life events has been lost.

Instead of elders having a meaningful role in modern society, we have our peer groups. When we are in the neutral zone, internally fragmented, we look for validation of our experiences. We look for safety and security and those who think like us and are experiencing what we are.

Perhaps this explains the exceptional polarization occurring now — we want to be with like-minded people who can align with our view of reality during a time of significant disorientation.

According to Bridges, the good news is that the neutral zone is also a time of renewal and the birthplace of the future. His wife and business partner, Susan, writes, “The essence of life takes place in the neutral zone phase of transition. It is in that interim spaciousness that all possibilities, creativity, and innovative ideas can come to life and flourish.”

Here is a summary of Bridges’ model with some of the typical emotions associated with each phase:

If you’re in endings or the neutral zone, here are some actions that may help you move to new beginnings:

  1. Realize there is a psychological pattern of transition and change. It helps alleviate the fear of being stuck in a place you don’t want to be.
  2. Be equanimous as much as you can. Take one breath at a time, and live one day at a time. Don’t dwell on the past; you can’t change it.
  3. Focus on what is in your control—your attitude and the way you show up. Remain hopeful and optimistic.
  4. Don’t blame and point fingers. It only creates more negative energy.
  5. If you like to talk things out, find someone you trust who can listen. If you don’t like to talk, grab a pen and write. The act of writing on paper is a powerful way to release and process emotions—more so than typing on a computer.
  6. Become clear about what you want in new beginnings. Figure out what you can do and do it. The smallest steps forward make a big difference.
  7. Limit your intake of news media.
  8. Be clear about what is ending, if anything, for you. Discuss it; acknowledge it. Mark the ending by having a ceremony.
  9. Be grateful for what you do have.
  10. Exercise and move your body regularly. The body stores stress and trauma; movement helps release it.
  11. Make a list of what you can stop/start/continue.
  12. Lead by example. Show others the best version of yourself.
  13. Take time for yourself. Do something you love every day. Be kind to yourself.
  14. Be creative. Make something, bake something, build something, paint something — it helps to unleash positive energy, which helps the healing process.
  15. Celebrate any small victories, and keep track of your progress against any goals you have.
  16. If you want to release something you feel attached to from the past, write it down on a piece of paper and burn it.
  17. Accept being where you are.
  18. Listen to, read, or watch what is inspirational for you.
  19. Moderate any extreme behavior. Find the middle ground.
  20. Stand tall. Be proud of who you are and all you have accomplished in your life.

It’s time to plant the seeds of what you want in the new year. Nurture those seeds and yourself. New beginnings are coming.

10 years as a monk, 49 years meditating, 30 years in the shark-infested waters of corporate America | Connect with me on Linked In-

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