What is the Neutral Zone? It could be a Star Trek episode, an ice hockey coaching strategy, or even a political commentary about oil production on the Saudi Arabian peninsula. But not this time.
This Neutral Zone (NZ) is about the chaotic stage of life change. It’s what William Bridges calls the nowhere between two somewheres in Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (2003, p. 40). The NZ is painful, confusing, and chock full of waiting.
Sounds fun, doesn’t it? No way. But, the NZ is extremely important and valuable if handled correctly. Living well in the Neutral Zone makes change profitable and upcoming life seasons more productive.
Neutral Zone Definition and Symptoms
When a leader, an employee, an athlete, an artist, a global worker, or anyone is faced with change–good or bad–turmoil starts internally and things become unfamiliar externally.
Bridges rightly describes this phase of transition as no man’s land, between identities and realities with much bewilderment and difficulty daily. A person leaves behind, lets go of the recognizable (voluntarily or involuntarily), and exchanges what is known for what is unknown. This can feel like a suspended nothingness, deep fog, or a scary movie.
When change happens, by choice or by accident or by decree, something(s) must end before something(s) can begin. Endings are a form of dying and this can release relief, but most often releases grief. With grief comes denial, anger, bargaining, panic, sadness, and uncertainty in various forms and for indeterminate periods of time based on personality and situation.
Other NZ symptoms include:
- Lack of motivation
- Memory lapses
- Low productivity
The following are true cases of Global Women forced to navigate the NZ. Their names are changed in some pertinent circumstances to protect their privacy.
Case #1: Mother Needs Me
After 20 years in an East Asian country, administrating an effective English language program, Emma returned to her hometown. Her elderly mother’s dementia began to interfere with her independent living situation.
As a single woman accustomed to her own space and her own rhythms of daily life, she now felt overtaken by the daughter-caretaker role now back in her childhood home. The various tasks gave a framework to each day but had little to do with Emma’s own goals, global passions, and sense of identity or personal empowerment. All seemed subjected to the needs of her mother who also struggled to make the adjustments to her new, limited, dependent, and fully-supervised life.
Emma entered the NZ realizing she could not plan a return to the country of service where she had lived. But she had little clarity what the next chapter of life would look like for her. Although supported by her agency and long-term friends and family, no one could answer this question for Emma.
We met through mutual church friends who relayed to Emma my own cross-cultural experiences. “I need to process this with someone who can relate to the uniqueness of my situation. I am home but not home and people don’t understand. I feel very alone.” We coached for several weeks as Emma moved through the NZ.
Case #2: Dream Cancelled
“I expected to be working in my Global location for a minimum of two years. Hardly one year into my time, we were evacuated and not allowed to return,” Beth told me. “I was devastated and completely confused. I believed this was God’s leading and now I am back in the U.S. with no direction.”
Debriefing the trauma of rapid exit from Beth’s global dream was doubly challenged when family crises and relational drama welcomed her back home. As a single woman, she needed income and a community to support her. She chose her undergraduate university town with some existing relationships and available jobs.
The mental, emotional, and spiritual fog persisted even with a work routine. We began coaching to identify the vision past the NZ and set new goals, building on our shared experiences in the same Central Asian country, difficult departure, and rocky re-entry.
Case #3: Kicked Out
My own recent experience with the NZ happened six years ago. I had a two-year departure plan from an overseas education appointment announced and in place. During the second year of training my successors, I was given an early separation notice.
My thoughts whirled. Wow. Unbelievable. I cannot make sense of this happening. I knew my boss and I didn’t always get along, but I was set to leave anyway, so what was the point to send me packing six months early? How can this be Your plan after seven years of Kingdom service in a hard place, God?
Instead of being able to move methodically into the NZ as I anticipated, I felt hurled into change prematurely. The negative, shameful whirlwind of dismissal added to my transition fog. The carefully constructed goals to finish my last assignment well were ripped away.
After returning to my hometown, I remember several months of sitting in my bathrobe till afternoon, gazing out the window, or walking my neighborhood streets with no sense of time or purpose. Because of my situation, my husband also had to leave his cross-cultural work so both of us were deep in our re-entry nightmare NZ for almost two years.
Survival Steps for the Neutral Zone
What is happening to the caterpillar inside a cocoon?
How does a tender shoot push through the casing of a hard seed and packed dark earth to reach daylight?
The NZ contains all the elements of death – pain, fear, darkness, hopelessness, insecurity – yet also offers new life like the natural examples of caterpillars-to-butterflies and acorns-to-oak trees.
God has given access to His help through prayer and meditation on the Scriptures. Time spent gleaning wisdom and faithful promises from His proven Word are essential anchors to wandering in the fog of the NZ. As the Creator of all life and the master over death, He is the source to cling to for future guidance and well-being.
Here are some additional practical steps to surviving and thriving through the NZ of transition/change:
- Give yourself permission to feel strong emotions, often, for a period of time. Not forever, but for a while.
- Take care of yourself in ways that matter such as healthy eating, exercise, sleep, and relaxation, and avoid unnecessary additional life changes if possible.
- Shield yourself from those who would take advantage of your present vulnerability and stay away from known temptation-situations.
- Set up a solid support system of trusted family and friends, more than just a couple people so you don’t inadvertently wear someone out during your needy time.
- Use the unexpected NZ margins and time availability to reframe your days to a new season of life and productivity, focusing on projects neglected during busier times.
- Evaluate real skills and assets but also spend time dreaming and experimenting with new thoughts about the future, investigating and gathering information.
- Remember and celebrate the past positives for a brief period daily, connecting with those sharing your changes on a limited but intentional basis as part of the grieving process.
- When looking back, try to embrace a reality review, not a fantasy-perfection recall of the past just because of fear pressing in about the future.
- Begin to take small steps forward, accessing new resources and courage, enlisting help through a godly coach, counselor, mentor, family member, or friend for accountability and encouragement.
- Remember that in the NZ, time is your friend, not your enemy.
You can move through this transition successfully, but speed is not usually the best course of action. Like the old fable of the racing hare and turtle, slow and steady can best navigate the mental cloudiness and emotional upheaval of the Neutral Zone.
Do your best to embrace the ups and downs of the Neutral Zone. Determine to gain from the pain and not deny or run away. You will come out on the other side with God’s help and focused self-determination, sunlight shining once again on a new day with new emotional muscles, new life appreciation, and new stories to tell.
Bridges, William. (2003). Managing Transitions: Making the Most of Change (2nd ed.)
Cambridge, MA: Da Capo Press.