“Think of what would be unlived in your life if it ended today.” — William Bridges, PhD

The neutral zone is the place to find the real you.

What do I mean by finding your footing in the mysterious neutral zone? Well, not surprising, it has to do with transitions.

Life is full of transitions. When you’re in the thick of it, there may be times you look in the mirror and you don’t even recognize the person staring back at you. That loss of identity is far more common than you think. Who you are today is often deeply rooted in the past and may include your spouse, children, career, or community involvement. 

Transitions occur after a divorce or a breakup, when a relationship that once defined your life is suddenly gone.They happen after a move to a new city or a new country, when the familiar surroundings of home are replaced by the unfamiliar. They happen after the death of a loved one, when the loss leaves a hole in your life that feels impossible to fill.

My last major life transition had a few of these wrapped up into one fine, crazy mess. It started with retiring from a career that had spanned 3 decades with only a piece of my next chapter plan in place. Yep, you guessed it. I had a financial plan and thought that was all I needed. Boy, was I wrong.

As if trying to find a new identity and purpose wasn’t enough, we had the added anxiety of living under mandatory evacuation orders for 5 weeks as a wildfire raged to within 2 miles of my dream home, sold that home a few months later when it wasn’t even on the market, lived out of boxes for 10 months with a family member, and lost both my beloved Bouvier des Flandres dogs.

Now, that was a transition. But, I learned a lot during that time, including the fact that my near break down is not uncommon. That transition, the period of change between an ending and a new beginning, can be not only challenging, but down-right hard for many people (regardless of what is said on social media).

William Bridges, a well-known author and consultant who has written extensively on the subject of change, calls this period of uncertainty, confusion, and discomfort between the ending of an old phase and the beginning of a new one the Neutral Zone.

In the Neutral Zone the old is gone, but the new has not yet taken hold. It is a time of chaos, when the old ways of doing things no longer work, but new ways have not yet been established. “Boy Howdy,” as a friend of mine liked to say. 

It can be a time of great anxiety, as people struggle to let go of the past and adapt to a new way of life. It can be a time of uncertainty, as people try to figure out who they are and what they want to do with their lives. It can be a time of frustration, as people struggle to find their place in the world and make sense of the changes happening around them.

So, mine started with retirement. I didn’t think it would be a big deal, but after years of being in a career that had truly defined me, it was a big deal when I walked out the door for the last time as an employee. Suddenly, my structure and routine of work was gone. My corporate identity was gone. I had an intense sense of loss. 

I know I’m not alone. Many retirees struggle with the transition, feeling lost and unsure of what to do with their newfound freedom. I’m finding that many women are also feeling like they have a lot more to offer. They just don’t know where to start to figure out what that means or what it will look like.

So how can we navigate the Neutral Zone and emerge on the other side, ready to embrace the new beginning that awaits us? Here are a few tips:

  1. Acknowledge the discomfort. The Neutral Zone is not a comfortable place to be, and it’s okay to feel uneasy, anxious, or even scared. Acknowledge your feelings and give yourself permission to feel them.
  2. Let go of the past, so you can move forward. This can be hard, especially if we have strong emotional attachments to the things we are leaving behind. But holding on to the past will only make it harder to embrace the new. It keeps you in your comfort zone and drowns out your creativity.
  3. Find the true, authentic you. The Neutral Zone is a time of uncertainty, and you may be feeling like you’ve lost your identity (and self) but it can also be a time of great possibility. Use this time to rediscover yourself, explore new interests, try new things, and see where life takes you. I just released a new, free resource with better questions to ask yourself so you get better answers on your journey to finding the real you. 
  4. Create a new structure – financial, social, or otherwise. Make sure that you have a plan in place to manage your finances, and identify organizations or individuals who can provide the necessary social support. Finally, it is important to have a plan in place for creating structure during retirement. This could involve activities like volunteering, travel or leisurely pursuits that provide both purpose and enjoyment.
  5. Have faith in yourself and seek support. This may be one of the most difficult times of your life, but it is also an opportunity to build resilience, strength and courage. Change can be hard, and it’s important to have a support system in place. Reach out to friends and family, or consider seeking professional help if you’re struggling.
  6. Have patience. The Neutral Zone is a temporary phase, and it will eventually give way to a new beginning. Be patient and trust that things will work out in the end.

The Neutral Zone can be a challenging time, but it can also be a time of growth and transformation. By acknowledging the discomfort, letting go of the past, embracing the uncertainty with a growth mindset, seeking support, and having patience, it’s possible to navigate transitions with grace and confidence. It’s possible to emerge on the other side, ready to embrace the new beginning and emerge on the other side, ready to embrace the new beginning that awaits us.