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Life in the neutral zone

Life in the neutral zone

By Margaret M. Treadwell

“Everything changes but death and taxes,” my grandmother said during her final illness in 1968. How amazed she would be at the acceleration of change today.

Change is an underlying cause of anxiety that brings many to my office in search of a quick fix. Often, people’s first reaction is to try to solve the problem by cutting off the person or situation to blame – the marriage or job, the alcoholic parent, black sheep sibling or negative friend. Since this option usually causes deeper problems, we begin to look for alternative strategies that require making a transition in oneself.

In his book, Transitions, William Bridges argues that we benefit from seeing transition (whether we have chosen it or it has been imposed upon us) as a passage with a beginning, an important neutral stage neglected at our peril, and an end that leads to a new beginning. Choosing a neutral space of “attentive inactivity” provides time to contemplate “the four Ds” endemic to transition: disengagement; disidentification; disenchantment; disorientation. Bridges maintains that honoring the gray in-between time of the neutral zone leads to a thoughtful direction.

One stay-at-home mother with a teenage daughter and a son in first grade entered the “neutral zone” during Lent, before deciding to accept a job and return to the workplace. She learned the following lessons from working on the four Ds.

Disengagement: “I entered my own wilderness to pay attention to signals that personal and professional timing was ripe for transition. A five-day retreat supported by my husband and mother, who came to be with the children, became my best thinking time.”

Disidentification: “It was frightening to give up my self-definition as wife, mother and volunteer who had time for lots of friends. I wasn’t sure who I was without that identity, even though I knew that the old was standing in the way of transformation.”

Disenchantment: “I felt like I was floating in limbo between my old and potential new world and that neither was real. I remembered similar childhood feelings of disappointment or shock like the day my parents’ huge mistake taught me they weren’t perfect, the time my best friend betrayed me and leaving home for a college that turned out to be the wrong one for me.”

Disorientation: “During the week’s break from the familiar, I wrote in my journal about the emptiness and con- fusion of feeling stuck and dead inside and the ways I had weathered previous challenges. Gradually as I wrote about my dreams, an image and vision for my life began to emerge.”

“In retrospect, I had to walk through a sense of abandonment like the valley of the shadow of death to make the transition to another way of being.”

Re-entering her old world after retreat was extremely difficult. It was as if a rock of resistance within kept shattering her resolve, and for a week she could not make the call to accept the professional position that would stamp her new life. Finally, she consulted three people she really respected and when they all said the same thing, she made the plunge with a “YES!”

She was astounded at the reaction she received from her husband and children who heretofore had applauded her resolve to redefine herself. Nearing the first day of employment, her daughter went into a full-blown rebellion, her son clung to her and her husband became so busy at work that he hadn’t time to participate in the new child care decisions necessary to actualize her decision. Even her supportive mother asked if she was sure about her plan.

She wondered if she had made a mistake and should wait to fulfill her dreams until after her daughter graduated from high school. Clearly a completed transition does not occur at the moment of a decision but rather after those around us have become uncomfortable with change, sought to pull us back into our old way of being, and we have been able to resist the pull back to keep on keeping on with our dreams by living the decision well.

If you want your rebellious daughter to become more focused and live into her potential, begin living a more focused life yourself and she is likely to follow suit over time. Things often get worse before they get better when you set out in a new direction. In fact, if you don’t get the pull back, you probably haven’t made any change at all. This truth is what the “how to” books forget to tell us!

“Is there anything as horrible as starting on a trip?…the last moments are earthquake and convulsion, and the feeling that you are a snail being pulled off your rock.”

– Anne Morrow Lindbergh

Margaret M. “Peggy” Treadwell, LICSW, is a family, individual and couples therapist and teacher inn private practice.


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Ann Fontaine

As I remember Bridges likens this to the Exodus story — the resistance and grumbling that Moses experienced is like the woman experiences with her family – but since they had crossed the sea there was no going back.

Robin Margolis

Dear Ms. TreadwellL

A great article! I’m going through some transitions right now, and that “dead zone” concept is very helpful in explaining some feelings I’m having. Thank you!


Robin Margolis

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