Transition The Neutral Zone


Many years ago, I worked for a couple counseling agency called Relate.

Not as a couple counselor I might add, but as a manager supporting therapists going into the community to run workshops and seminars on relationships.

It was thrilling, and sometimes, scary work.

I went to jails, to parenting centers and hospitals.

We worked with inmates who had families on the outside, parents whose children were considered at risk and patients navigating old relationships that were now new again following life-changing injuries.

A regular course we ran was for newly-divorced people as they too underwent a major change in their lives. Learning how to be in a new state is challenging even it is initiated and especially if it isn’t.

I learned a massive amount during my eighteen months there; lessons I still apply today.

I don’t count it as my career – that was selling hi-tech for ten years.

But it was certainly the most vibrant, worthwhile, mind-blowing work I’ve ever done.

Working with people going through the most intense emotional experience is humbling, inspiring and carries a huge responsibility.

Many days this neat freak would go home, not knowing what to do with all the thoughts and feelings jumbling around her head.

One of the major lessons I learned during this time was the importance of transitions.

Every time the phone went, it wasn’t possible to know what kind of call we might be taking. The not knowing meant we had to be prepared.

It could be a simple request for an appointment requiring logic and organizational skills; it could be someone who was in pieces because their partner had just walked out, who needed a listener – calm, focused, empathetic and paced.

Each time, it was important to transition from what could be mundane or even high-octane to the possibility of supporting a highly emotional person on the phone who needed our time, attention and full concentration.

I learned how to do that.

How to take a breath; relax the body and clear my mind of the activity I had just been working on so I could be present to whatever request was going to be asked of me in a moment’s time.

It seems to me that many upsets in life occur because we don’t manage our transitions.

We rush from thing to thing with barely a breath.

We stress, we shout, we bang our horn.

We don’t take a moment, or a minute, a month, or a year, maybe two, to give ourselves time to adjust to our new circumstances.

These might be small like the transition to home after a day’s work or it might be big like a divorce or the loss of a loved one.

Instead we crash on not wanting to waste time, process emotions, or think.

And when we do that, we are not prepared, not ready for the onslaught that might happen.  If it does, it rises up and slaps us in the face.

And then we erupt, or we lose, or we retreat wounded.

William Bridges in his classic book “Managing Transitions” calls these pauses the neutral zone.

They serve an invaluable purpose allowing us to calm, reflect, prepare, and progress.

They can last years or a second but they seem essential to me if I am going to learn the lessons of the old and apply to the new, as I adapt to my constantly, evolving  circumstances.

How have you managed a transition? Do you think you deal with them well? Or do you hang onto the past or blast into the future? Let me know in the comments!

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{ 2 comments… read them below or add one }

Lisa Liguori April 29, 2010 at 7:14 am

Thank you Alison for yet another inspiring post.
I find myself in your words. I recently lost my mom. The first week to two weeks were deep processing time for me, with lots of rest, and all normal life tasks put on hold. Though, as the days past, I needed to get back to my life, my family, my passions. So, I have been in what I call the denial stage, ignoring what I need to go through, because I am not done yet. I have so much more to go through and I am intentionally holding off. Managing these transitions can be tough, but need to be done. Perhaps I should heed your words and get back to my work of grieving. Sigh.


alisongolden April 29, 2010 at 9:19 am

Hi Lisa:

I’m so sorry about your mom. I think it’s very normal – the fits and starts. We deal with these things at the level we can handle. It is not a steady path,it meanders from side to side as the demands of life and our ability to tolerate the sadness change. Good luck.



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