I knew my life as a freelancer would be different after my husband took early retirement two years ago. Such as making the transition to having someone else around all day. But I planned to carry on as before. I certainly wasn’t ready to retire myself.

Except that his retirement started me thinking and it’s nagged away at me. I’ve felt increasingly on edge. Like our cat seeing suitcases come down from the attic and bworried cateing unable to settle anywhere because something’s not right. I tackled my discomfort by making plans, like cutting back on invigilating exams, trying to use my time better, reorganising my work space. Yet I still felt unsettled, unsure where I was heading.

And then – in one of the clear-outs I’m prone to in my restless state – I rediscovered William Bridges book Transitions*. Bridges explores the transition between endings and new beginnings, and his description of being in between, in what he calls the “Neutral Zone”, immediately rang a bell.

“One way or another, most people in transition have the experience of no longer being quite sure who they are.”

Feeling unsettled isn’t about working hours, I realised, it’s about identity. About being in transition between the old full-time working life and a new existence. Between working and retired. Between not-old and old. Who will I be – who am I meant to be – in the next phase of life?

Endings come first

“First there is an ending, then a beginning”, Bridges says. And it’s vital to make that ending properly. I felt I couldn’t possibly retire from anything while I still enjoyed it and was good at it. Yet maybe it’s right to make an end in order to move on to whatever lies ahead. Yes, it will feel like a loss. Something has ended, and we can never get it back. But it is the route to growth.

“Every transition begins with an ending. We have to let go of the old thing before we can pick up the new one – not just outwardly, but inwardly, where we keep our connections to people and places that act as definitions of who we are.”

The Neutral Zonelonely sands

The key insight in Transitions is that in between endings and beginnings comes a period in the emptiness of the Neutral Zone. That’s a scary and uncomfortable place to be. We’re becalmed, going nowhere, while change happens all around us. We may be tempted to hit reverse gear, trying to recreate how things were in the past. It doesn’t work, because we ourselves are different. We can’t undo the transition that brought us here.

Or we fast forward, planning our route out of the Neutral Zone as quickly as possible. Yet being lost in transition is an opportunity to explore who we are and what we might become. It’s a time to reflect, says Bridges, to stay with the chaotic feelings, to be alone with our self. We don’t have to produce results or accomplish anything. For only by living with it and through it does the next step become clear.

A new beginning

Smoky Mountains viewpoint

Waiting for fog to lift at a Smoky Mountains viewpoint, NC

Bridge believes that opportunities will arise when we are ready for them. We’ll have an inner prompting that something fits, and it’s time to move on. Such signs can be hard to perceive in the hustle of normal life, which is why we need that time alone with ourselves in order to recognise them.

Accepting that I can’t accomplish my way out of the Neutral Zone has been liberating. I don’t have answers to the nagging R question, but I’m no longer on edge, I’m happy to see what emerges.


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