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Getting Out of Limbo

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One pattern we see over and over again in coaching individuals and teams is being stuck in limbo. Limbo is a place that includes uncertainty, unknowing and lack of clarity. It’s a normal and natural place to be. 

Life is filled with uncertainty and unknowing; it’s simply part of being human. In and of itself this isn’t a problem at all. We can welcome, and even dance with, uncertainty and unknowing. 

Being stuck in limbo is a different thing. Think of being stuck in a snow drift in your car. The wheels are spinning and lots of energy is being expended but no real movement is occurring. Being stuck in limbo is not a result of life being uncertain. It is the result of your unwillingness to face, feel and deal with something in your life.

Limbo is an issue of facing, not one of knowing.

When we become unwilling to fully face something we often cover over the unwillingness with confusion. Confusion is a mental state where we expend energy spinning our wheels.

Confusion is a choice.

Often clients will say to us, “I’m confused.” Our response is, “How are you confusing yourself?” This moves confusion from a condition that is happening to us (victim) to a choice we are making (creator). It’s actually a really fun question. “Teach me how to confuse myself the same way you are confusing yourself.” Or, “What are you getting out of confusing yourself?” 

Having asked these questions countless times we’ve learned that one of the things people get out of confusing themselves is that they don’t have to face something they don’t want to face. They don’t have to feel something they don’t want to feel. 

I say all this to say that being stuck in limbo makes sense to me. When I work with clients who are stuck I have deep respect and appreciation for them.They are staying stuck because it would be too scary to face something or feel something they don’t want to face and feel. Limbo is a place we hang out so that we don’t have to risk what would happen if we took action. 

For example, I worked with a client recently who had been in limbo in his marriage for several years...

He was unwilling to either get fully in or fully out. He was expending large amounts of energy staying stuck and confusing himself. As we explored the payoffs of staying stuck in limbo he came to see that he was unwilling to feel just how sad and brokenhearted he was that the dream he once had of what his relationship could be was no longer a possibility. He needed to grieve and let go of what was, which he was unwilling to do. He was also unwilling to feel how scared he was of being alone and being one of those “divorced people.” He saw also that he was unwilling to fully face his own and his partner’s addictions—substances and behaviors— that they were using to numb their pain and give themselves some pseudo sense of aliveness. He also saw that he was unwilling to fully face and feel the consequences of his choices with his children. He often said, “I can’t bear to face that.” 

Instead of fully facing and feeling, he expended massive amounts of energy trying to change his partner. If only she was different I wouldn’t have to face and feel myself. People stuck in limbo often keep trying, analyzing, efforting, rationalizing, explaining, defending. They expend energy without taking action; they’re spinning their wheels. 

Conscious leaders admit to themselves and others when they are committed to staying stuck in limbo. They begin by doing a ruthless inventory of their lives and seeing all the places where they are not willing to fully face something or someone in their lives. This discovery begins by simply asking themselves the questions:

  • What issue or person in my life have I been repeatedly complaining about?
  • What problem do I keep analyzing, rationalizing, explaining and defending?
  • What have my family members, friends and colleagues gotten tired of me talking about?

Second, they ask themselves, “in order for me to stay stuck in limbo with this issue, what do I need to be unwilling to fully face?” This could be a person, circumstance, condition, a story you’re believing, or a reality you're avoiding. 

Third, they ask, “What feeling am I avoiding feeling?” Start with the core feelings of anger, fear, sadness, joy and sexual feelings. Look especially into your body for places you are numbing physical sensations. 

Fourth, ask “What would be at risk if I fully faced, felt and dealt with this issue?” Make a list. 

Finally, “What is it costing me to stay stuck in limbo?” Don’t be deceived, the cost of staying stuck in limbo is great both to you and to the people around you. It’s costing you aliveness, vitality, forward progress, energy, respect for yourself and respect from others, creativity and integrity. 

Conscious leaders know when they’re in limbo and they consciously choose to stay stuck or to shift. 

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