Recently I learned story of a friend of a friend—I’ll call her Judy although that’s not her name—who was widowed a few months ago, and is having a difficult time coming to terms with the change in her life’s circumstances. Judy had been married for over 30 years, and her husband had been the center of her life. Now she was faced with building a new life for herself as a single person. It’s a not-uncommon circumstance many people face during their lifetime.
Judy is having a difficult time adjusting. Sometimes she’s very happy to have her new-found freedom to pursue her interests. But much of the time she feels depressed and abandoned. She’s mad at her husband. She disappointed in her “so-called” friends who are not there for her in the way she wishes. She’s frustrated that she’s not farther along in her grief cycle. She just wants her life back! She wants to be happy again!
I think Judy is in a place that I call the middle-muddle. She is neither here nor there, but is temporarily stuck in that most unsatisfactory place in between. She can’t get back to “there” and she’s not sure where “here” is.
The middle-muddle has probably happened to all of us. It may be because we lost our job, or got divorced, or, like Judy, experienced the death of a family member. Some unwanted life change has occurred and we have to deal with it before we can move on.
The “dealing with it” part is where the middle-muddle is. It’s a somewhat uncomfortable place to be, this middle-muddle. We feel like we’re not doing our best. We feel like our friends are tired of hearing us whine about our problems. We feel like we’re a failure. We want to move on, but just can’t seem to. We’re angry about what happened. And then we become frustrated with ourselves and impatient with our family and friends.
I first heard the term from a minister friend who was helping me through a difficult time after I lost a job due to a corporate merger. It was just a huge inconvenience for me! I had plans that had to be cancelled. I had never been unemployed before, and had to face job hunting for the first time. And I found that I just couldn’t do a thing. I’d plan to get my resume together and contact likely companies. I’d plan to check on-line job boards. I’d plan to network. And then I’d do nothing. I watched a lot of old movies. I read. I cried. I slept a lot. I was so frustrated with myself! Why couldn’t I get moving? My friend sat me down and told me I was in the middle-muddle and I should give myself a break. It was okay if I took some time off from my life to get over what happened to me. It was okay if I didn’t jump immediately into resumes and job interviews. It was okay to just rest, recover, and breathe. When it was time for me to get out of the middle-muddle, I’d know it. Then I’d be able to get down to the business of finding my next job. It would be okay. This is how is how it was supposed to be.
That was some of the best advice I’ve had. I stopped feeling guilty for being stuck in a situation I didn’t create. I learned to take care of myself in nurturing ways. I went on hikes in the park. I sought opportunities to get together with friends and relax. During the long days when just about everyone I knew was at work, I’d go to a museum or library. I baked, and cleaned out closets and drawers. And then one day I sat down at the computer and started my job search. It felt right, and not forced. I found I could think clearly about what I wanted in my next job. I began to move on.
The fact is that this middle-muddle area is a very necessary step in dealing with major life changes. This is the time that we are given to catch our breath, come to terms with our new reality, and grieve the loss of the old. We have to experience all of that before we can begin to seek whatever new future lies out there. You dwell in the middle-muddle for as long as you need. And it might be much longer than you expect.
If you broke your leg or had some kind of surgery, you’d expect to give yourself time to heal. You might even enjoy the time off from your normal life. Everyone could see evidence of your trauma, so you wouldn’t need to feel like a slacker. No guilt. It’s a lot harder when it’s not a physical trauma that you’re suffering from. But it’s even more important to take that very necessary time to recover and heal.
Jumping back into your life too soon can have disastrous consequences. From my perspective in staffing, I seen many instances of a person who worked 10+ years at a job, was laid off, and jumped immediately into another job that only lasted a couple of months. And here they were in the job market again. They were so desperate to get back to normal that they took the first job they could get, which often was totally wrong for them. This might happen two or even three times before they finally developed the perspective they needed to find the right job.
Similarly, have you heard of someone who leaves a relationship and rebounds almost immediately into another one, only to have that one end a short time later? I’ve heard of advice for the newly widowed encouraging them not to make any major decisions for at least a year after the death of their spouse. Don’t sell the house. Don’t buy a Ferrari. Don’t cash in your retirement funds to take a trip around the world.
It takes time to recover our perspective and good judgment. The middle-muddle is where we go to recover that perspective. It’s life telling us to take care of ourselves for a while. We’re being encouraged to be gentle with ourselves. We don’t have to apologize for it. It’s where we’re supposed to be. It’s the gift that life gives us to help us deal with that nasty trick it played on us. Recognize when the middle-muddle is happening to you, dear readers, and embrace it as a necessary transition between your old life and that new one that’s waiting out there somewhere for you—as soon as you’re ready for it.