There is a difference between uncertainty and being in limbo 

If there is one word to describe what the Covid pandemic brought to all our lives, it would be “uncertainty.” This unpredictable period has had a long-term, negative effect on many people’s physical health, mental health, relationships, and financial stability. People each have different tolerance levels for uncertainty. Individuals who are less tolerant of uncertainty experience it as being highly stressful.  

Distinct from uncertainty, being in limbo describes finding oneself in a period of waiting – or finding oneself in transition between one thing and the next. It may be that a person is waiting for information, or a decision to be made, or the resolution of an issue. In some instances, the person in limbo is subject to unwelcome circumstances beyond their control. Although limbo can be uncomfortable, finding oneself in a hiatus period is not always a bad thing.
For example: In the weeks after writing their final Grade 12 exams, teenagers may find themselves in a state of limbo. They have “finished school” and are waiting for their exam results. These will determine their next step, such as final acceptance into tertiary education or deciding on other options.  


What is being stuck in limbo? 

However, it is possible to feel stuck in a state of limbo – feeling the weight of waiting for an opportunity or information that will allow a person to move forward.  

For example: An individual can feel stuck and in limbo in their career. This may be due to hitting a glass ceiling, waiting for a promotion, or it could be down to them not having definitive goals in place. Without a clear idea of what they want to do, it is tricky to know which next step to take.  


What are some of the negative effects of being stuck in limbo? 

Being stuck in limbo, with no obvious way forward has been scientifically proven to give rise to anxiety. A lengthy time in transition has been found to be more stressful than facing something undesirable that is certain – or even receiving unwelcome news. The longer a person remains stuck in a state of limbo, the more pronounced their negative emotions are likely to become. In addition to initial feelings of anxiety, many people will become increasingly stressed, frustrated, overwhelmed, sad and angry. Gone are their positive feelings of hope and camaraderie and these feelings are replaced with hopelessness and despair, which could lead to full blown depression.  


How to break out of limbo 

How would you eat a Tyrannosaurus Rex? The answer is, “One bite at a time.” Choosing to do one thing, – however small a step it may be – is a great way to start the journey out of being stuck in limbo. For example, you could reach out to a trusted friend or colleague to talk about how you are feeling.  


Here are 3 helpful steps to moving forward from being stuck in limbo: 


1. Identify the problem 

Ask yourself, “Why am I stuck in transition?” Here are five reasons you may be stuck: 

  • You have outgrown your current situation: People change and our needs, wants and hopes all evolve over time.   
  • You are afraid of being judged: We all need the support of others. However, placing too much stock in what other people will think of you can be paralysing. 
  • You worry that change may cause you to lose something of value: Making a decision that brings change does not have to be about choosing either/or. With a change in the way you view the impending step or change, it can be about having your cake and eating it.  
  • You feel overwhelmed: You could be overwhelmed by unwelcome circumstances, such as the death of a loved one or being retrenched. Or you may find the pressure inherent in making a desired move overwhelming.  
  • You are afraid that you are not well equipped for what lies ahead: You may want to take an exciting step but doubt that you have the skills to make a success of it.  

 2. Determine what you really want 

What you wanted as a graduate may not be the same when you are in your thirties. Being clear about what you want in the here and now is critical as a precursor to taking action – particularly if you are feeling stuck. Here are five questions to ask yourself to help solidify what you really want.  

  • What are your values? Identifying your core values can provide clarity about your wants and needs in your relationships, career or business. Think though and create a list of 5 – 10 of your core values. Then start to keep track of your values as they impact your daily life. 
  • What things make you happy? Think beyond just your activities and careers. What brings you a sense of joy or happiness in every area of your life? Your answers will provide clues to finding your sense of purpose.  
  • What would you prefer to be doing right now? Is there anything you would rather be doing with the bulk of your time? The answer may give you hints about your life that impact on both your private life and career. Make a shortlist of things you may want to explore in your free time – or education that will move you toward skilling up for a desirable job. 
  • Is there anything you do not want? It is powerful to identify things and situations you want to avoid. For example, knowing that you do not want a job without a flexible work schedule can steer you toward finding one that provides better work-life balance. 
  • What are you afraid of? Insights into what worries or intimidates you can help you step outside of your comfort zone. It could be that what scares you most is what you want the most. For example, fear of failure could be holding you back from applying for your dream job.  


3. Take action 

It is easy to become overwhelmed by the seemingly Herculean effort it will take to transition from where you are stuck to where you want to be. It is important to accept that where you currently find yourself is a perfectly good starting point. Here are six steps to facilitate moving out of limbo:  

  • Focus on what you can control. It is futile to attempt to change the things you have no control over. Avoid the frustration of making no headway by focusing on progressing in areas of your life over which you have direct influence. 
  • Plan out the action steps needed to get where you are going.  Create a blueprint to get where you want to be. Your action plan should include specific, practical steps toward reaching your objective. Ensure each task is manageable and to stay on track, set deadlines for reaching consecutive milestones.  
  • Take the first step. Taking the first step, no matter how small, is the result of believing that something is possible. 
  • Celebrate your micro-wins! It is easy to overlook the significance of the small victories along the way. Every win is evidence of progress.  
  • Exercise patience. Sometimes a pause is necessary to allow for the right timing or circumstances. One way to maintain momentum in such “downtime” is to keep working on yourself and developing the skills that will help you succeed in your next stage.  
  • Strive to persevere. Perseverance is the most powerful tool in manifesting your dreams. It harnesses grit and determination to push through the tough times, even in the face of setbacks.  


Remember that each situation that makes you feel stuck is just one aspect of your life. Two great antidotes to the frustration of being stuck in limbo are to spend time engaged in pursuing your passions and with people whose company you enjoy. Deliberately spending more time around the pursuits and people you love will lift your spirits, help you in feeling supported – and occupy your mind so that you spend less time worrying. 


Over to you for sharing your comments and experiences.

About the Author: Kerstin Jatho

Kerstin is the senior transformational coach and team development facilitator for 4Seeds Consulting. She is also the author of Growing Butterfly Wings, a book on applying positive psychology principles during a lengthy recovery. Her passion is to develop people-centred organisations where people thrive and achieve their potential in the workplace. You can find Kerstin on LinkedIn, Soundcloud, YouTube and Facebook.

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