How to Live in Limbo

Two women wearing face masks use binoculars to look in the distance.
Two women wearing face masks use binoculars to look in the distance.
Photo: Ute Grabowsky/Photothek/Getty Images

“It’ll get better,” my husband says as I review our budget, which has become tighter and tighter during the pandemic. “We just have to make it over this hump.”

But what is the hump exactly? And when does a hump become so large that “hump” is no longer the appropriate geographical designation?

At first, the hump was April. Then it was the summer. Now the hump is 2020, and probably most of 2021, too. The hump has flattened into the plateau. We’re in the eternal now, as Kelli Korducki put it in Forge — with the future so up in the air that staying in the moment is about the only thing we can do. “In these uncertain times” has already become a pandemic cliché, and stories about getting comfortable with uncertainty have become its defining literature.

Here’s the thing, though: Uncertainty will always be uncomfortable. It’s just a bug of the human psyche.

A more useful skill is learning how to be comfortable with discomfort. To be cool with it, like an annoying roommate. To sit with it.

In fact, sitting with discomfort is a more, well, comfortable strategy than trying to move past it, says Alexandra Finkel, a psychotherapist and social worker in New York and the founder of Kind Minds Therapy. “We fall into anxiety spirals when we try to push a feeling out, and then get trapped in that feeling because we can’t will feelings away,” she says. “Discomfort thrives and multiplies when we try to push it away. The single best antidote to discomfort is permission for it to be there.”

In other words, the more we can wholeheartedly accept living in a constant state of in-betweenness, the better we can manage how scary that state can be.

Identify the ways you trick yourself into feeling control

The small habits we develop to organize our lives — check email, make lists, create routines — can also function as attempts to double down on the delusion that those bigger things are within our control. “Certainty-seeking behaviors,” as psychologists call them, might take the form of asking for reassurance, craving validation, micromanaging people around you, or repeatedly checking your texts or inbox, for example.

These habits are usually benign, the behavioral equivalent of a security blanket — but addressing them is an easy, low-stakes way to practice being a little bit uncomfortable. For example, you could stop asking your spouse “Does this sound okay?” before sending every text or email. Or you could try putting down your phone and avoid checking it for the entire day (or even a few hours). The idea that you have unread texts or emails waiting for you might drive you nuts, but that’s the point: You’re getting used to the discomfort of not knowing.

Build novelty into your life

In high doses, uncertainty is always going to be stressful. But it also exists on a spectrum, and mild forms of uncertainty, like novelty, can help you ease yourself into it. Exploring the new and unknown requires forsaking some degree of comfort, but you’re doing it on your own terms, making it a nonthreatening way to build up your tolerance.

In practice, this might mean something as simple as rearranging your furniture or trying a new takeout restaurant. It might mean switching up your daily routine, experimenting with how you work and how you unwind. Or it might mean cultivating new (or abandoned) skills: learning a new type of workout, teaching yourself photography, picking up the guitar that’s been collecting dust in your living room since 2015.

Zoom out far enough so you can see the whole hump

Uncertainty may be the buzzword of 2020, but it’s not exactly a new presence in our lives. Many of the things we accept as certain are often more precarious than we let ourselves acknowledge. Layoffs, relationship tensions, financial setbacks, health problems — those have always been real. On the flip side of every good thing is the risk that it will end.

Whether we realize it or not, we’re in a perpetual state of in-betweenness. The only thing that’s truly certain is that things will always change. And in 2020, that could be a hopeful thought. “Taking time to recognize that this is not the permanent future is necessary to fight feelings like ‘this will never end,’ Finkel says. “Many, many crises have occurred before and have been resolved over time. Think about things you will look forward to when times change.”

We’ll get over this hump. And then there will be other humps. The map of life is all hump. Even the humps have humps. We don’t have to love that fact, but accepting it can help us learn to hold onto some sense of comfort even in precarious moments.

Kristin Wong is a journalist and freelance writer. She’s written for the New York Times, ELLE, The Cut, and Glamour.

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