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Living in Limbo Without Leaving People Hanging

Keeping in touch is vital in uncertain times, even if we don't know what to say.

Key points

  • In prolonged periods of stress due to uncertainty, we often avoid communicating when we feel overwhelmed.
  • In times of limbo, we can fall into noncommittal behaviors when it's difficult to make commitments with others.
  • Touching base with others reduces confusion or strain in the relationship and provides opportunities to learn from each other how to manage.
 Karolina Grabowska/Pexels
Source: Karolina Grabowska/Pexels

In times of uncertainty, we hope for good news while bracing for the worst. Living through the frustration and stress of waiting in limbo can mean putting social engagements on hold or avoiding communication because we don’t know what to tell others around us. We can become isolated when we’re stuck in limbo as we wait for news about something deeply important to us—something crucial at stake in our lives, such as a job offer, a medical diagnosis, finding a home, a college admission, a commitment from a partner.

We’re often forced to wait until our patience is stretched thin, then pivot to adapt and wait some more until we’re beyond exhausted. We can hardly think clearly when we cannot see ahead, let alone make plans with others and move forward. Indeed, the American Psychological Association’s “Stress in America” report from March 2022 showed that we have been suffering from mental exhaustion due to the prolonged and unrelenting uncertainty in our lives during the past two years.

The 3,012 adults polled reported how the impact of prolonged stress has been wearing them down: “Americans have been doing their best to persevere over these past two tumultuous years, but these data suggest that we’re now reaching unprecedented levels of stress that will challenge our ability to cope,” said Arthur C. Evans, PhD, APA's chief executive officer. The poll revealed alarming findings, with “more adults rating inflation and issues related to the invasion of Ukraine as stressors than any other issue asked about in the past 15 years.” Major sources of stress were the rapid rise of living costs and gas prices (87 percent), supply chain issues (81 percent), Russia’s invasion of Ukraine (80 percent), and potential retaliation from Russia from cyberattacks or nuclear threats (80 percent)

Living in the grip of “When will the other shoe fall off?” or “When will this ever end?” for two years is not what humans are wired to handle. Prolonged limbo and uncertainty affect us differently than short-term periods of putting our lives on hold. An APA report from late 2021 showed how we are having difficulty making decisions and planning ahead, let alone keeping commitments, because our lives keep changing so quickly. This prolonged survival mode and inability to feel confident about our decisions and goals come at a cost to our relationships. More than half of adults (56 percent) in March 2022 “reported experiencing a relationship strain or end.” Nearly half of Americans (47 percent) agreed they “have felt very lonely.”

Being in limbo and waiting for long periods for a resolution to a life event can be even more stressful than receiving bad news. Kate Sweeney, a professor of psychology at the University of California, Riverside, studies the psychology of how we wait in times of limbo. In an interview with the “Speaking of Psychology” podcast, she stated, “Studies find that when you ask women who have gone through, for example, treatment for breast cancer what was the hardest part of that experience, many of them will say it was the period of uncertainty that preceded the diagnosis, not the diagnosis.” Not knowing what’s coming and not being able to do much about it is an uncomfortable state to be in. When our life is on hold, we often tend to hold back on interacting with others because we don’t want people to see our strain and worry.

Given the limbo of our own lives as well as the collective uncertainty we live in, it has become more common and normalized to slip into noncommittal behaviors. When it’s difficult to make plans, keep commitments, or even know what to say, it’s not surprising that we skip communicating to avoid revealing how awkward we feel. Disappearing acts (ghosting), stringing folks along (breadcrumbing), or disappearing for long periods and then suddenly resurfacing (submarining) are happening for many of us. We might be thinking, “Does anyone get back to me anymore?” “What happened to transparency?” “What next?”

After a long spell of others leaving us hanging, it’s tempting to give up on keeping others in the loop as well. But when our life is on hold and we cannot see ahead, at least we can muddle through together in meaningful, companionable ways while we wait for that big important thing to happen. Being in limbo, undecided, unsure, uneasy, stunned, or lost in the shuffle of someone else’s decision is nothing to be ashamed of. Our humility and humor surely help mitigate unpredictable times.

5 Reasons to Keep in Touch in Times of Uncertainty

  1. People deserve to hear back from us, and we can respectfully respond, at least briefly. Leaving people hanging can cause confusion, or strain, or damage a relationship. Keeping in touch, even in small ways, prevents isolation or spiraling deeper into it.
  2. We can learn from one another's experiences as we face situations of limbo or uncertainty.
  3. We can establish a routine to communicate in small, regular intervals. These brief check-ins help us keep a dialogue of updates, feedback, and solutions over the weeks or months of the situation in limbo.
  4. At the very least, keeping in touch is a welcome distraction when we’re waiting in agony or trudging through the long haul of limbo.
  5. Keeping in touch is a way of keeping our word and holding on to our integrity even when we have little to count on.
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