As a qualified coach, I have been coaching clinicians questioning their careers, lifestyles, and where they want to go. Often, they are in the liminal space. But what exactly is the liminal space?
Liminal comes from the Latin word ‘limen’, meaning threshold.
The liminal space refers to the crossing over this threshold, or boundary, into the territory beyond. It is a transitional space that may cause apprehension or discomfort. Still, it may ultimately be the starting point of significant change and transformation for the person experiencing it once they have gone through this space into the place beyond. The person moves from one area of life to another and the feelings or emotions it may invoke.
The purpose of this short article is to outline what the liminal space is in the context of how the movement of a person from one stage of life to another will bring about new and unfamiliar feelings.
There are both physical and psychological liminal spaces, which all humans will experience. This period can feel uncomfortable and confining, but it is necessary to use it to grow and progress in life.
Physical liminal spaces
Physical liminal spaces are places that feel uncomfortable to be in or go through. They give us that indescribable feeling that something is off, or not quite right – a creepy feeling that can make the hairs on the back of your neck stand out.
Examples of physical liminal spaces include:
- Car parks
- School buildings
- Hotel hallways
One may experience apprehension or dread when caught in such a place at an abnormal time. It could be an empty airport at night, a school building when the children or staff are not present, an open stairwell or hallway in an office or hotel, an elevator, or a multi-story car park late at night; places where we feel unsafe or uncomfortable to be in for any length of time. We dread the thought of having to walk through these spaces.
But know that to get to where we want to be, we must adjust and prepare ourselves to do so.
Non-physical liminal spaces
Non-physical liminal spaces refer to the mental place that one finds themselves in during the movement from one life event to another, and the feelings it may invoke.
Every human will experience the liminal space, some navigating it with little or no problems. While others may find it difficult, feeling overwhelmed or unable to cope.
Here are some examples of life events that may bring about the liminal space in the non-physical sense and some of the feelings they may invoke:
- Adolescence – When moving from childhood to adulthood, young adults can find this period very stressful. The changes in their minds and bodies can be overwhelmingly strange, and hopefully, they can turn to their parents and friend circle to help adjust. They can feel invisible, unheard, and question their social position within the society and community around them
- Gender identity – During one’s lifetime, the question of gender identity can be a time of adjustment and stress. It is essential to feel a sense of belonging for every human being, and often feelings of confusion and shame can hamper a transition period. The norms and tolerance of the dominant society can cause serious harm to an individual where bias and discrimination are seen as a threat to what they identify is
- Job loss – When one has been employed for a long time, finding oneself in between jobs can be very stressful. Being unsure of future career prospects, income level, or social standing are all stress factors and can leave one questioning their worth in the job market
- Marriage – When two people decide to marry, they declare their desire to commit to a lifelong relationship. They may also feel a sense of losing their individuality and independence. Expectations from family members can cause problems also. It may cause stress and anxiety in the relationship
- Divorce – The end of a marriage is the end of a journey. Raising a family, purchasing property and building a life together has ended. Feelings of abandonment, loss and grief are common during divorce, making this a hugely stressful, life-changing event for all family members, including the relationship children
- Bereavement – Often, there is no warning or preparation for the loss of loved ones. But this period of adjustment is one of the most difficult all of us must face. It will encompass feelings of loss, anger, despair, abandonment, to name a few. It is a time when moving forward to our next place in life can be the most complex and challenging
- Relocation – Moving to a new home can be a daunting and stressful time in life. Having to adjust to a new place can feel unsettling, as one must find and make new connections such as friendships, groups, schools, employment etc. Fitting into a new community is a significant change, especially when you have lost all that has been familiar to you in your daily life.
State of play
Life events are a normal part of living. Each person will go through all stages of life as they age, facing many challenges along the way. What one may find difficult to cope with, another may pass through with ease. But accepting the unknowing and getting out of your comfort zone can lead one on a path to a better place.
It is crucial to look upon the liminal space as a place or state that you should embraced. It is often where one’s strengths and deeper understanding of ourselves and the world around us can be found.
The liminal space is a space in between the past and what lies ahead in the future. It’s a space for transformation delving deep inside. It can happen because of circumstances for all kinds of reasons that result in life not running in the same way as it did previously. I think we all understand this, having coped with COVID-19 restrictions recently.
It is a time for reflection, looking closely at one’s beliefs, identity and values. It is time to look at transforming, and here the miracle may occur from noticing it and trusting it.
Alan Seale explains it like a caterpillar making the transition to a butterfly. Sometimes we end up cocooned and unsure how the weave has been created around us and given this unique space to shape our future. It’s then time to trust in the bigger picture and push out of the liminal space.
Transformation occurs when we are not in control. Sometimes we need to have the earth shaken from around us to loosen our way to another more meaningful place. Reality can be born when we let go of identities and old roles.
This unique space and place can establish who we are. We can work against it or attract and trust it. Transformation is not always natural, but the rewards are often too good not to explore and enjoy (Seale, 2016).
As humans, we should learn to cope with stress and anxiety as best we can, as striving through these periods can open us to new experiences in life and even enhance our creativity.
The dread of change can be paralysing, but often with the help of those who can offer guidance and advice, we can adjust and move on to new possibilities and the following new stages of our lives. It is through these tiny and also difficult times that we grow and develop new skills.
It is also a time to consider our place in life, our strengths and how we wish to be in the world around us. Deciding how we choose to react to change is the most crucial factor, as change will happen anyway, with or without us. Having a network of good friends (even just one or a neutral person) to assist during times of change can be all the help a person needs.
The liminal space can be a place of inner contemplation, a good place where we can learn to take time for ourselves, think about how we see ourselves, our place and role in our world, and those around us. It is a rite of passage.