Liminal spaces are a place of transition, a threshold between two points, or the middle point of a journey. Liminal spaces represent a period of transitional identities, where one identity has ended but the new one has not yet begun. These spaces exist in the real world as physical locations, but are also present in our cognition and psychological experience, often related to major life changes and periods of uncertainty.
Examples of liminal spaces
What are liminal spaces? Have you ever had a lonely overnight layover in a foreign airport, or felt uncomfortable on a long walk through an empty parking lot? Following a breakup, career change, or geographical move, have you ever experienced a sense of instability or uncertainty? This physical and psychological experience is known as liminality, a quality of becoming—the space between what was and what is to come. Often associated with rites of passage, personal transitions, and major shifts in ideology, social structure and behavior, liminal space can be transformative and valuable. The definition of this idea is somewhat nebulous, which is fitting.
Perhaps a physical liminal space is easiest to understand. You are in physical liminal spaces all the time, but typically you often don’t notice them because you’re only there for fleeting moments. Think of a staircase. It takes you from one floor to another, and you often don’t think twice about your time on a staircase. But what about if you get stuck in an elevator? Then, visions of horror movies might start racing through your head.
You can see how, on a very benign level, the idea of staying in that in-between space becomes very uncomfortable.
More simply, a liminal space may be thought of as a transitionary period. People will face many different liminal spaces during all of life’s phases. Some will be longer than others and some will be harder than others, but, by definition, liminality has an endpoint.
Aside from tangible or physical spaces, these spaces of liminality are similarly cognitive and exist in our mind. For example, pregnancy, engagement, puberty, finishing university or college, divorse, retirement, career ending, or those moments when you’re seemingly stuck equidistant between starting a goal and finishing it. In my case, year two of my PhD!
Many of these look like they are endings (they are to some degree), but they are really lines in the sand. Events like these have the tendency to divide our lives into pre-divorce and post-divorce, for example. But in the aftermath of one of these events, one door has slammed shut, but you’re not yet sure where to open the next door.
How Liminal Space Affects Your Mental Health
Most of the time, the liminal space itself is not dangerous, but people’s perception of it may be dangerous.
When liminal space is perceived as a danger, uncertainty, or a stressor, the feelings can lead to anything from anxiety to depression to suicidal ideation.
More than just the fear of uncertainty, it becomes the fear that one will not have the emotional resources to cope. This leads to avoidant behaviors such as substance use or self-harm. Additionally, the fear of uncertainty may flood your body with stress hormones, making it even harder to come up for air.
If existing in the liminal space becomes too much for you to deal with on your own, you might want to find a therapist to help you learn healthy ways to cope.
The Importance of Liminal Spaces
Throughout history we are presented with important events identified as liminal. For example, on April 1961, Yuri Gagarin from the Soviet Union was the first human in space. His vehicle, Vostok 1 circled Earth at a speed of 27,400 kilometers per hour with the flight lasting 108 minutes.
Just 20 days later, President John F. Kennedy addressed Congress (and later Rice University) to set the ambitious goal of a successful moon mission by the end of the decade.
Between the beginning and end of the goal, Americans worked tirelessly to make it happen. Each successful mission laid the groundwork for the next success.
- The Mercury Program (1958–1963) had the objective of putting a man in space and keeping him there for a certain amount of time. Each of the six Mercury missions extended that time.
- Next came the Gemini Program (1961–1966). Gemini launched 10 space flights with the objective of putting two men in Earth orbit.
- Then came the Apollo Program (1967–1972). The goal of these three-man missions was to land a man on the moon and, in Kennedy’s words, return him safely to Earth. Apollo launched 11 crewed space flights, six of which landed on the moon.
Landing on the moon was always the end goal, but the middle was filled with goals and objectives that needed to be achieved to make that end goal possible. In one mission alone, Apollo 9, there were 11 things that had never been done before, including the first two-person spacewalk (EVA), the first two-spacecraft docking in space, the first extraction and crewed flight of the lunar module, and many other firsts.
Without the middle of the story, there would be no successful end.
I love a good success story. Someone dreams big, sets a huge goal, and then overcomes all odds to reach it. But success stories tend to focus mainly on the highlights: the moment that person made a decision to go, to change something meaningful in their life—and the moment that change was realized. Most of the story is in the middle.
The real decision to go is made again, every day, when you’re in the middle. Between setting your goal and reaching it, you have to stay committed. But that’s precisely where we can get stalled.
If you’re feeling stuck in the middle right now, here are some tips to keep you committed to the decision to go.
- Set smaller goals that ladder up to the big goal. Getting to the moon was the big goal, but there were a myriad of smaller goals that had to be met first.
- Celebrate the goals achieved along the way. The space program is the perfect example of staying focused, creating a long-term plan with short-term objectives, and celebrating each success with a greenlight to the next objective. This is how we made it to the moon. “It wasn’t a miracle, we just decided to go.”
- Invite some accountability into your journey. America’s successful space missions were accomplished not by an individual, but by a team. Maybe you’re a person who can go it alone, but more likely than not, it can help to be part of a team. Accountability and support can propel you closer to your goal.
The middle part of your success story matters. When you’re in the middle, stuck somewhere between making the decision to go and actually arriving at your destination, stay committed. And like amazing men and women who made America’s space program successful, stick with your decision to go.
How to Tolerate Liminal Space
Everyone will deal with liminal space at one point or another. These periods can be tough, but they can be growth opportunities.
Although the uncertainty of being in a liminal space may be challenging to deal with, it is where you are now. And there can be beauty in liminal spaces. Think of liminal spaces in architecture, like a beautiful atrium in the entryway of a museum.
Liminality can also be an opportunity for transformation. It might not have been the path you would have chosen, but it is the path you are on now.
Much of the distress associated with being in a transitional period comes from fear or catastrophising what might happen. So, stop for a moment to take stock of where you are right now.
What does uncertainty feel like in your body? Then, observe your breath coming in and out as you remind yourself that you are OK in this moment.
Embrace Your Current State
Some principles of Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) can help with uncertainty. First, you can accept where you are and want to change it.
For example, in the wake of grief following the loss of a family member, you can be sad and be looking for ways to change your behaviors and your response to the event.
Much of our entertainment and literature follows the hero’s journey—essentially, something happens, the hero goes on a journey following that event, and it profoundly changes them. Yet, whether it be fictitious or true-to-life, creativity might flourish in times of uncertainty.
So, you might want to write or draw to express what it feels like to be in a liminal space.
The Good and Bad of Liminal Space
As you now see, there are small and large liminal spaces that we move through all the time, in both mental and physical realms, but it is difficult to make a qualitative judgment of these experiences.
On the good side of things, liminality can be a mental space of unfettered creativity and courage; without being held back by old structures and ideas, it is possible to imagine something you may have never dreamed of in the past—a new country, profession, partner, hobby etc. While these liminal spaces can be uncomfortable, they are also transformative and strengthening, helping us to realize both potential and purpose. Our lives only move forward, and the “threshold” of a liminal period can remind us of our freedom to evolve, grow, and develop in unexpected ways.
Clinging to the past for fear of the future
This can shorten a person’s time in liminal spaces, or even prevent a person from finding them at all. These rites of passage—painful or unwanted as they may be—are milestones in the long road of life, and can serve as markers of your perseverance, courage and self-determination.
On the negative side of things, liminal spaces (both tangible and abstract) can be frightening or off-putting, sending a chill up your existential spine. From abandoned buildings and empty airport terminals to lonely job relocations and the loss of partners, liminality is not always pretty or comforting. The feeling of being in such a transitional chapter or place can be overwhelming and paralyzing; such upheavals in life often require support from those closest to you, even if you find it difficult to ask for help.
While such times in life can generate beauty, creativity and new growth, they can also be emotionally demanding and mentally exhausting. Perpetually existing in liminality may be just as dangerous as never experiencing such threshold moments at all.
A Final Word
Consciously entering a liminal space is like stepping into a mindset where anything is possible. It is a space of unfulfilled purpose with an indeterminate future, where questions of “right and wrong” are replaced by “what if” and “why not”. Often linked to change or transition, physical and mental liminality are fascinating realms that can lead to new ways of thinking, exciting decisions, and unexpected outcomes.