Liminal Space: In Between Life Phases
Are you currently facing a change in your life? If you think about it, people move almost permanently through existential thresholds: intermediate spaces between one event and another, between security and instability. A loss, an emotional breakup, changing jobs, and even having a child are events that can potentially generate fear and uncertainty.
You’d probably love your entire life cycle to run in a straight line. You’d like it to be a succession of the calmest of circumstances, without any scares, insecurities, or doubts. However, your daily life is punctuated by changes and twists of fate, some of which are happy and some not so. Every period of this personal transition is known as liminal space.
Throughout your life, you’ll face numerous transitions, some of which will be harder to deal with than others. Occasionally, you may even get stuck on the threshold of change, not knowing what to do or how to react. After all, we all handle change in different ways and we don’t always have the best tools to deal with it.
Fortunately, liminality has a beginning and an end. It never lasts forever but has an endpoint that allows you to make way for a new stage. Having support and good psychological resources will allow you to make these transitions in the best way.
Sometimes, even positive and desired changes can generate high levels of anxiety.
Liminal space and its effects
Have you ever enthusiastically waited for a change to come and then, when it did, it completely overwhelmed you? That’s because, even in situations where the transition is positive, you can still experience stress. Some examples are having a child, starting a new job, or moving to a new place. Anxiety is almost always present in every vital event.
In psychology, liminal space defines a period of change between one event and another when you’re gripped by stress and insecurity. There’s a really recent example of this phenomenon – the pandemic. It was a time when our lives were suspended in the most uncertain of ways. In addition, as anticipated, the mental health of the population suffered.
This happened because liminal territories challenged what we took for granted. In this case, our beliefs, securities, and mental approaches had to be completely reformulated to adapt to change. These necessary steps required time and coping mechanisms.
Life itself is a liminal space between birth and death.
Who defined the term?
The concept of liminal space was defined by the anthropologist, Arnold Van Gennep. He used the term to describe the state of confusion and ambiguity that emerges from any process of change or transformation. This 19th-century French ethnographer associated the idea with rites of passage or initiation. He meant those periods of time in which an individual manages to acquire a new status after a specific test.
Much later, a paper written by Dr. Paul Larson stated that the concept of liminal space was introduced into the field of psychology for two reasons. Firstly, it allows us to better delve into the transition periods that people experience. Secondly, these liminal territories often present numerous mental health challenges.
Liminal space is like a ladder
You might visualize a transition period as a great waiting room. These are times of change in which you often feel lost, wandering through inhospitable territories and unable to find the exit door that’ll take you to a calm and safe place.
From a psychological point of view, a liminal space is like a ladder. At times, you feel strong, motivated, and hopeful in climbing the section from one floor to another with total ease. Furthermore, you have your own coping resources to make it easier (or harder) for you to make the ascent more or less quickly.
However, sometimes, the section between one place and another can be difficult to navigate. It seems you lack strength and end up getting stuck. It’s in these moments when you long for your previous life (the bottom of the ladder) where everything was calm and you thought you had it all under control. In fact, you’d love to go back there, but it’s impossible.
When change comes, it’s common to feel uncomfortable, lost, and so challenged that even your identity can go into crisis. It makes you linger a little longer on the flight of stairs, feeling how the world is wobbling under your feet. Nevertheless, as we mentioned earlier, liminal spaces have an end and, sooner or later, you’ll climb that ladder.
The uncertainty of not knowing what to do will mean that, sooner or later, you’ll be pushed to take a leap from where you are to the other place to which you must ascend.
The importance of tolerating liminal territories
Life itself is a liminal space, with a beginning and an end. Change, transitions, and the succession of vital stages are a constant in existence. Therefore, you must internalize this idea. However, it’s true that any variation in your stability makes you uncomfortable and might make you feel stressed, anxious, and worried.
It’s interesting to look at these liminal territories as the archetypal representation of the hero’s journey. In fact, living is like embarking on a long and beautiful journey in which constant challenges arise. It’s common to feel a longing for what you’re leaving behind, but the important thing is to advance in each stage and learn from every experience to finally achieve satisfaction concerning your own existence.
Feeling fear and concern about what you’re going to find in every change is completely normal. Moving forward on the journey of existence means learning to let go of much of what you took for granted, in order to find new meanings. If in that ascent, you don’t find moorings or strength, make sure you ask for help and support. After all, even heroes allow themselves to be rescued.
All cited sources were thoroughly reviewed by our team to ensure their quality, reliability, currency, and validity. The bibliography of this article was considered reliable and of academic or scientific accuracy.
- Larson, P. (2014). Liminality. In: Leeming, D.A. (eds) Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion. Springer, Boston, MA. https://doi.org/10.1007/978-1-4614-6086-2_387
- Thomassen, Bjørn (2009). “The Uses and Meanings of Liminality”. International Political Anthropology. 2 (1): 5–27.
- Horvath, A.; Thomassen, B.; Wydra, H. (2009). “Introduction: Liminality and Cultures of Change”. International Political Anthropology. 2 (1): 3–4.