What Is Liminal Space?
"Liminal" is derived from the Latin word "limen," which means "threshold." Being in a liminal space implies being on the verge of something new but not quite there yet. A liminal space can exist physically, emotionally, or metaphorically.
Most people find being in a liminal space extremely uncomfortable. The brain craves homeostasis and predictability, and liminal space provides neither.
When developing the concept of rites of passage, anthropologist Arnold van Gennep first wrote about liminality. He distinguished between a "rite of separation" (preliminary rite), a "rite of transition" (liminal rite), and a "rite of incorporation" (post-liminal rite). According to this transition theory, changes in people's life stages follow this pattern.
If you let them, liminal spaces can be detrimental to your mental health. You will undoubtedly encounter various liminal spaces throughout your life. In reality, life is nothing more than a liminal space between birth and death.
Examples of Liminal Space
Physical Liminal Spaces
Perhaps a physical liminal space is the easiest to grasp. You are constantly in physical liminal spaces, but you often don't notice them because you are only there for brief periods of time.
Consider a staircase. It transports you from one floor to another, and you rarely think twice about your time spent on a staircase. But what if you become trapped in a stairwell? Then images of horror films may start racing through your mind.
On a very benign level, you can see how staying in that in-between space becomes very uncomfortable.
Other examples of physical liminal spaces include:
- Emotional Liminal Spaces
A liminal space can also be thought of as a transitional period. People will encounter a variety of liminal spaces throughout their lives. Some will be longer than others, and some will be more difficult than others, but liminality, by definition, has an endpoint.
Some examples of emotional liminal spaces are as follows:
- Death of a loved one
Many of these appear to be endings (which they are to some extent), but they are actually lines in the sand. These kinds of events, for example, have a tendency to divide our lives into pre-divorce and post-divorce periods. However, in the aftermath of one of these events, one door has slammed shut, and you're not sure where to open the next.
Metaphorical Liminal Spaces
A liminal space exists metaphorically whenever someone is vacillating between two ideas. A trapeze is a great metaphor for this. When you jump off the platform, you're literally swinging through the air, waiting to make the transition from where you came to where you're going.
You might also consider having to choose between two options. Perhaps you have to decide whether to spend the evening with your romantic partner or your best friend. You are in a liminal space until you make a decision.
When faced with the uncertainty of how to proceed, you are forced to choose between where you have come and where you want to go.
How Liminal Space Affects Your Mental Health
Most of the time, the liminal space is not dangerous in and of itself, but people's perceptions of it can be.
When liminal space is perceived as a threat, an unknown, or a source of stress, the feelings can range from anxiety to depression to suicidal ideation.
It becomes more than just a fear of uncertainty; it becomes a fear of not having the emotional resources to cope. As a result, avoidant behaviours such as substance abuse or self-harm emerge. Furthermore, fear of uncertainty may flood your body with stress hormones, making it even more difficult to come up for air.
If living in the liminal space becomes too much for you to handle on your own, you should seek the help of a therapist to learn healthy coping mechanisms.
How to Tolerate Liminal Space
Everyone will encounter liminal space at some point in their lives. These times can be difficult, but they can also provide opportunities for growth.
Although being in a liminal space can be difficult to deal with, it is where you are right now. And liminal spaces can be beautiful. Consider liminal spaces in architecture, such as a beautiful atrium in a museum's entryway. Liminality can also be a source of transformation. It may not have been your first choice, but it is the path you are on now.
Much of the anxiety associated with being in a transitional period stems from fear of what might happen. So, take a moment to assess your current situation. How does uncertainty make you feel in your body? Then, as you breathe in and out, remind yourself that you are fine in this moment.