What Is Liminal Space?
Maybe you’ve never heard of the phrase “liminal space,” but you’ve been there, and it’s possible you didn’t like it.
The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word “limen,” which means threshold. To be in a liminal space means to be on the precipice of something new but not quite there yet. You can be in a liminal space physically, emotionally, or metaphorically.
Being in a liminal space can be incredibly uncomfortable for most people. Brains crave homeostasis and predictability, and liminal space is everything but.
Origin of the Term
Anthropologist Arnold van Gennep first wrote about the concept of liminality when he developed the idea of the rites of passage.1He defined a “rite of separation” (preliminary rite), rite of transition (liminal rite), and rite of incorporation (post-liminal rite). This transition theory explained that changes in people’s life stages follow this pattern.
The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of this concept. We remain suspended between what our lives were like before the respiratory virus crisscrossed the globe—and what life will look like afterward. Many people have said that if they just knew when it would be over, it would be much easier to get through.
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Liminal spaces can have harmful effects on mental health—if you let them. It is inevitable that you might encounter various liminal spaces throughout your life. In fact, life is just one liminal space between birth and death.
We’ll explain some liminal spaces you might experience in your life and how to cope with the uncertainty.
How to Cope With Anxiety About Coronavirus (COVID-19)
Examples of Liminal Space
Let’s take a look at some examples of liminal space.
Physical Liminal Spaces
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 a stairwell? 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.
Here are some other examples of physical liminal spaces: