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.
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.
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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:
Emotional Liminal Spaces
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.
Here are some examples of emotional liminal spaces:
Death of a loved one
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.
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Metaphorical Liminal Spaces
Metaphorically, a liminal space exists any time there are two ideas that someone is vacillating between. A trapeze makes an excellent metaphor for this. Once you jump off the platform, you are literally swinging through the air, waiting to transition from where you came from to where you are going.
You might also think of having to choose between two decisions. Maybe you need to choose between spending the evening with your romantic partner or your best friend. Until you make a decision, you are in a liminal space.
When faced with this uncertainty of how to proceed, you are thrown between where you have come from and where you are going.
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.2
If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 1-800-273-8255 for support and assistance from a trained counselor. If you or a loved one are in immediate danger, call 911.
For more mental health resources, see our National Helpline Database.
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.