Stop and smell the Liminal Spaces

What are “Liminal Spaces”? Today, we see all over the internet, “Liminal Spaces” are eerily, empty, physical or virtual spaces that provoke a feeling of “uncanny valley”. Something, that is less than real or right, that makes us feel wrong and uneasy. “Backrooms” that are move-in ready for people to use, but there isn’t a soul. Overall, “Liminal Spaces” have grown to be somewhere where we shouldn’t be, and that’s just not the case. 

In reality, “Liminal Spaces” are much more complex than a photo of an empty grocery store or an empty classroom. Anthropologically, sociologically, existentially, … metaphysically speaking, liminal Spaces are the most important points in time for all of us.

Be it on a small scale, with the phases throughout our lives. Or on a large scale, with the changes between historical periods. There is always a moment connecting one point and another and this is a Liminal Space

This is the midpoint, the fork in the road that connects one long comfortable route, with two or more distressing choices. Or more plainly – the line in which a dirt road becomes a paved street. There isn’t a choice, there is only moving into the unknown or not.

And so today, I want to ask you, to stop and smell the Liminal Spaces. Because these are the crucial turning points in your life that will make up the map of your life.

This theory can be dated back to 1909 from the book The Rites of Passage by Arnold van Gennep. van Gennep was a Dutch-German-French anthropologist who studied social rituals and first coined the commonly used term “rites of passage” 

From the 1960 edition of The Rites of Passage by Arnold van Gennep: “[A] complete scheme of rites of passage theoretically includes preliminal rites (rites of separation), liminal rites (rites of transition), and postliminal rites (rites of incorporation), in specific instances these three types are not always equally important or equally elaborated.”

van Gennep’s process of (A) Separation, (B) Transition, and (C) Incorporation is not unlike Joesph Campbell’s Hero’s Journey from his The Hero with a Thousand Faces; also known as the ultimate guidebook for writing a deep and fulfilling character arche for any story.

Campbell’s three stages of the Hero’s Journey mirrors van Gennep’s with (A) the hero’s Departure from their ordinary world, (B) Initiation into the new world, and (C) the hero’s Return to the ordinary world with something new.

van GennepPre-liminal RitesLiminal RitesPost-liminal Rites
Rites of separationRites of transitionRites of incorporation

This is a story that can be seen over and over and over again (from The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell references):

  • The story of Genesis
  • Exodus
  • Jesus
  • Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama, the first Buddha) 
  • Dante’s Divine Comedy
  • Gilgamesh
  • Hercules
  • King Arthur and the Knights of the Round Table

More modernly, we can see the process in pop culture, 

  • Batman
  • Star Wars 
  • Harry Potter
  • Lord of the Rings // The Hobbit
  • Really … any story that leaves an impression on you

And it is this process that allows us (the viewer, the reader, the listener) to grow very fond of the main character, and to see ourselves in them as they grow throughout the story. The ability to relate to a growing character then strengthens our emotional security about potential changes. Not to mention, in a lot of cases, seeing something more tangibly than within your own imagination, allows you to better imagine yourself in that position. You have a reference, and maybe even a cheat sheet for success (yes, life is harder than it is in the media, but the point can still ring true).

Overall, the awkward transition from a zero to a hero is what makes the main character relatable. And stories like these make it easier for us (the viewer, the reader, the listener) to transition from one point in life to another because we have an example to look up to, and a vision to look forward to. Because, and let’s be honest, … none of us really want to change. 

From Forbes Health: Liminal Space: What Is It And How Does It Affect Your Mental Health? By Kimberly Dawn Neumann. The writer Neumann quotes New York-based mindset expert and high-profile transformation couch Kirsten Franklin, who said: “[Liminal Spaces are] where one thing ends and another is about to begin, but you are not quite there yet, you are in the space between,” […] “Basically, your mind likes things to be regular and consistent—it craves and creates predictability,” says Franklin. “Our caveman brain has trained us to avoid anything where we don’t 100% know the outcome.” As a result, adds Franklin, when people find themselves in liminal states, they’re often accompanied by feelings of anxiety.”

Change is a scary thing! This cannot be denied, and it can probably be scientifically proven considering this quote. But that does not change the fact that change is what makes the world go ‘round. The opposite of change is stagnation and this is a dangerous place to be. Just as evolution has proved, the ability to adapt is a necessity for survival. No one can stop the earth from turning, from keeping us from aging, or moving through the ages in which we are supposed to go through various rites of passage. And because of this, we do have to learn how to adapt and how to be ready for change. 

Luckily, the article does offer a solution (albeit the most obvious one): “There are many different ways you can learn to be in a liminal space with grace. The goal is, “to get comfortable with being uncomfortable,” says Franklin. And the good news is if you can do that, you’ll likely find reward on the other side.”

This solution may be the hardest of them all: flip a switch in your brain and you will be all set! Right, like it’s that easy. 

And so because of that, it is worth mentioning that Neumann also quotes Franklin in saying, “Skilled professionals are always good to have around and it never hurts to talk to someone because you can’t see the picture if you are in it.” (Admittedly, I slightly disagree with the second half of this statement, but before I get too far ahead of myself –)

The article actually starts “Feel like you’re stuck in limbo? You might actually be in liminal.” This is exactly the type of “existential crisis” that I focus a lot of my work on, our being in limbo doesn’t really help anyone if we don’t do anything about it. 

But at the same time, sometimes we don’t actually realize when we are in limbo, or in a rut, or in a groove that is actually … just a rut. And so that is exactly why I think it’s important (if not essential) for us all to actually stop and smell the Liminal Spaces.

From THE FUTURE OF INDETERMINACY: Datafication, Memory, Bio-Politics – A group run by a division of the University of Dundee and the Arts and Humanities Research Council: “The word [Liminality] is derived from the Latin limen, which means ‘threshold’. Liminality refers to the ambivalence, confusion, or disorientation experienced in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold at the end of the rite.” 

This can include so many stages in life, such as 

  • Being a pre-teen (you’re not quite a teenager yet, but you’re not a kid anymore)
  • Being a bride- or groom-to-be
  • Being a parent-to-be
  • Or the summers between grades –– or more largely:
    • Going from Elementary to Middle School
    • Middle to High School
    • High School or College (where you may even move away from home)

Moving from one stage to the next is almost always awkward, but it is also not often instant. This liminal space in and of itself is a connecting stage that takes time, and within this time we can take a moment to put ourselves in the right direction (in the fork-in-the-road sort of way).

“During the liminal stage, the participant’s identity, their relationship to their environment, family, and, more broadly, society, as well as their relationship to time, space, and existence as such, is in flux. In more general terms, liminality refers to a state of flux and in-between-ness in which the dominant or governing logic of a given situation is temporarily suspended.” (Future of Indeterminacy)

In this stage of disorientation, we can also find ourselves in a moment of disassociation, which can be perfectly natural. This is because we are actually no longer associating ourselves with Stage A, but we cannot yet truly associate ourselves with Stage B.

Unforuntualy, this is why Forbes’ article focuses on mental health. But in a strange way, being able to look at the situation … disassociated-ly… allows us to look at ourselves less biasedly and with more objectivity. Almost like when you have someone come over to your house, and suddenly your house is much dirtier than it was before. You’re seeing everything in a new light. And this makes it a heck of a lot easier to say “hey, maybe I can (should) change.”

In stopping, and smelling these Liminal Spaces we can realize something we hadn’t before; we can reroute our fork in the road to go one way, rather than the other; and we can overlook the fear of change and inspire ourselves to look forward to possibilities. 

Above all, we can recognize that maybe our entire life is one big Liminal Space between birth to death. And with this, we can reroute our lives at any time.

There is no one certain point at which you are supposed to direct your road toward success. You can always stop and transition yourself from somewhere you may be comfortable (but not happy). To somewhere new and unexplored, maybe confusing, but more than definitely a new potentiality for happiness. 

Always remember:

“It’s a dangerous business, Frodo, going out your door. You step onto the road, and if you don’t keep your feet, there’s no knowing where you might be swept off to.” 

J.R.R. Tolkien, The Lord of the Rings

And so … walk out of your door, keep your feet on the ground. But take a second – what road are you about to walk down?

Featured image: Andre Frueh from Unsplash