Liminal Space: Understanding What Was & What’s Next

By Danielle Boland, LCSW

We have all experienced a time in our lives when we are in-between something. It can be the time between jobs, waiting for a new baby to arrive, or following a break-up when you’re not yet ready to date but still mourning the loss of your relationship. These transitional times in life, or rights of passage, are all liminal stages. It’s important to understand what liminality is and how to best navigate these stages of life.

What Is Liminality?

Liminality is defined as the state of being in-between or something that is in a state of transition. A common example of liminality is the short time between life and death or between sleep and being awake. 

Liminality can refer to the physical, emotional and metaphorical transitions that occur in life. These transitions often feel uncomfortable for the people experiencing them. The Chicago School of Media Theory asserts that the liminal period is the time of passage from what someone (or something) was to what they will become. 

What Is Liminal Space?

Liminal space refers to the place someone is in during a transitional period. This can be a literal physical space, such as a hallway between two doors. Liminal space can also occur during an emotional transition, such as a marriage or divorce. Many times liminal spaces are accompanied by feelings of uncertainty and possibility. It is a time when one stage of life is coming to an end, and the next phase has not yet started. 

In the novel “Rights of Passage,” written in 1908 by Arnold Van Gennep, he coined the term “liminality.” In this book, he defined four key types of liminal spaces:

  • Physical movements
  • Change in social status
  • Change in situations
  • Passing of time

All of these circumstances involve the change from something that used to be into something that has yet to happen. 

Liminal Space Aesthetic

Liminal space aesthetic refers to spaces that embody the idea of liminality. They represent the idea of the “in-between” space. Examples of liminal space aesthetics include abandoned houses or malls and train stations in the middle of the night. Places that give us a feeling of nostalgia, such as drive-in movie theaters and roller skating rinks, are also examples of liminal space aesthetics. 

Liminal space aesthetics can also be intentional; for example, construction workspaces and museum exhibits are designed to change over time or only be temporary. Articles on liminal space and the workplace explore how to best use the “in-between” spaces in an office, such as hallways, elevators and stairways. It recognizes that in today’s corporate world, many people work in liminal spaces in-between a traditional office and their homes. 

Liminal Space Examples

Liminal spaces can be found in a lot of different places. Some of these include:

  • Train station platforms
  • Airport terminals
  • Empty parking lots
  • Waiting rooms
  • Elevators
  • Stairways

All of these examples function as a transition between two places. A stairway is the connection between the floor you came from and the floor you are going to. These in-between spaces can be found in everyday places and often without you realizing they are even there. 

Liminal State Examples

A liminal state differs from a liminal space; it isn’t a physical location that represents a transition. Liminal states are a waiting room for emotional and metaphorical changes that someone is experiencing. Examples of liminal states include:

  • Divorce
  • Job loss
  • Illness
  • Graduation
  • Pregnancy

From an emotional perspective, liminal spaces describe the time between the ending of one part of someone’s life and the beginning of the next stage. When someone is in the process of divorce, they are no longer married but not yet legally single. A pregnant person is no longer without a child but has not yet given birth. Liminal states can trigger strong emotional responses and cause distress for someone with existing mental health concerns. 

Liminal Space and Your Mental Health

Liminal spaces can often create feelings of unease due to the uncertainty of being in a transition. Anxiety is often associated with liminal spaces because the person does not know what to expect in a new stage of their life. It is important to understand the effects liminal spaces can have on your mental health.

Unhealthy Stress

Liminal stages can cause stress when someone is unsure about what is coming next in a situation. A lot of people feel stressed when they don’t know what to expect in a situation, or they feel unprepared. Coping mechanisms such as meditation, yoga and breathing exercises can be useful tools to help reduce the stress related to liminal stages. 

Anxiety and Panic Attacks

Liminal stages can cause anxiety and even panic attacks in some people who have a strong emotional reaction to feelings of uncertainty or stress in their transitional periods. If you suffer from anxiety or panic attacks and liminal stages make your symptoms worse, there is help. Working with a therapist to develop coping mechanisms can be a useful tool to reduce these symptoms. 

Depression

Some people experience depressive symptoms during liminal stages. Liminal stages can cause feelings of sadness and even grief, depending on the situation. It’s normal to feel sad about one stage of life ending and fear about what’s coming up next. Having a support system in place with a therapist or loved ones can help reduce these feelings. Depending on the severity of depression, talk therapy or medication may be beneficial. Speaking with a medical or behavioral health professional can help you find the best option for you. 

Substance Abuse

When someone is experiencing the mental health effects of liminality, they might turn to substances like drugs or alcohol to cope with these emotions. People who are prone to substance abuse may be more likely to abuse during liminal states. Addiction treatment and behavioral therapy can help address a drug or alcohol addiction and the underlying causes that may be fueling the abuse. 

Self-Harm and Suicide Ideation

In extreme circumstances, the emotional effect of liminal space can cause someone to be at risk for suicidal ideation or self-harm. Uncomfortable feelings from transitional phases may be too much to handle if the person does not have support or healthy coping mechanisms. If someone feels that there is no escape from their anxiety, depression or stress during a liminal state, they may resort to self-harm or suicide. 

If you or a loved one is experiencing self-harm or suicidal thoughts or tendencies, call the National Suicide Prevention Hotline at 1-800-273-8255.

5 Healthy Ways To Cope with Liminal Spaces and States

Although liminal spaces and states can be emotionally difficult, there are ways to help these transitions feel less scary. Mental health professionals can teach you how to identify a liminal state or space and help you master healthy coping mechanisms and strategies to use in these moments. 

Tip #1: Leaning into anxiety

When someone is experiencing anxiety related to a liminal state, it can feel very overwhelming. Leaning into the anxiety means facing the fear head-on rather than trying to avoid it. This can help someone learn to manage irrational or anxious thoughts they may be having. 

Tip #2: Practicing mindfulness meditation

Meditation is a proven technique to help reduce anxiety and stress and can be a useful tool when coping with liminal space and stages. Mindfulness meditation is also known to reduce depression symptoms and improve sleep. 

Tip #3: Being in the moment

It can be difficult to be in the moment when you are experiencing a liminal state because nothing about the future feels certain. Being in the moment can help someone focus on experiencing what is currently happening instead of worrying about what may happen down the road. 

Tip #4: Not catastrophizing 

Catastrophizing is when someone thinks about a worst-case scenario and has anxiety around this outcome occurring. Someone with anxiety related to a big life change, like a divorce, may think that they will lose all of their money and possessions in the divorce and therefore never be happy again or be alone for the rest of their life. Recognizing that bad things can happen sometimes and thinking about the opposite, positive outcomes can help reduce catastrophic thinking. 

Tip #5: Get support

If interventions and self-taught coping skills are not helping reduce emotional stress related to liminality, support from friends, family or a licensed mental health professional may be the right step. Finding a support group or group therapy that specializes in life transitions may also offer the peer support someone needs to help them cope with liminality. 

How Therapy Can Help

Therapy with a licensed mental health professional can be an incredibly useful tool in managing life transitions. Therapists are trained in various techniques to help develop coping mechanisms people can use in stressful situations. These can include:

  • Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT)
  • Dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT)
  • Eye movement desensitization and reprocessing (EMDR)
  • Exposure therapy

In certain severe circumstances, medication therapy may be needed to help cope with liminal stages. Speaking with a medical professional can help determine what type of treatment is best. 

Speak With A Nobu Therapist

If you or a loved one is struggling with a transitional period in your life but don’t know where to start, the Nobu app is a free, easy-to-use resource. The app has features to help cope during life’s biggest transitions, including mindfulness tools, mental health lessons, journaling and goal-tracking. For an additional fee, the Nobu app can connect you with a licensed therapist for online therapy sessions. Check out the Nobu app today to start working towards a healthier future, whatever it may hold.

melissa carmona

Edited by – Melissa Carmona

As the content manager at Advanced Recovery Systems, Melissa Carmona puts years of writing and editing experience to work helping people understand substance abuse, addiction and mental health disorders. Melissa is a Florida State University graduate… Read more.

danielle boland headshot

Written by – Danielle Boland, LCSW

Danielle is a licensed clinical social worker, currently living and practicing in central Connecticut. Danielle graduated from Columbia University in 2012 with a Masters of Social Work, and always had the goal of opening her own private practice. She specializes in women’s issues, maternal health and postpartum mental health.

dr angela phillips

Medically Reviewed by – Dr. Angela Phillips

Angela is a licensed therapist and clinical researcher, and has worked in public, private, government, and not-for-profit organizations, across clinical and research-oriented roles. Angela’s clinical and research experience has included suicide prevention, cognitive behavioral… Read more.