A few years ago, I went on a road trip with my youngest daughter. She had finished high school and was leaving home to attend school in another province. I was driving her there.
We took our favourite snacks for the long drive and she created several playlists of music on her phone. We sang, exchanged stories and reminisced about family vacations gone by. She wondered aloud about her new accommodation and the new people she’d meet.
I may have known it at the time, but couldn’t think of the words to describe this experience until recently. We were in a liminal space.
What is a liminal space?
Merriam-Webster defines liminal as: of, relating to, or being an intermediate state, phase, or condition. It originates from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold.
Liminal space is the period you go through when moving from one state to another, when you are on the threshold—no longer where you were, but not yet where you will be. It is a period of waiting and not quite knowing what’s next.
Can you recall a time when were between and betwixt—in a liminal space? Maybe you were pregnant, but not yet a mother. Or graduated from university, but not yet employed. Or you were about to retire but were still working.
Sometimes these transition periods are cultural markers, representing rites of passage from one state to another. So it was when my daughter and I took that long drive, marking multiple changes in state for her: from high school student to Bible school student, and from living at home to living away from home.
Going through a liminal experience can feel uncomfortable and foreign. At the very least, it is disruptive. It involves separating ourselves from the past while at the same time preparing ourselves for our future state.
Early on in the pandemic, you may have found yourself thinking, “This feels weird, uncertain and uncomfortable. Things aren’t the same. But, when we finally come out the other side of this pandemic…..” (You can fill in the blank.)
It’s thoughts like these that reflect a sense of disruption, discomfort and being in a liminal space.
Some liminal spaces are short in duration, while others—like the pandemic—can be longer. What none of us anticipated before COVID-19 is just how protracted this period could be.
You might experience different feelings about being in a liminal space. You may feel a sense of urgency to get through a liminal space and get to the other side. You may feel stuck, as though you can’t step back and can’t step forward.
But what if you could embrace that in-between period and make the most of it?
Embracing a liminal space
Leadership expert Charlene Li recommends embracing liminal spaces and making the most of them.
Consider it to be sacred – As a leader, how often do you find time to slow down and examine what is going on around you? On a professional level, the disruption of a liminal space—between projects or jobs, for example—can be positive. It can provide space to regroup, get up on the balcony and strategize. On a personal level, liminal spaces and the rituals we use to mark them help us celebrate the past and embrace or prepare for the future. Think of a baby shower or bridal shower, graduation ceremony, funeral, retirement party, and so on. These rituals may signify “letting go” and create opportunities to reflect on what’s next.
Purposefully create liminal space – When it comes to cultural rituals, there seems to be no shortage of ways to create liminal spaces. But what about in the workplace? Some people have expressed frustration with a lack of separation between work life and home life during the pandemic. If you’ve been working from home and have lost the “gear up” and “wind-down” time that used to come with driving to and from work, try creating this space for yourself. Go for a short walk in the morning before you settle down to begin working in your home office. Do the same thing at the end of your workday to create separation and mark "on duty" and "off duty" time. We may take for granted techniques we use in the workplace that are useful in intentionally creating liminal spaces. Brainstorming sessions can generate inspiring ideas and creative thinking when your team is between and betwixt, having not quite solved a problem or come up with a strategy.
Use it to drive transformation and challenge yourself or your organization – How many times have you heard the word “pivot” in the last 15 months? When used thoughtfully, liminal space can spark creativity and new ideas. According to Harvard Business Review, liminal spaces “represent potent opportunities for reflection, discovery, and even reinvention.” On a personal level, what shifts have you made to how you shop for groceries or connect with family and friends?
Whether or not change efforts are planned disruptions, designing and planning the transition period—the liminal space—can help you and your organization move through a change more quickly and cleanly.
When we took that road trip several years ago, my daughter wasn’t the only one in a liminal space. In hindsight, the road trip was a ritual for me—celebrating what was and what would be.
What transition are you about to go through? A career change, added responsibilities in your job, or a personal rebrand? If you're curious about the value that could come from working together as you go through transition, then let’s talk.
Related links: Charlene Li