The Psychology Behind Liminal Space

A Transitional Place or Time That Can Feel Unsettling

Low Section Rear View Of Man Walking On Footpath By Fallen Autumn Leaves

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Liminal space is the uncertain transition between where you've been and where you're going physically, emotionally, or metaphorically. To be in a liminal space means to be on the precipice of something new but not quite there yet. The word "liminal" comes from the Latin word “limen,” which means threshold.

The COVID-19 pandemic is a prime example of liminal space. 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. 

Anthropologist Arnold van Gennep first wrote about the concept of liminality when he developed the idea of the rites of passage. He 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.

Being in a liminal space can be incredibly uncomfortable for most people. Brains crave homeostasis and predictability, and the liminal space is everything but. We’ll explain some liminal spaces you might experience in your life and how to cope with the uncertainty.

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:

  • Airports
  • Hallways
  • Doorways 
  • Trains
  • Airplanes 
  • Bridges

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:

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.

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. Sometimes, it's even beneficial.

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.

If you are having suicidal thoughts, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 988 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.

What Makes Liminal Spaces So Unsettling?

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.

On the other hand, beauty can lie in liminal spaces. Think of liminal spaces in architecture, like a beautiful atrium in the entryway of a museum.

Liminality also can be an opportunity for transformation. It might not have been the path you would have chosen, but it is the path you are on now. 

How to Cope With Liminal Space

Everyone will deal with liminal space at one point or another. These periods can be tough, but they can be growth opportunities.

Practice Mindfulness

Much of the distress associated with being in a transitional period comes from fear or catastrophizing what might happen. So, stop for a moment to take stock of where you are right now.

What does uncertainty feel like in your body? Then, observe your breath coming in and out as you remind yourself that you are OK in this moment.

Embrace Your Current State

Although the uncertainty of being in a liminal space may be challenging, you must accept that it is where you are now. The principles of dialectical behavioral therapy (DBT) can help you understand that, although you can't control all circumstances, you can control your own thoughts, feelings, and reactions. For example, following the loss of a family member, you understand that you can't change this fact, but you can choose to grieve in healthy ways.

Get Creative

Much of our entertainment and literature follows the hero’s journey—essentially, something happens, the hero goes on a journey following that event, and it profoundly changes them. Yet, whether it be fictitious or true-to-life, creativity might flourish in times of uncertainty.

So, you might want to write or draw to express what it feels like to be in a liminal space.

Regardless of where you're at in life at the moment, you still have the opportunities to learn new things and discover more about yourself. If you're really struggling during a period of transition, please reach out to a trained mental health professional.

3 Sources
Verywell Mind uses only high-quality sources, including peer-reviewed studies, to support the facts within our articles. Read our editorial process to learn more about how we fact-check and keep our content accurate, reliable, and trustworthy.
  1. Van Gennep A. The Rites of Passage. University of Chicago Press.

  2. Wu D, Yang T, Rockett IR, Yu L, Peng S, Jiang S. Uncertainty stress, social capital, and suicidal ideation among Chinese medical students: Findings from a 22-university survey. J Health Psychol. 2021;26(2):214-225. doi:10.1177/1359105318805820

  3. Franks A, Meteyard J. Liminality: the transforming grace of in-between placesJ Pastoral Care Counsel. 2007;61(3):215-222. doi:10.1177/154230500706100306

By Theodora Blanchfield, AMFT
Theodora Blanchfield is an Associate Marriage and Family Therapist and mental health writer using her experiences to help others. She holds a master's degree in clinical psychology from Antioch University and is a board member of Still I Run, a non-profit for runners raising mental health awareness. Theodora has been published on sites including Women's Health, Bustle, Healthline, and more and quoted in sites including the New York Times, Shape, and Marie Claire.