I came across this word ‘liminal’ a few years ago. Google’s definition of liminal pops up as:
- relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
- occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary or threshold.
I would define it as “the in-between” or “the waiting space”.
Essentially, a liminal space is the space that we occupy in the midst of transitions – when we don’t know what comes next. It’s full of ‘what-ifs’ and ‘not-yets’ and “I-wonders”.
And there is something about a liminal space that puts us humans on edge.
- The moments between finding the lump and hearing back on the results of the biopsy.
- The days and weeks and months between finding out you’re expecting a baby and holding that baby in your arms.
- The nail-biting wait between sending off applications to college or university and actually getting your acceptance letter.
Fortunately or unfortunately, I’ve spent more of my life in liminal space than I might have wanted, and in doing so, I’ve learned a few things about this space that I thought I might share.
The first time I sat in liminal space for any real length of time was in 2002. From the day that we went and had our first ultrasound done, we knew that there was something not quite right with our little babe. It turned out that he had Trisomy 18 – a condition which comes about because of an extra chromosome in each and every cell of the body and results in a significantly limited life expectancy and developmental capacity. One of the hardest challenges of it, though, is that no one can tell you how long your child will live – or whether they will even make it to birth alive. This is a liminal space.
For 21 weeks of pregnancy, this was where we lived. Every morning we would wake up and wonder whether our babe would get through the day. Every night we would go to sleep wondering whether our babe would be with us in the morning. And when he was born alive at full term, the liminal space continued – each moment, each breath, feeling sacred and impossible at the same time.
Eventually – much, much sooner than we would have hoped – our son’s life came to an end. And although the initial stages of grief never feel good, underneath of it all there was this sense of relief. We had finally crossed over to the other side and there was a bit more certainty to our world than there had been in quite a while.
Not Just That …
I’ve visited with liminal space lots of times since then: the nine months of pregnancy with my Rainbow Baby; spending another nine months contemplating a move to another continent; walking beside one of my children as they struggled with significant mental health issues; and being on call for over 50 births, just to name a few.
Then, two years ago I entered into a liminal space that is proving difficult to exit.
When I first ended up bed-ridden, I would never have expected to be sitting here in the same bed in the same room two years later with little change in my condition. I certainly never expected to still be without a diagnosis – without any roadmap of what this might look like or how it might develop or what might come next for us. The chances that I will even get a diagnosis get smaller and smaller with each test that comes back normal and each condition that gets crossed off the list, and so I am currently grappling with the idea that this liminal space might actually become my ‘new normal’.
But as hard as that is to contemplate, it made me realize that perhaps all of this experience in liminality had given me some wisdom that I could pass on, so I thought I would give it a stab.
Your Response is 100% Normal
Our brains are designed for certainty. They like things to be predictable. They search for patterns and seek out meaning. They tell a constant stream of stories to explain what has happened and what will happen. And when we stop being able to tell clear stories our brains freak out a bit. So the initial response to liminality is normal. But that doesn’t mean it’s the best, or only response we have the option of engaging with.
Remember to Breathe
Whether your liminal space lasts the length of a contraction or an indefinite number of years, to get through it well, you need to remember to breathe. So often, the initial experience of tightening up and tensing up (that we just acknowledged as being 100% normal and natural) becomes the defining feature of our existence for the entire time we are in this liminal space. However, those who can remember to breathe – to find ways to relax the stress-response systems of the body that want to be in a constant hyper-vigilant mode – will find it much easier to cope with this time of uncertainty.
Stay in the Moment
One of the things that gets really difficult when we are occupying this liminal space is that we can’t easily make plans. It’s hard to dream, it’s hard to make plans – it’s even tricky sometimes to commit to having coffee with a friend in an hour – because you just.don’t.know what is coming next. But using practices like meditation and mindfulness to stay present in the moment can help calm down the alarm bells. In particular, I find that noticing the very tangible things that are right around me can be very soothing. For instance, the sound of the snow melting on my roof is a reminder that I am inside my heated, dry house – so I am okay. Or the smell of the chili cooking on the stove downstairs reminds me that there will be dinner tonight – so I am okay.
Root Yourself In Love
These mindfulness practices, for me, lead very logically into gratitude practices that allow me to celebrate the good that is here in the midst of this liminal space. Dry houses, tasty dinners, comfy duvets, a working laptop – my mindfulness about the things around me remind me that even though there is lots that I cannot be certain about right now, I still – somehow – have things that I can be grateful for. Now, sometimes I can hold these ideas well, and sometimes it gets more difficult. So I also spend a good deal of time journalling so that I can record the things I’m grateful for and look back on them when I face other moments that leave me feeling like they are harder to find. Spending in these practices of gratitude help me to root myself more deeply in the idea that I am loved – and that experience of being loved is one of the most powerful ways to calm our fears.
Don’t Go It Alone
Although times of silence and solitude can be necessary and even valuable to help us find our calm in the midst of our liminality, community and support are also enormously important. Finding friends and family that you can journey this road together with will help you to remember that you don’t have to carry the worry and uncertainty of your current reality all on your own. Whether it’s playing games together, laughing, eating together, watching movies quietly together on the couch or resting quietly while someone reads you a great story – all of these points of connection between us and the world around us help us to remain grounded and remind us that we are not alone.
Choosing to Live Well
Ultimately, as much as we would like to have the choice about whether we end up in a liminal space or not, that is only sometimes a decision that is up to us. While some people have the capacity to make a decision and move on with their life, many of us find ourselves in a liminal space because of circumstances far beyond our control.
Thankfully, these spaces don’t have to stop us from living well. Whether you are waiting for the results of a test or the successful completion of our degree or pregnancy; whether you are dealing with a chronic illness or ‘waiting’ on a terminal diagnosis; whether you are hoping for a specific outcome to a decision someone else is making or simply struggling with the reality of living in a world that is not yet what you long for it to be, choosing to live well in the midst of this liminality is what allows us to take back control over our lives and our futures.
So remember to breathe and stay in the moment. Root yourself in love and gratitude. And whatever you do, don’t do it alone!