The psychological impact of liminality

Do you often find yourself feeling unsure and anxious? Are there any changes happening in your life? Maybe you recently left a job or went through a change in your relationship. If you said ‘yes’ to any of these, you might be in a state of liminality.


What is liminality?

Most people have had the experience of the uncertainty of change in our lives: a relationship ending, change in our role at work or even the transition from being a teenager to an adult. Working through the anxiety caused by these changes can be quite challenging. Occasionally, it may be fleeting, but sometimes it can feel like it never ends.

Liminality is the term for the state of being in between. It can have a profound psychological impact. Mental well-being and identity are influenced by this transitional phase, which is often characterized by change and ambiguity. Those who navigate these transitional spaces often feel increased uncertainty and anxiety, impacting how they see themselves and their environment.

Some examples of where you may experience emotional or psychological liminal spaces include:

  • becoming an adult
  • moving
  • changes in work
  • divorce
  • illness

The liminal space itself is usually not inherently dangerous. Nevertheless, there might be a perception that it is dangerous. If it becomes a stressor, the liminal space may result in:

  • anxiety
  • depression
  • uncertainty
  • substance abuse
  • self harm
  • suicidal ideation

Liminal spaces often bring with them the fear of uncertainty. It becomes an even greater challenge when you fear lacking emotional resources to handle it.

The effects of liminality are felt in various aspects of life, from career changes to personal transformations. Understanding these psychological impacts can help individuals better prepare for and navigate these transitional states. This knowledge becomes essential for developing resilience and thriving amidst uncertainty.

Defining liminality

Liminality, a concept with roots in anthropology, refers to the phase of transition where individuals are between stages or states. This concept has developed to cover a range of modern interpretations in diverse fields.

Historical foundations

The term liminality was introduced by anthropologist Arnold van Gennep in his work on rites of passage. He identified three stages: separation, transition, and incorporation. The transitional phase, or liminal phase, is marked by ambiguity and disorientation. During this period, individuals are neither in their previous state nor fully integrated into the new one.

Victor Turner, another anthropologist, expanded on van Gennep’s ideas. Turner emphasised the communal aspects of liminality, noting how people in this phase often form strong bonds. Turner’s work highlighted the potential for personal transformation during liminal periods. Thus, liminality has historical origins that emphasize its importance as a time of change and potential progress.

Modern interpretations

Today, liminality is applied beyond traditional rites of passage. In psychology, it is seen as a space for potential growth, where individuals confront uncertainties and develop new perspectives. This concept is also used in organisational studies, where companies experience liminal phases during mergers or major restructurings.

In literature and cultural studies, liminality explores themes of identity and transformation. Characters often go through liminal phases, reflecting the fluidity of human experience. Social media has introduced new forms of liminality, where individuals navigate between online and offline identities.

Coping with liminal spaces

Research suggests that while liminality can be unsettling, it also offers opportunities for growth and transformation. Embracing these periods of transition can lead to new perspectives and personal evolution. The emotional and psychological experiences during liminality play a crucial role in how individuals adapt and emerge from these phases.

Understanding and adapting to liminal spaces can be challenging. By utilizing effective coping mechanisms, one can navigate transitions with resilience and clarity, reducing stress and uncertainty.

Mindfulness and reflection

Mindfulness practices help individuals stay present and reduce anxiety about the uncertainties of liminality. Techniques such as meditation, breathing exercises, and body scan exercises enable individuals to focus on current experiences without judgement.

Reflection, through journaling or contemplative practices, encourages recognising and processing emotions. By regularly engaging in these activities, individuals can gain insight into their thoughts, fostering a sense of control and understanding during transitional phases.

Therapeutic interventions

Therapeutic approaches, including counselling and psychotherapy, provide structured environments to explore feelings associated with liminal spaces. Professionals guide individuals through personalised strategies to manage stress and anxiety effectively.

How you experience liminal spaces in the present is influenced by your personal history. When exposed to highly stressful situations and trauma, our window of tolerance (Siegel, 1999) may be impacted, making it more probable for an individual to experience hyper- or hypo-arousal. Our window of tolerance relates to the level of stimulation, or arousal, that we are able to function with effectively. People who have a narrow window of tolerance may often experience that their emotions are too intense to cope with.

Through therapy, exploring past events and learning effective coping strategies can increase your capacity to handle difficult situations and widen our window of tolerance. In turn, this may help you transition liminal spaces in a positive way.

Liminality can be challenging, however with good support it offers the potential for personal growth and positive transformation.

The views expressed in this article are those of the author. All articles published on Counselling Directory are reviewed by our editorial team.

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Enfield EN1 & London N14
Written by Tom MacKay, MSc, ADHP(NC), Dip EHP(NLP), UKCP
Enfield EN1 & London N14

I am a dedicated therapist working with individuals presenting a diverse range of issues. My approach is integrative to help find the best way of working with the person.

I have been working as a psychotherapist for almost 20 years, and am a Senior Lecturer/Course Leader in Counselling and Coaching on the MSc/PGDip course at UEL.

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