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Liminal spaces: Handling big life transitions
Changes such as divorce, job loss or illness are stressful for sure. But experts say if you approach these “liminal spaces” with an open mind, you’ll build resilience.
Facing a major life change is never easy. Maybe you’re going through a divorce, becoming an empty-nester or getting ready to retire. And you feel anxious and uncertain about what’s next. Psychologists have a term to describe these periods of big transition: liminal spaces.
Being in a liminal space means you’re in between life phases. It’s as if you’re standing in a doorway between 2 rooms and you can’t move forward or backward. (The word “limin” comes from the Latin word for threshold.) You’re hovering between what was and what’s next.
Why do big life transitions cause anxiety?
These liminal spaces can be stressful and emotional. That’s because most people like stability, certainty and predictability. “When we’re going through a period of change, it produces anxiety because we have to fill in the blanks” of what we don’t know yet, says Abigail Barrett, a licensed psychologist in Minneapolis. “It sets up disruptions in our lives. We have to hunker down and cling to what we know or put a rudder in the water and create something different.”
During big life transitions, you often must adjust your perception of who you are. For example, if you’re getting divorced, your identity as a husband or wife will change, because now you’re a single person. Or maybe you lost your job and you really miss your role as a star employee or a beloved boss.
It’s natural to view liminal spaces as disruptive forces or threats. And it’s true that life transitions can be difficult and uncomfortable. But on the upside, you could think of liminal spaces as chances for personal growth. Life transitions can even spark inspiration and creativity.
What are the different types of transitions?
To figure out how to manage these in-between points in your life, “it helps to distinguish between transitions that are chosen, versus those that are not,” says clinical psychologist Nancy Haugen, PhD. She’s an associate professor of psychiatry at the University of California, San Francisco.
“With unchosen transitions [such as a death in the family], you’re dealing with an element of shock.” In that case, using your senses can help. Focus on what you see, hear and feel, for example. This will guide you toward feeling grounded in your body again.
How can I deal with liminal spaces more easily?
Here are 6 strategies that can help you handle liminal spaces and even thrive during them:
Practice acceptance. First, recognize that nothing in life is permanent. Change is inevitable, and you learn and grow by dealing with tough times. “Accept and normalize that while these transitions are uncomfortable, they also can be very fruitful,” Barrett says. “Then the windows start to open and opportunities start popping up.”
A flexible mindset will help you move through difficult times more smoothly. Bonus benefit: Research has found that people who show a greater tolerance for uncertainty are also more social. This enhances their ability to cooperate with and trust other people. (Try these little mindfulness breaks any time of day.)
Keep a gratitude journal. Grab a notebook and write down what you’re grateful for in your life. Try to make this a daily practice. “Scan the environment, looking for the good and what’s supporting you right now,” Barrett says. Jot down what you hope for on the other side of this transition, too.
Focus on what you can control. Even when life feels highly unsettled, you have control over some things. For example, plan healthy meals each week, tackle a small home project you’re excited about and keep up with your daily workouts.
Interestingly, research has found that exercising regularly in a community program helped people deal with mental health challenges. They were able to connect with others and build confidence that they could recover and become active citizens again.
Think about previous transitions you handled well. Maybe you recently became a first-time mom, or you bounced back from a job loss. Whatever challenges you’ve faced in the past, remind yourself how resilient you’ve been. This can build your confidence. It also puts you in a better frame of mind, says Barrett.
Plus, if you home in on specific approaches that helped you deal with uncertainty in the past, you may find strategies you can try in your current situation. What did you say or do then that might help you now?
Shift your vocabulary. Try to view your current situation as an adventure or the start of a new chapter. Then, instead of pushing against it, “ride it like it’s a surfboard on waves,” Haugen suggests. It also helps to change something about your response, such as saying that you’re curious instead of anxious, she says.
Being curious allows you to see new possibilities where you otherwise might not. You can observe your own responses in a more neutral (and less judgmental) way.
Seek support from resilient people. “Talk with friends and elders who can see how these transitions work out because they’ve gone through similar ones,” Barrett says. You might get some hard-won wisdom from them. Even better, you’ll make stronger connections to the people in your life who love and support you. But if stress is getting the best of you, talk to your doctor, who can recommend next steps.
Liminal space basics: Encyclopedia of Psychology and Religion (2014). Liminality
Sociability study: Nature Communications (2018). “Tolerance to ambiguous uncertainty predicts prosocial behavior”
Exercise benefits: International Journal of Environmental Research and Public Health (2021). “‘It’s More Than Just Exercise’: Tailored Exercise at a Community-Based Activity Center as a Liminal Space along the Road to Mental Health Recovery and Citizenship”