I’ve written a couple of times now about liminality and the power of in-between spaces (you can read those past articles here and here). I also did a webinar on the subject this week; if you’re curious you can check out the recording here.
All of which to say is that I’ve had the idea of in-between spaces on my mind a good deal of late. The idea of liminality is an extremely relevant one. It provides some solid guidance on how we actually manage personal transitions, and what’s required to navigate in-between spaces. In particular, it highlights some fundamental strategies and approaches that we tend to downplay in real life.
Liminality is about change. The three stages of liminality are critical to understanding how it works. They aren’t just three simple steps we pass through. They are each, in their own way, stages of the journey that we need to confront, wrestle with and ultimately move past as we progress on to the next one.
Progression is the key point in all this. We are trying to get somewhere. There is a journey we are involved with, and liminality is simply the framework that guides the journey. A very useful framework. What’s particularly useful is what it tells us—and what it doesn’t—about change and transition. It’s a helpful way of not just thinking about but actually working through the in-between spaces that we find ourselves in.
The idea of liminality is relatively easy to explain, and looks relatively simple on the surface. What’s so difficult about three stages of progression, after all? But change and transition is messy. It gets personal, and emotional and awkward. Sometimes its painful. What’s important to recognize is that while the concept of liminality doesn’t change that experience, it provides insights into why the experience is happening. And sometimes a little more clarity is all we need. That’s what this particular article is trying to provide.
In working through the in-between spaces, a critically important point to note is that each stage serves a purpose. Each one has boundaries and outcomes. There are threshold conditions that need to be met in order to move into the next stage. And we do move sequentially from one stage to the next. We don’t move back and forth. This is not an iterative go around. Until we have left the previous stage, we cannot really enter the next one
That might sound a little mystical. It’s not intended to be. Let’s look at the preliminal stage, for example. As we’ve already discussed, the primary purpose of the preliminal stage is about letting go. In the context of the rituals through which liminality was conceived, this was about abandoning your previous status. Literally setting it aside. A child going through a ritual to be welcomed into adulthood becomes—in the preliminal stage—no longer a child. They are not yet an adult either; that comes later. But they have abandoned the status of the child, and in the liminal stage are neither one nor the other.
And that’s the thing. To get to the liminal stage, we need to let go of who we were, the role we played and the status that we had. We need to set it aside and abandon it. We’re not hanging on to our status as a fail-safe (and when we do, we haven’t really left the preliminal stage). We’re not keeping one foot on the shore, in case we change our minds. We leave the preliminal stage only once we can genuinely leave behind the place we were.
Having done so, another point is that there is no going back. Letting go of the place we were, we can’t reclaim it again if we change our minds. Nor should we want to, necessarily. Doing so would be accepting that we’ve not moved forward. It would be an admission of failure. It would be coming back to the tribe and saying “Just kidding! Didn’t really mean to do that.” Once you make the leap, that’s it; you’ve jumped. Change has already begun, and now it’s up to you to make something of it. It’s never going to be the way that it was in the past.
The liminal stage is often viewed as the hard one, and it is. But there are challenges in each stage. And that’s the thing. Describing the stages by naming them and saying what happens inside of them doesn’t do justice to what it means to live through each stage. It’s not easy making a decision to let go—whether of a job, or a relationship, or a career, or a role. While there may be benefits to doing so, there are also losses and regrets. We are giving up what we know, what feels safe, what has often been comfortable. And we’re embarking on a process of change that we don’t know and can’t predict the outcome of.
The process through the liminal stage is arguable less linear process than it is psychological obstacle course. If the preliminal stage is letting go of what we once were, and the postliminal stage is assuming and sustaining our new identity and status, then the liminal stage is all about figuring out how to get there from here. If we again consider the context of ritual, this was the stage in which participants undertake trials and initiation rites. They go into the woods or jungle to challenge themselves and find out what they are made of, and once successful they emerge changed.
In our own journey through liminal spaces, the woods and jungles are often more metaphorical than they are real. That doesn’t mean that the beasts and monsters that we must face are any less hostile, or the obstacles and challenges that we are confronted with are any easier.
What anthropology does tell us about liminal spaces is that significant changes are possible within them. Depending upon the situation and challenge, and contingent on the effort and commitment participants expend, massive transformation can occur. Significant physical, mental and emotional energy can be expended in working through the liminal stage. The challenge is focussing and guiding this energy towards confronting the situation and finding our future self.
There are no shortcuts in liminality. There’s no easy path to get from the beginning to the end. What we can hope for is that we don’t spend too much time wallowing, meandering or drifting. That we recognize where we are, that we purposely focus on what we’re trying to accomplish, and that we find useful answers for ourselves along the way.
In traditional contexts this was made possible in part because the liminal process was guided. There was structure and formality. A master of ceremonies coordinated and watched over participants, and arguably nudged and prodded where necessary and appropriate. For us, in many of our current challenges and changes, we don’t necessarily have a guide. Which is actually part of the problem, and may also be part of the solution.
We tend now to presume that transformation and change is a personal journey. We’ve come to dismiss the role of guides. We discount the use of therapists. Once we also relied on elders, clergy and counsellors. And yet there is a significant case to be made for the role of guidance, for having a wise ‘master of ceremonies’ guiding us on the journey.
Theoretically, this could be the role of consultants, coaches and facilitators. It is not typically how we look at these roles. And it is very often not how those who take on these roles either conceive of or embody them. That’s not to say that they can’t—or shouldn’t—do so. Particularly in an organizational context, guiding a large and complex change, having a guide that can prompt, suggest and prod people along in the journey can be invaluable.
What we also need to remember is that change has a pace. It can’t be rushed. While we can drag out the process inexorably, that doesn’t mean that we can also shorten it. There is a time that transition requires. This is again a factor that is different today than it was in the early rituals that framed liminality. In an initiation ritual, the participant knows there is an end point. No matter how difficult or exhausting it might be, it will end. In many of the changes we encounter today, there is no logical end point. There is often no clearly defined “done” to work towards.
At what pace should we be able to move through the liminal stage, then? It depends. There is no objectively identifiable speed of change. There is, though, a pace that can be monitored and checked, and where continued forward progress can be prodded and prompted. What is essential here is being sensitive to the progress and pace that participants are making. An experienced guide, closely monitoring the process, can do this readily. A distant executive sponsor is going to be challenged—both in sensing pace, and in providing meaningful guidance and support.
The simplicity of liminality as a concept is its power. It is also what makes it challenging. What is needed at each stage is going to vary. What is important to recognize that each stage takes work. What will be required to move through each stage will be unique for each participant. So will be the support they need, when they need it, and the level of emphasis by which its provided. Who can provide that support will also change.
The biggest barrier to working through liminality is that we’ve stripped away or stepped away from many of the supports, traditions and concepts that make liminality possible. We downplay the role of ritual and ceremony. We avoid and minimize our reliance on mentors and guides. We resist the advice of others, and believe that we need to make our own way in the world. And we downplay the idea of status, even while our egos seek to hold on to it at all costs.
Working through liminal spaces is certainly possible. But it takes work. It takes effort. It takes perspective. And it takes perseverance. The more the world changes, the more important becomes our capacity to change. That also requires the wisdom to understand how change works, and the willingness to seek, find and accept support in navigating through the change.