Dr. Suzanne B. Phillips

Licensed Psychologist, Psychoanalyst, Diplomate in Group Psychology, Certified Group Therapist, Author, Radio Host and Media Consultant Covering a Wide Range of Psychological Topics

Post: The Space Between ‘What Was’ and ‘What’s Next’: The Liminal Space

Most of us have found ourselves at the end of some chapter in our life, be it by choice, age, circumstance, illness or traumatic event. We are left facing a space between what was and the unknown of what’s next.

This space actually has a name – It is called “ The Liminal Space.”

The word liminal comes from the Latin word limen, meaning threshold – any point or place of entering or beginning.

Author and theologian Richard Rohr describes this space as:

“Where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown. There alone is our world left behind while we are not yet sure of the new existence.”

To most of us, this space feels perilous because it generates considerable anxiety. It confronts us with the unknown:

What if I don’t get another job?

How can I be single at 63?

I don’t know what to do after college!

How will we survive in a country we don’t know?


.“The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.” (H.P. Lovecraft)

The Liminal Space is a threshold to the unknown and frightening though it might be, it is also the passage to unknown growth and potential.

The better we can tolerate and negotiate the anxiety associated with the liminal space – the better we can change it from a place of peril to a place of potential. Avoiding the anxiety traps and recognizing some positive strategies make this passage easier.

Anxiety Traps

 Inability to Disengage With the Past

  • Research suggests that the inability to stop ruminating about “what was” or “ what should have been” keeps us unhappy and limits our view of future options.
  • Of course we need to grieve in our own way for what we have suffered, lost or expected; but looking forward, even with tears, enables the possibilities of a new chapter.

You can’t see where you are going, if you are looking backwards.

 Staying at the Threshold

  • Some try to reduce their anxiety about the unknown by not moving at all. They are unhappy but hang on to the edge of an unhappy place because they assume the worst about the future and the worst about their capacity to venture into the unknown.
  • Sadly this lowers self-esteem and keeps them more anxious.

 Few people regret holding that job they hate if they are searching for a job they could love.

 Leaping over the Liminal Space to the Familiar

  • Particularly when going forward after the loss of a partner by divorce or break-up, there is often so much fear of facing the unknown alone that there is a tendency to leap over the unknown to the first familiar type partner they meet.
  • They miss the step of finding a less frightened, stronger self, able to match with a new and different partner.

 Strategies for Moving Forward

“Life is a journey, not a destination.” (Ralph Waldo Emerson)

 Start with Small Achievable Goals

  • Rewriting your resume, reconsidering a change by taking a course, renting a new place to live, inviting friends to brainstorm, trying online dating, volunteering to be an unpaid intern in the field you love, taking a part time job in something completely different are invaluable steps.
  • Any goal that we achieve fuels momentum and lowers anxiety.
  • Small steps and achievable goals fill the unknown space with life experiences, places, people and a stronger you.

Use Stress Regulators as You Go

  • Buffer your steps with ongoing stress reduction. Often when highly anxious, our Fight/Flight response for survival obscures our focus on what we love to do and what we do that lowers stress.
  • Accessing our stress regulators like exercise, cooking, praying, gardening, golfing, making music, listening to music, playing cards, reading mysteries on a daily, if not regular, basis gives us something we know, something we can predict and something that buffers stress physically and psychologically.

 Employ a Growth Mindset

  • Worry less about mistakes or wrong turns and more about what you can learn from them. Every missed turn is a lesson learned.
  • You want to know where you would never want to live– as a step to where you would love to live.
  • Freedom to change your mind relieves the fear of not getting it right and allows for using lessons learned.

Go with Curiosity

  • Curiosity changes the mountain from the one that hides a frightening unknown to the mountain you can’t wait to explore.
  • Curiosity allows embracing the unexpected – the person, option, network, or kindness of a stranger, that unexpectedly comes your way, becoming part of the next chapter you never considered.

Connect with Others

  • You don’t have to venture alone. Connecting with others along the way for feedback and support is vital. You will be surprised to learn how many others have taken this journey, know the terrain and want to help.
  • Psychologically carrying people in your heart and mind, who believe in you, motivated you or would be proud of your courage, means you are not traveling alone.

 Hold on to Optimism

  • According to science writer, Matt Hutson, optimism allows us to see openings for success in ambiguous situations and redefine obstacles as opportunities.
  • Physically and psychologically the hope associated with optimism influences how we perceive the world. – It actually modulates the way the primary cortex processes raw information (Hutson, 2012, p.110).
  • Literally seeing the glass as slightly more than half full, helps us cross the liminal space between What Was and What’s Next.

“When you walk to the edge of all the light you have and take that first step into the darkness of the unknown, you must believe that one of two things will happen. There will be something solid for you to stand upon or you will be taught to fly.”

(Patrick Overton, The leaning tree: poems)


Listen in to Matt Hutson on Psych Up Live Why We Need Magical Thinking!