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: Together in the Liminal Space-The Place Between What Was and the Unknown

At the moment most of us find ourselves sheltered in place,masked, quarantined, negotiating steps of social distance, witnessing the horror of premature openings, suffering with COVID-19, trying to soothe children who missed school, worrying about the elderly, arguing with young adults daring too much, exhausted from waiting and worried about jobs, racial injustice and political chaos.

Together we are sharing a space between what we once defined as our lives and the unknowns in the lives we are trying to approach.

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?

Will I get COVID?

Will they ever find a vaccine?

Will my children have the freedom to go back to school?

Will I  find a new relationship?

Will this country survive its medical and political plagues?

.“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 From the Past

  • Research suggests that the inability to stop negative ruminating about “what was” or “ what should have been” keeps us unhappy and limits our view of future options. It actually triggers stress reactions of fight, flight and numbing which compromise our judgment as well as our immune system.
  • Of course we need to grieve in our own way for what we have suffered, lost or expected; but we are capable of multiple feelings. Even with tears, looking forward with a moment of hope enables us to see even traces of  possibilities in the future.

“You can’t see where you are going, if you are only looking backwards”

 Staying frightened at the Threshold

  • Some try to reduce their anxiety about the unknown by assuming the worst.  They assume the worst about the future and the worst about their capacity to venture into the unknown.
  • Given we don’t have a crystal ball on prediction and we know that living with a sense of impending disaster is depleting, the position of predicting the worst undermines resilience.  It compromises potential response to whatever we face- which might be better than we thought.

“ Possibility is the oxygen upon which hope thrives.” ( Paul Rogat Loeb, 2004,p.19)

 Caught in Waiting

It makes sense that most people are exhausted with waiting.  The term “ social distance fatigue” is valid whether you are a new college coed waiting to find out if there will really be classes at the school you dreamed of attending, a little one waiting for playdates, or adults who just want to go back to the office or go out for dinner with friends.

What might have felt at first like “the pause that refreshes” is increasing feeling like the traffic jam that doesn’t move while the radio blasts mixed reports as to what, why and when you will start moving again.

When we factor in the surge of COVID-19  in states that have “ started opening up”  we add the  anxiety of worrying whether you should actually continue if traffic starts to move.

“Going into the unknown is how you expand what is known.” (Julien Smith)

 Strategies for Moving Forward

Take Back Time and Space by Filling it with Achievable Goals

  • Reconsider how you are spending your day. Do you have time in the liminal space to take the course, take the walk, re-define your relationship, try a new project, work on your relationship, join in a cause you believe, renew your sense of spirituality, reclaim memories of your childhood with your children, cook your Dad’s recipes, help others in need even online.
  • 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.

“Sometimes you find yourself in the middle of nowhere, and sometimes in the middle of nowhere you find yourself.” Anonymous

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 etc. on a regular basis gives us something we know, something we can predict and something that buffers stress physically and psychologically.

 Use Realistic Optimism vs Blind Optimism

  • As opposed to blind optimism, realistic optimism is active not passive. The person using realistic optimism does not miss the negatives but disengages from problems that appear unsolvable and attends to problems they can solve.
  • According to science writer, Matt Hutson, optimism allows us to see openings for success in ambiguous situations and redefine obstacles as opportunities.
  • Making note of the resilience of those you love conveys hope and optimism in how they will manage the unknown.

Go with Curiosity

  • Curiosity changes the fear of the unknown path to one of possible potential.
  • Curiosity allows embracing the unexpected – the life change, option, network, or challenge with a different body and mind than an anxious one.

We are in the Liminal Space Together

You  are not venturing alone. We are all in the liminal space together.  As such we can lean on each other, learn from each other and make peace with each other.  Connecting with others along the way is a source of resilience and a reason to keep hope alive.

 “…Just as despair can come to one another only from other human beings, hope, too, can be given to one only by other human beings.”  ( Elie Wiesel ) 


Listen in to a podcast on Psych Up Live – as Anita K Discusses her new book, Behaving Bravely: How to Mindshift Life’s Challenges