The word “liminal” comes from the Latin word limens, meaning “threshold”. Think: “Change” and “Disruption”. If a person is in a liminal space they are in a place of transition between the known and comfortable and some undefined future state. Think closing your eyes and stepping off of the cliff. Anxiety rising as you read that? Mine does!
The thing about liminal space is that in order for any change to happen, either in circumstances or outlook, then it has to be negotiated. If though you are not accustomed or able to hold anxiety; if you’re not good at dealing with ambiguity, you might run or fight. Giving in to a threat-adrenalin fuelled reaction in an attempt to escape the uncomfortable nature of the space you find yourself in.
These points of waiting and not knowing what happens next come to us all of the time. They can occur in connection with all sorts of events; walking into a room of strangers, redundancy, moving house or the death of a partner or loved one. The one thing that they all have in common is that they herald a change and each holds varying degrees of disruption and will disorient us for a while, regardless of our awareness during the transition.
We have an inbuilt ability to identify when we enter this space. It’s usually associated with the urge to ask ourselves, “what now”? But what if there isn’t one? What if there is not a single route forwards from the situation we find ourselves in and we now not only need to deal with the loss of a previous state but also the existential anxiety that can come from a loss of ability to predict the future. Welcome to liminal space.
Change in life is rarely contained to a single event or happening. Change ripples and knocks onto other things upsetting our status quo and forcing us to adapt in ways that may have initially seemed unconnected. And so life goes one. Changes come and knock on to others in cycles. Through this we have the opportunity to use liminal space or reinvent our sense of self and choose a different path than the first, singular answer that we instinctively search for. But if we can’t tolerate the anxiety this brings then we become fixed, stuck and trapped.
This is where an extra set of eyes are useful, and they could come from anywhere, be it a buddy, a mentor, an employee led network or in a more professional capacity from an Organisation Development (not Design) function or consultant or by a Coach. The end aim of all of these interactions is the same. It’s in not allowing people to isolate themselves into despair and to bring them together into communities where they can generate hope and gain mutual support. It’s in allowing them to express the anxiety that liminal space naturally generates in all of us and to find their own way through it.
In this it is not an issue that people need to be guided through, it is something that they need to be enabled to overcome themselves. And this should be done in a way that is indifferent to the result: supporting others to deal with liminal space requires creative indifference. Without it, the person supplying the extra set of eyes could simply impose their “what now” onto another.