As it literally stands, the word “liminal” is symmetric and erect. However, when you say the word out loud, it comes out of your mouth in a wave, rising like a tide, carving space. In anthropology, liminality is the quality of ambiguous disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage. The act of liminality, therefore, feels a lot like a floating sensation—a vortex of unease and threshold breaking. When I return from a long vacation, the days before I go back to work, I am inside of this hovering space, this awning of a word. I’m frozen and stuck inside a category of existence I don’t know, somehow between persons, between myself.
Physical liminal spaces are as follows: break rooms, an empty school hallway in midsummer, airports, hotel lobbies, long hallways, empty stadiums, or a mall at 4 a.m. These are the in-between spaces. They represent transformation and transition. Moreover, they represent the root of human fear: the unknown.
These are the in-between spaces. They represent transformation and transition. Moreover, they represent the root of human fear: the unknown.
The liminal space I’m writing about doesn’t always have to have chairs and a door. Liminal spaces can be emotional too. And recently, I discovered I am entering a very apathetic liminal phase of my life. I am thirty-four, somewhere between my single youth and building a family. I am sitting between being in love with my young, wild friends and learning to understand quantified mature friendships, and their delicacy, as I grow older. I am hovering with solitude in an emotional brain space that feels oddly abandoned, like a rejection of my past self. But, I’m nervous to encounter the next version of me.
The strength of this liminal emotional state allows us to come face-to-face with our inner fears about who we are, our strengths and vulnerabilities, and our triumphs and disappointments. While society boasts of celebrating milestones and accomplishments, this portal phase in between those things can feel dark and unpredictable, and isolating. Liminal phases can make us stop in our tracks, look around, and wonder what it all means.
To better describe the feeling of being in a liminal space, I compare it to how it feels to write and read poetry. A book called Writers on Writing shares essays from renowned authors. In one, Marvin Bell writes, “For the truth is that writing poetry is first a matter of getting into motion in the presence of words; that the accidental, the random, and the spontaneous are of more value to the imagination than any plan…when we talk about the poetry we are talking about the perfect vacancy, resonant and responsive to whoever takes up the residence and stays.”
Liminal space is the perfect vacancy. Knowing does not create poetry because emptiness creates poetry. Perhaps, we have to find ways to lose ourselves in these liminal spaces so we can create a new path. We could not write our own story without feeling these lost spaces within ourselves. And I adore that.
I am hovering with solitude in an emotional brain space that feels oddly abandoned, like a rejection of my past self. But, I’m nervous to encounter the next version of me.
So, what happens in this phase? What happens when life is in process and nothing significant can happen because change involves repose? Who do we become in that space? I wanted to take a moment and write about the liminal emotional space we set ourselves in when we transition—in friendship, in love, in our careers, in grief, in joy. I want to write about my liminal life spaces, and within those experiences, how I try to move forward.
Throughout my short time being thirty-something, I’ve discovered a very spacious, open space for change in friendships. Many of us test out new careers, get married, don’t get married, have children, struggle to have children, buy houses, and sell houses. We take one step back for five forward. We propel faster than we can muster and we notice for the first time that time itself can go unnoticed.
In my late twenties, friendship was competitive and overwhelming. Who could own the most stuff? Who could buy the nicest house? Who was moving up in their career quickest? Who could receive the most personal recognition? In your thirties, this behavior continues at a faster clip. I’ve lost friends because our paths forked and one of us went faster one way than the other. I had spent years blindly making space for other things and distancing friendships without knowing.
A story: Recently, I went to a happy hour with a good old friend of mine I hadn’t seen in a while. We talked about their day-to-day, their worries, and their joy and pain. Throughout the conversation, I felt as if I were levitating. I could see a piece of them I’d remembered, but they’d changed so much. How did I not notice these changes? This unraveling, unknowing of a friend is liminal. I was figuratively standing in the empty classroom after midnight, observing past friendships.
I have lost more friendships than I have kept, but empty spaces have allowed me to make peace with those changes.
Friendships aren’t always lost, they’re in transition. We deeply reflect on what we need from the ones we love and we lift ourselves from past versions of ourselves and others. That liminal feeling can make us uncomfortable. I have lost more friendships than I have kept, but empty spaces have allowed me to make peace with those changes.
In my romantic relationship, liminal becomes about shaping ourselves around that emptiness and embracing that unrevealed. The unknown signifies change is about to come. And when we love someone, we have to embrace their shifts too. In my relationship, we’ve long surpassed our wedding and home buying and sit safely in an orb of normalcy. Our wedding, buying a house, and thinking about having kids feel like a chapter ending. What do we do from here?
Through this change, in the journey of considering building a family, I’ve felt mostly isolated and afraid. Although a decision Jake and I have made as a collective, the process of making a family has, to a fault of my insecurities, been very private. In a world where women are expected to suppress their struggles (e.g., not telling anyone they’re pregnant until the twelve-week mark, stifling discussions about abortion, and dealing with the emotional weight of birth control), we master silence. And this in-between, straddling point A (childless) and point B (family) has brought me to an oddly dark place. I know the process is meant to bring joy, but the liminal fog of the middle lacks clarity—making the process lonely.
I don’t know the answer to moving forward here. Because, to me, the only way “out” is to stick with point A or point B. Which, perhaps, like the liminal process hovering of poetry, is the point. In life, we are mostly fluid. And that fluidness is what makes us stunningly alive. We grow with that watering. We tell stories because of that richness of uncertainty and blankness. We cannot paint without a blank canvas. This white space is where we start.
In life, we are mostly fluid. And that fluidness is what makes us stunningly alive. We grow with that watering. We tell stories because of that richness of uncertainty and blankness.
When it comes to breaking out of this liminal building period, I know I need to be more explicit with my husband. I need to tell him how this space specifically feels. From there, with empathy, he’ll be able to help me redefine and structure my expectations. To risk sounding cheesy, we can form this next narrative of our lives together—even if it takes a while to write. And especially, if it takes a while to understand.
In my career, I’ve become less fixed on perfection and immediate recognition and more focused on best defining what I want. I spent my entire college career over-exerting myself to get the best job and network with the most impactful people, always. After college, I wanted to climb the ladder at lightning speed. That urgency didn’t last for long, especially after the pandemic, and I hit a burnout level I was unable to package. Work-life balance became more important than anything else, and again, I levitated above the early expectations of my career. Why didn’t I want the same things I did when I was younger? After hovering above a vacant emotional field for a while, I switched my career entirely. Despite the change, I could create work I was proud of.
If we find ourselves in a liminal space career-wise, I think that’s a good indicator that it’s time to take a new path, make a change. To be able to recognize this lostness and move forward elsewhere could be one of the most valuable gut checks out there.
Joy & Grief
Sometimes, after feeling copious amounts of joy, I feel out of my own body. For example, after going on vacation, I get home and feel as if I’ve completely lost myself. I’m melancholy and somewhere between a self I was and one I haven’t made quite yet. Grief works the same way. Loss can pull us out of life’s stupor like an emotional root canal, leaving us in, what feels like, a liminal space forever.
The other Sunday, my husband and I were driving home, and he recognized my dreariness. After a sunny weekend, the clouds were taking over and Monday was looming for us. “If we were in Ireland, we probably wouldn’t mind this weather,” he said, trying to cheer me up. To which I replied, “After such a sunny, perfect weekend, I’m just… sad is all.” He replied with such a profound response about pain making joy feel more striking and beautiful, that I can’t directly quote him. But, his comment made me realize liminal spaces let us reflect on the contrast between joy and pain. Those deep, heavy Sundays under the clouds help us compare ourselves to the other and how both can poignantly feel. Joy becomes more beautiful with pain and we cannot have one without the other.
In the end, liminal spaces are places to reflect and move forward. They’re weird places. They’re sometimes too vast for us to measure and it’s highly likely when we’re within them, we won’t like them.
In conclusion, we know people are afraid to go from one curve to another. When you’re successful or happy somewhere, it can be intimidating to leap to another place. Deepak Chopra, author, says that being in this gap between things offers all kinds of creativity (source: this episode of Oprah’s Super Soul podcast). He stresses that, when you’re in this blank space, you must look for opportunities. In this pain and moment of sacrifice, your resiliency and true soul can come out and you have to figure out what to do. That is the falling tide of life, a transition from crystallized to fluid, fluid to crystallized. Again and again and again.
In the end, liminal spaces are places to reflect and move forward. They’re weird places. They’re sometimes too vast for us to measure and it’s highly likely when we’re within them, we won’t like them. Brains crave predictability and liminal moments are like a trapeze. Once you jump off the platform, there is that suspension through the air—the scariest part—with the most momentum and no awareness of where you’ll land. Although liminal spaces can be tough platforms to spring off of, if we instead think of them as a beautiful auditorium, the entryway of a museum, we can make the moment beautiful.
Brittany Chaffee is an avid storyteller, professional empath, and author. On the daily, she gets paid to strategize and create content for brands. Off work hours, it’s all about a well-lit place, warm bread, and good company. She lives in St.Paul with her baby brother cats, Rami and Monkey. Follow her on Instagram, read more about her latest book, Borderline, and (most importantly) go hug your mother.