I’ll be honest: the return from vacation has been hard. It’s Thursday, June 27th. I’m in San Antonio working with my fav client here, but Monday and Tuesday I just couldn’t find my rhythm. Something was amiss.
By Tuesday my mood was low. I felt lost, frustrated, confused. This is rare for me, and it overtook me. Sara and I talked over our vacation about our respective ways forward with our work… what we want to give in the time we have left on this earth. That wasn’t — and still isn’t — clear to me.
As an Enneagram Seven, the Enthusiastic Visionary, I have no shortage of ideas of what that might be. I have a shortage of clarity, the ability to commit to ONE thing and to hold the focus there. This shadow has followed me all my life. This was at the crux of my lostness. But more importantly, there was this.
It is dawning on me that my old ways simply aren’t working anymore. I’m panicked not knowing what will work for me.
These two things — a frustrating lack of clarity and knowing my old ways must change — had me feeling dark and uneasy. Staying where I have been felt like certain and unbearable misery, yet how to be, what to do, where to go, and how to get there… unknown.
A Liminal Space
That’s the messy middle. It’s the place between what we’ve known but no longer fits us, and the place we need to head towards which is totally unknown to us. It’s scary. It’s edgy. It’s murky.
It’s also called the liminal space —
“A liminal space is the time between the ‘what was’ and the ‘next.’ It is a place of transition, waiting, and not knowing. Liminal space is where all transformation takes place if we learn to wait and let it form us.” www.inaliminalspace.org
My ego with its need for safety and security doesn’t like it here. Not one bit. It feels raw, murky, and dangerous. What I needed on Tuesday was a knowing and loving friend, and I have one.
Sara has this uncanny way of not tolerating my whining and complaining, yet loving me at the same time. As I was talking with her about my state on Tuesday night, she didn’t comfort me, which is what I wanted. What did she do?
She kicked my butt, that’s what. Basically saying, “Turn into it. You know what to do.” without saying those exact words. The way she does this is incredibly hard to convey to you because of the inner state from which she communicates such things… in other words, it ain’t just the words. In fact, they might be the least important. That said…
I didn’t get comforted, I got righted. LOL. That is the power of psychological safety combined with radical candor. Sara doesn’t pull any punches with me, because she says what she thinks and what she doesn’t say I can still feel.
With my escapist tendencies, that’s just what I need from her. Neither indulging me in my weaknesses and machinations nor comforting me when what I need is a whack upside the head or a kick in the pants.
I don’t always like it — and to be clear, I didn’t like it Tuesday night — but it enabled Wednesday to dawn in a new way. Wednesday was like, “Yes. I recognize this space. I recognize the fear. I recognize the desire to make it go away ASAP. Yet I also know the murky, dim, dangerous feeling of it is a projection of only one aspect of my mind. A scared, distorted aspect…”
With these recognitions, this traveler was able to travel a little more steady. Sara helped me open that door. She didn’t help me out of the space. She helped me to be fully in it.
Psychological safety, radical candor, connection, crucial conversations, and the like. These things have the power to change the very quality of our lives, and the lives of others. That’s what Sara gave me when I needed it most. And the sad truth is this.
It’s Such a Rare Thing
It’s rare. So few of us have been taught what a liminal space is, how to work within these spaces, and how to support someone else within one. Further, certain qualities and capacities are required that must be cultivated. Cultivated through practice.
So it is rare to be able to help ourselves and others in the moments where help is most needed. Moments where we are scared to death with trembling knees and dim light and fog swirling around us… somewhere between the world we’ve known and know we must leave… and the new world which is now calling us but is foreign to us and we haven’t yet a clue about how to get there.
With the best of intentions, we tend to misguide the person or prematurely collapse the space and the window of opportunity closes for that person. The opportunity for transformation, lost.
And we, of course, need to recognize that we are in the in-between and summon our resources to navigate the liminal space. We can’t count on someone around us having the insight, internal resources, and skills to help us.
“… It is when you have left the tried and true, but have not yet been able to replace it with anything else. It is when you are between your old comfort zone and any possible new answer. If you are not trained in how to hold anxiety, how to live with ambiguity, how to entrust and wait, you will run…anything to flee this terrible cloud of unknowing.” - Richard Rohr
This Can Be Learned
Anyone can build the capacities to recognize and capitalize on the potentiality of a liminal space… for themselves, and in support of others. We do this by practice. Disciplined, daily practice. Then, when we need it, the resources are there when we need them.
In this week’s article, I write about five practices that can help. The irony is that in my funk I totally abandoned all five practices when I most needed to summon them. Typically, I’d go to self-compassion practice. But my awareness was consumed in murkiness.
Sara helped me pivot. Now, I’m back to the practices and navigating my liminal space. And I’m sharing these practices with you, here, from this space. I’m not out of it. I’m just now fully in it. And using it.
If you are in your own liminal space in some way, take heart. You aren’t alone. I’m with you. Also, take Sara’s reminder to me. Turn into this. Embrace the unknown.
If you are struggling to exit the liminal space as fast as you can, you can’t use it. And if you don’t use it, you lose it. Until another point in the future, if you are lucky. But time will be lost, and time, in this short life, is incredibly precious.
Finding Your Inner Navigator
These liminal spaces are bristling with opportunities and are actually dark only to the part of us that clings. Calm that part and call your spirit back to you. Fully occupy the liminal space instead of struggling to get out of it, and your inner navigator will activate. That’s the part of you that knows what to do and which direction to take without knowing why it knows what it knows.
There are things you can do — like these practices — to bring your navigator online. They can also increase the speed and quality of your passage into your new world. They can also mean the difference between slipping back into your old, known world and leaving your new world undiscovered and your heart unfulfilled… or reaching the other side to discover a new you and that new world beckoning you to join it.
If this is you, claim your liminal space, my friend. Wake up and fully occupy that space. You can do this. Let’s do this together.
And if someone you know is in their own liminal space, I hope what I’ve shared here might help stir some feelings in you about how you might better support them. It probably isn’t doing what society has taught you to do. It’s something much more rare and precious and beautiful and transformative than that. And it is within you.
Here’s a book I quite like and highly recommend to anyone who wants to explore this further and is open to a Buddhist perspective on the topic. The book is The Places That Scare You (330 reviews on Amazon, 4.5 stars, at the time of this writing) by Pema Chödrön. Pema is an absolutely lovely 82-year-old Buddhist nun who is so humble, so vulnerable, so real, so experienced, and so approachable and understandable that I find her compelling and her insight grounded, practical, and highly useful.