- Jenny Simon MC, LPC, PhD
We hate waiting, we hate not moving, this midway point is called liminal space. Everyone hates being in limbo, that dreaded place right before a decision is made. We would rather make a bad choice than stay in the indeterminate state before the problem is solved. However, the experience of being uncertain offers many possibilities and choices. If we jump too quickly out of the middle we may make a bad decision. We may run or react from something that feels uncomfortable. We can imagine the caterpillar reduced to green slime, not yet grown into a butterfly. In liminal space he is incubating, waiting to transform. If the caterpillar rushed this process and moved into the butterfly too fast, he may not develop properly. His wings, eyes, or neck may not be ready. Human beings often rush through the liminal space.
It is normal that we run quickly toward solution. We are biologically designed to make sense of the world and to move forward. It is the work of the human mind to edit a problem and make meaning. To understand a situation; the brain observes, translates, cross checks (to search for similarities), and then focuses on one aspect to label and define. This observation-editing process happens in a second.
One unfortunate side effect of fast “meaning making,” is that the brain skips the opportunity for growth and reduces complexity. In an effort to feel better-faster, we are programmed to focus on the pain and throw away anything that may be construed as unnecessary. The brain will quickly concentrate on the problem and edit out pieces that get in the way of this goal. The cost of this editing is complexity. The giant, messy hairball of the world is traded for a focused piece of a larger puzzle. This is economy of the mind. The brain does not want to sift through and sort tons of data. It is more efficient to focus on the task at hand and then decide what to do next. Once we have labeled the problem, we are free to move on and fix it. But what if in haste we failed to see the true problem?
Stress further compounds this “meaning making” process. A mind in stress wants easy yes or no answers. A stressed mind becomes myopic and narrow. Creativity is eliminated and most people under duress want quick, clear decisions. Often stressed minds will say, “I am tired of making choices, tell me what to do.” When we are in pain, naturally we want a fast solution to get out of pain. We review what has happened, omitting the majority of the context, we decide we want out of our discomfort and we react. This reaction process does not create the best solutions. In fact, we are simply avoiding pain. What interesting outcomes could happen if we embraced all of the nuance, the past, the details, and the facets before labeling and defining? Most people would resist sitting in the unknown, sorting through the big picture. We do not want to sit in the mid-point. The brain would rather risk a wrong or a bad decision that was made quickly than simmer in the green slime. Unfortunately, this rush to avoid neglects the middle place of growth, the liminal space.
The term “liminal space” is borrowed from psychology and anthropology. The common definition of liminal is “threshold,” coming from the original Latin definition. Think of entering a doorway. Many scholars have used the term liminal to define rites of passage or ritual. They describe it as the mid-point between two positions. It is a deconstruction area, the person enters into the space, stripped of knowledge. Traditional liminality literature defines a three part process: There is a beginning or entrance. There is the middle liminality or unknown. This liminality can feel uncomfortable or exciting. The final stage is integration where structure and form emerge and transformation happens. If we rush through the middle we may not experience transformation. In fact, we may be running from pain only to find that we are more stuck than before. Let us imagine liminal space as a naked snake. The snake has shed his old skin. He is soft, sensitive, and vulnerable. He does not yet have his new skin. He is in the middle. He may want a new skin, but in the naked space he learns much about his safety and environment. He feels every rock, all temperature changes, and each subtle movement. Snakes are cranky during this skin shedding time. This process is crucial to help the snake understand his environment. When his new skin arrives he is tuned in to his world.
Why should we care about the naked snake in liminality? The middle is where the magic happens. If we are too quick to jump in and make decisions, we miss the opportunity to experience better decision making. The middle offers unlimited potential. It offers many solutions instead of just running from pain. Imagine that in this space right before we make a decision, all outcomes are possible. If we sit for a few seconds in the grey-green mush and sort through ideas, a new focus could arise. Try an experiment, be a naked snake, don’t cover up too quick. See if you can tolerate the liminal space.