How to Acknowledge A New Reality and Move Towards Something New

SheepInDublin

There’s a shocking news item for this poor sheep! It is the headline in the Ramsbottom newspaper: 10,000 Sheep to Lose Their Wool Within the Next Week. Now that’s an acknowledgement of a new reality!

I often find myself noticing my own ‘in between states’ – places that spur growth and change. These can be triggered by an internal realization or an external event. Sometimes they are realities presenting more gradually.  I find value in naming this phenomenon and the closest I have found is the term ‘liminal’ or ‘liminality’. I hope by sharing my reflections that I can help others get used to noticing these states, and how to move through them, if desired. For the sheep, they just have to wait a few weeks til sheering – hopefully all else remains intact. Poor sheep.

Definition of Liminal

lim·i·nal
/ˈlimənl/

1.relating to a transitional or initial stage of a process.
2.Occupying a position at, or on both sides of, a boundary 
or threshold.

The word ‘Liminal’ comes from the Latin root ‘limen’ meaning threshold – literally, the bottom of a door. When you welcome someone into your home, they pass over a threshold from the outside to the very different space of your home. While that is a quick transition in physical space, a liminal state can last a lot longer than that. After all, once in someone else’s home, there may be other (cultural) adjustments before one gets comfortable: different norms around eating, wearing shoes, having conversations, use of devices, and hospitality. Their transition may require a new level of self-awareness and possibly self-restraint while observing and then adjusting their expectations and behaviors to their surroundings. This can of course occur upon entry to a new team or a new job as well.

Examples

Here are some examples of other liminal spaces or thresholds that I came up with, some broad in scope and time and some very narrow:

  • Getting very upset and finding calm and peace again
  • Having ongoing pain symptoms, but no diagnosis
  • Learning about a topic, but not yet able to study it properly or apply it
  • Similarly, getting a new device, operating system or program, and not mastering it yet
  • Having a great job interview and waiting for the next step (more broadly, the time between losing a job and starting a new one)
  • Writing software, but not able to have it deployed (writing a book, waiting for publication)
  • Starting contractions to give birth, and waiting to actually give birth (wouldn’t it be nice to rush that one along)…
  • Deciding to go out for a walk, and actually opening the door to do so
  • Getting the keys to your new house, and much later finally settling in fully
  • Leaving one’s country, resettling in the new one (also, being tied up in immigration limbo)
  • Experiencing a loss, moving through stages of grief to acceptance
  • Not knowing who is taking care of whom as in the picture below.
TakingCareComic

I am sure you will start seeing many more. Some of these transition spaces are joyful celebratory ones, where we are striving to attain something new and we are highly resourced. Some are spaces of struggle and frustration where we don’t yet have means to reach our goal.

Others are more representative of the way ‘things just are’ in the world and we have zero agency to reverse course. For example, on the way to the hospital to give birth to my second child, I said to my then husband: ‘I would like to turn around. I’ve decided that I don’t want to go through with it.’ I was in so much pain but I didn’t have much luck with that desired approach!

In all cases of transition, it can be helpful to have a guide, someone who can help you through whether it is a doula, a grief counselor, a personal or career coach, or just a helpful listening ear for encouragement. Even first time home ownership can involve a stressful, even if joyful transition. Asking for help is one of several ways to cope.

Satir Change Model

As I noticed all these various liminal states, I realized that these are natural and normal in life. Another feature is that they won’t last forever. Yet another is that they provoke new experiences and learning. The first family therapist, Virginia Satir, introduced the notion of a process of state change with her now famous Satir Change Model.

Screen Shot 2020-11-02 at 9.08.04 AM

In this model, the liminal space is everything between what she calls the Late Status Quo (the old normal), and the New Status Quo (the new normal). Her ideas helped me explain change to my clients when I first started as a coach and I still find it useful. In my own life, knowing that there would be a better new normal after divorce was a relief. There are many concurrent liminal states – and they coexist and evolve around us. These states are an ironically permanent feature of the complex world we live in.

On Celebrations and Rituals

In anthropology, liminality is “the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of a rite of passage, when participants “no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the rite is complete”. Bar-and Bat-Mitzvahs and Quinceaneras are examples of periods of transition from childhood to adulthood. Rituals to celebrate an engagement (and last moments of celibacy) prior to the wedding are another example. My nephew’s wedding was postponed due to rain, and the anticipation was intense, but all ended well.

weddingChupa

In organizations aspiring to be more agile, we don’t often use rituals to let go of the past way of working, when we embark on a new way of working and I’ve long thought that that acknowledgement might serve as a helpful marker. And while we may not have a definitive border to cross, no final condition that represents arrival, we can still celebrate milestones and markers of progress and improvement. In acknowledging that the liminal space is a challenging and inevitable space of growth and learning, we admit to our vulnerability and humanity. Change may not be easy but others will be there to support (hopefully).

The Limbic Brain

Other cognates (words that share this same Latin root ‘limen’, and have related meanings) include the words ‘limbic’ (pertaining to or characteristic of a border), and subliminal “below the threshold” (of consciousness or sensation).

The Limbic part of the brain regulates emotions and is physically bordering both the neocortex (processor of reason, logic sitting behind your forehead) and the amygdala (regulating survival responses – flight, fight, or freeze at the lower area or the brain near your neck). The limbic brain feels settled when it knows ‘what the rules are around here’ and is unsettled when things are stirred up.

It is in understanding the function of this limbic brain that I have come to understand the way I act or react in certain social situations. Noticing when I am in a liminal situation and not feeling settled, I can take action by getting in touch with what I would like to have happen (my higher brain state). As a coach, I can help others do the same and can help organizations to notice and navigate the liminal spaces they are in, finding their way ‘across the threshold’. It might be as easy as finding out how things are now, eliciting outcomes, and helping people find their own way steadily from one space to the next.

Now What?

You have read this far and may be wondering what, if anything, to do now that you know this term. I don’t really have a specific answer for each person’s particular situation. My best offer of advice, if this interests you, is that you first develop your capacity for noticing liminal states. This can be in your personal life, in your community or at work. Grab a small journal and jot them down as you see them, and ask yourself questions as you sense the opportunity for learning and growing through this space. For example:

  • What is the current state? Where and when does it begin, end?
  • What is your limbic brain noticing (emotions and social aspects)?
  • What would you like to have happen?
  • What support or resources do you have or need to move on?
  • Whom can you call to ask for help?

Lastly, remember that liminal states are perfectly normal and won’t last forever. Ideally, you’ll take advantage of them for the experiences and learning that you can derive. I would be interested to hear your thoughts in the comments.

Explore posts in the same categories: Coaching, Personal Growth

2 Comments on “How to Acknowledge A New Reality and Move Towards Something New”


  1. I really enjoyed reading this post, and appreciated the variety of examples of liminality. This is a really important concept to teach clients in helping them understand and get more comfortable with their own change journeys.

    Like


  2. […] small group setting is for you.I became attracted to the idea of running a challenge after writing my recent post on liminality. One of the ways to get out of a ‘stuck’ place, or a liminal state, is to move towards […]

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