What Is Liminal Space And How Does It Affect You?

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis, LCMHC
Updated May 1, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team
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If you're like many people, you may have noticed that there are certain places or states of being in which you feel different, off, or uncomfortable. These might be literal places like empty bus stops and airport terminals, or moods/states of mind. Often, these uncomfortable spaces can be defined as liminal spaces.

There's a reasonable explanation for why liminal space just feels different. Once you know the source of your feelings about liminality, you can better manage uncomfortable emotions whenever a place makes you a bit unsettled.

Getty/Cavan Images
Some feelings can be difficult to describe

Liminal space definition

You can define liminal space in several different ways. The etymology of “liminal” comes from the Latin word "limen," which means “threshold.”

Liminal spaces are transitional or transformative spaces, and such places are often associated with a forlorn atmosphere, a disconnection from the concept of reality, and a fluid or sometimes neglected aesthetic. They are the waiting areas between one point in time and space and the next.

Often, when we are in liminal spaces, we have the feeling of being just on the verge of something. Liminal space can be, of course, a literal space. And there are plenty of examples of physical spaces that feel liminal. But there are also spaces of liminality in our mental states. These, too, are types of liminal space.

Physical liminal spaces

Liminal spaces are often physical places. In some cases, the same place may be at one time liminal and at other times not. Other places may feel like liminal spaces regardless of the time of day or year you visit them.

Whenever we are in a place that is outside of our routine, it can feel unsettling. If we're in a liminal space for longer than necessary to pass through to our destination, we may experience that same feeling of something being "off" that we can't quite pinpoint. A liminal realm might even seem eerie, which can cause discomfort.

Some may associate liminal periods and off-putting physical liminal space with the same emotions often elicited by horror movies. Places with fluorescent lights, endless background noise, and constant movement, like waiting rooms or the airport, can lead to the same kind of heebie-jeebies as those caused by a scary movie. Physical liminal spaces can include:

  • Stairwells and elevators. Stairwells and elevators are in-between spaces or thresholds. Their purpose is for transportation from one place to another, which is why lingering in an empty stairwell or elevator can seem a bit creepy. An elevator may be a comfortable space during the day when it's crowded, but certainly not late at night.
  • Empty art galleries. Rooms in art galleries often imitate the style and aesthetic of rooms in homes. But no one lives in these spaces, so it can seem weird to be in a gallery by yourself, especially one with furniture or clear and intentional design choices. Even if an art gallery isn’t replicating a living space, it is a space we usually expect to be full of people. As you might imagine, essentially any large empty space can feel liminal.
  • Hotel hallways late at night. Hallways are another in-between zone. During the day, you may see other people passing through the hallway with you, making the space seem a bit more "normal." The existence of other people in the area gives it more meaning and detracts from its liminality. At night, however, it can feel like the space has been shut down, and you may feel out of place. The hallways in one's home are a bit different because they are familiar; leading to a greater sense of tranquility. If you’re somewhere unfamiliar like a hotel, though, these spaces can seem frightening. Unfamiliar spaces typically have more liminal qualities than those we see regularly, especially if they are linking rooms or destinations.
  • Schools during breaks. When no classes are in session, a school can seem a bit like a ghost town. The absence of familiar community and activity can create discomfort. You may expect to hear the sounds of students and teachers, but instead, there is silence.
  • Empty parking lots. A parking lot is another example of an in-between place that only functions in conjunction with another space. Usually, the parking lot itself is not your destination, but the place adjoining or nearby the lot is, making the parking lot the ultimate liminal space.  
  • Non-functioning lighthouses. When places lose their function, they can become liminal spaces. Without a light, a lighthouse provides no function. Lighthouses are a particularly spooky example, but the same rule can apply to other defunct facilities.
  • The lighting section of hardware stores. In contrast to spaces that are no longer able to perform their intended function, some places provide a redundant or unexpected function. Lighting sections of stores provide examples of how to light up a room, but the stores typically already have adequate lighting, making the light from the lighting section unnecessary. Further, the many different lighting fixtures may also be giving off different colors and brightness levels, which can be disturbing and emphasize the space’s liminality.
  • Abandoned buildings. Like non-functioning lighthouses, abandoned buildings are spaces that no longer serve a purpose. They can be unsettling because they once performed a role and had people living in them, but, once abandoned, the lights are always out, and they stand as mere husks of civilization.
  • Airport lobbies. Terminals at airports act only as waiting spaces, as people’s destinations are the plane and eventual new locations. Media depictions of airports have built on this sense of liminality: we often tell stories where the key moment of change happens at the airport, train platform, or just as people are saying goodbye.

Non-physical liminal spaces

In addition to places that have liminal qualities, there are also non-physical liminal spaces. Rather than actual places, these are liminal mental states. Liminal periods are most often the result of transitional moments that give you the sense of a new identity or role.


Marriage is often seen as a beginning. The wedding may seem like an entry into a new life and the following years of a marriage like an ongoing journey. The lives we start with our partners can give us the sense that we have become truly different people.

Divorce, however, often happens unexpectedly, so it can leave you thinking you don't know where you are, or sometimes even who you are. Additionally, divorces can seem to drag on, leaving people at a loss as to what to do or what will happen next.

In your life journey, there are certain destinations you expect to reach, and divorce can seem like a waystation between destinations. When you've devoted years of your life to a marriage, it can be hard to see who you are and where you're going without that relationship.

Job loss

Jobs are also milestone markers in your life. Losing your job can put you in a particularly stressful liminal space, as you may be scrambling to find a new job and avoid income loss. Job loss can be an especially difficult place to be after you've been employed for a long time.

Moving to a new place

While relocating likely involves some physical liminal spaces, you may very well find yourself in a mental liminal space throughout the process as well.  You know where you are physically and geographically, but you may not know where you are as a person.

You might have to make a new beginning for yourself in a new physical place. You could be confused as to how you fit into this new community, especially if you’re outside of your home country. Moving can involve leaving behind a community and making new friends. All of these changes can put us into a liminal mental space.

Liminality in the human mind

Liminality is as much a state of the human mind as it is a particular place. Indeed, the places that exude a sense of liminality are usually unremarkable as far as physical structures go. It's only in the context we give them that they become unusual.

Liminality in art, literature, and nature

Creation and art have a unique relationship with liminality. Capturing the idea of liminality in art has been key to many creative careers. Liminality can provoke an emotional response in people, just like physical liminal spaces can evoke particular feelings. Think about how often you hear stories about "coming of age." Coming of age is a classic tale of liminality that describes the time period when one is not quite an adult but no longer a child.

Creatives can emphasize the idea of liminality in various art forms. For example, the poem, "Rime of the Ancient Mariner," by Samuel Taylor Coleridge is a classic tale of liminal space. The Mariner is caught between life and death. He lives while his shipmates do not.

Artists themselves can be said to enter a liminal state when they create, a place where they have the potential to act. Perhaps that is why so many writers or other artists feel anxiety before getting started, even if they have engaged in the creative process many times before.

Nature can provide a sense of both creativity and liminality. Being in slower-paced, quiet, and relatively people-free natural places can feel both unsettling and peaceful. This experience provides a different space both physically and mentally than many of us are accustomed to in our day-to-day lives. Nature can make us feel more in touch with ourselves and trigger mental or spiritual liminality as we hover in a different state of being. It can also trigger a creative liminal state simply by observing the inherent creativity of all that is natural around us. This creativity and beauty includes the shapes of leaves, the running of water over stones and sand in a stream, the rustle of wind through a tree canopy, the multitude of colors in a forest, and the vibrancy of flowers.

Liminality in philosophy, theology, and cultural studies

Liminality is also thoroughly discussed in academia and the humanities. Author and theologian Richard Rohr writes that liminal spaces should be considered introspective rather than unsettling. He argued that liminality refers to the “threshold between one stage of life to another.” Therefore, liminal spaces can be viewed in a positive way, as places where genuine newness can begin and a bigger world is revealed.

Similarly, twentieth-century sociologist Joseph Campbell held that the world is made up of sacred spaces and profane spaces. Profane spaces are places that we must go to because we live in a modern society. Examples include our jobs, the bank, or the post office. Sacred spaces are places where transformation takes place. In these places, we come to a deeper, better understanding of ourselves and a world bigger than ourselves.

Liminal dreaming

Liminal dreaming is a different form of being in a liminal state. It can be related to creativity. Indeed, some people use the art of liminal dreaming to enhance their creative states. Liminal dreaming is simply the state during which you are not quite asleep yet, but your mind experiences vivid images or sounds.

This state is also called hypnoidal dreaming. You may notice physical signs that you are slipping into a liminal dream state when your body jerks as you are falling asleep or just as you are waking.

Being in a liminal state

One of the first psychological liminal states to be explored by researchers was the concept of “a rite of passage.” During a rite of passage, an individual is at the threshold between two different states of being. Examples of such liminal life states can include:

  • Adolescence. Many teenagers may feel that both their social standing and their physical development are in an ambiguous place. Their bodies are in a distinct transition period, with adulthood as the end destination. Many religions and belief systems create ceremonial rites to coincide with this time in a young person’s life to encourage them to engage in self-reflection and explore these concepts further. 
  • Midlife. Many people may reach a point in midlife where they feel in-between and don't know what lies beyond the threshold. When people are in that place mentally, they may become afraid and act irrationally. This experience may be one reason why so many people undergo what can be referred to as a “midlife crisis.” 
  • Gender identity questioning. Another state of liminality can occur when a person feels that they do not belong to their assigned gender, or like they are between genders. This liminal state can involve both physical and mental liminality. Your body may undergo physical transformations, while your mind may shift to accommodate changing gender expectations.
Getty/Halfpoint Images
Some feelings can be difficult to describe

Liminal spaces and mental health

Liminal spaces can present a challenge for some people. Physical or emotional liminal spaces can cause a heightened sense of disquiet for certain individuals. If you are uncomfortable in such places – or feel like you are living in a liminal space – talking to a therapist can help. An experienced, licensed therapist can provide you with insights and tools to help you better navigate liminal places in the future.

Feeling out of sorts can make seeking in-person therapy difficult. You may prefer to stay at home when you’re not quite yourself, which can make keeping a traditional office visit with a therapist challenging. Online therapy might be a helpful alternative in these cases. With internet-based counseling, you can speak to a trained mental health professional from the comfort of your home. You can also save the time you might normally spend sitting in traffic or the waiting room.

Online therapy has been found to be effective in treating a wide variety of mental health challenges and conditions. One study demonstrated that participants experienced similar outcomes post-treatment whether they received therapy in person or online. 


BetterHelp is a platform that connects users with licensed and professional therapists and counselors. While remote therapy may seem too good to be true, a number of users have already posted positive reviews about the experience. Reap the benefits for yourself. Get started today
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