Understanding How Liminal Space Is Different From Other Places
By: Julia Thomas
Updated July 25, 2020
Medically Reviewed By: Natalie Feinblatt
Liminal space is a concept that's being talked about a lot lately. 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. Often, these uncomfortable spaces turn out to be liminal spaces.
Fortunately, there's a reasonable explanation for why liminal space feels different. Once you know the source of your feelings about liminal spaces, you can better deal with the feeling when a place makes you a bit unsettled.
That's exactly what you'll learn in this article. First, you'll learn what the definition of liminal space is and see some examples. Next, you'll find out how liminality can be applied to life and creative endeavors. Finally, you'll discover how liminality can define some people's roles in your life and how it may be influencing your feelings toward them.
Let's jump right in with the definition of liminal space.
Liminal Space Definition
You can define liminal space in several different ways. It's talked about as a threshold, and indeed, the etymology of “liminal” comes from the Latin root word "limen," which means “threshold.” Liminal spaces are transitional or transformative spaces. 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 just being on the verge of something. Liminal space is, of course, a literal space. And there are plenty of examples of physical liminal spaces, as we will see below in this article. But there are also spaces of liminality in our mental states. This, too, is a type of liminal space.
Examples Of Liminality
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 a liminal space regardless of the time of day or year you visit them.
Whenever we are at a place during a time that's not usual for that space, it can feel unsettling. Or if we're in a liminal space for longer than necessary to pass through to our actual destination, we may experience that same feeling of something being "off" that we can't quite pinpoint.
Here are some examples of liminal spaces.
Stairwells and Elevators
Stairwells and elevators are quite clearly in-between spaces or thresholds. Their purpose is to get you from one place to another, and that is why lingering in an empty stairwell or elevator can feel a bit creepy.
Empty Art Galleries
The rooms of art galleries often imitate rooms that people live in. But no one lives in these spaces, and that's why it can feel weird to be in a gallery by yourself, especially one with furniture.
Even if the art gallery isn’t replicating a living space, they’re usually spaces that are meant to be full of people. As we’ll see, essentially any large empty space can be or feel liminal.
And if the gallery is displaying portraits? That doesn’t make it liminal, but it might make it creepy.
Hotel Hallways Late At Night
Hallways are another one of those in-between passing zones. During the day, you may see other people passing through the hallway with you, making space seem a bit more "normal."
At night, however, it can feel like space has been shut down, and like you shouldn't be there. The hallways in one's home are a bit different because they are familiar. If you’re somewhere else, like a hotel, these spaces can feel unfamiliar and the completely unknown environment can seem frightening.
Unfamiliar spaces tend to have more liminal qualities than those we see regularly.
Schools During Breaks
This is another instance of a place that can feel normal until a certain time. When no classes are in session, a school feels a bit like a ghost town. You expect to hear the sounds of students and teachers, but instead, there is silence.
Empty Parking Lots
A parking lot is most certainly an in-between place. It only functions in conjunction with another space-the space you are going to. So usually, the parking lot itself is not your destination, but the place adjoining or nearby the lot.
Non-Functioning Lighthouses (etc.)
When places lose the function they once had, they can become liminal spaces. Without a light, a lighthouse provides no function.
Lighthouses are a particularly spooky example, but the same rule goes for other defunct facilities.
The Lighting Section Of Hardware Stores
In contrast to spaces without their intended function, some places provide a redundant function or a function that is expected elsewhere. Lighting sections of stores are an example of this. They provide examples of how to light up a room, but the lighting samples' purpose is not actually to light up the room.
Further, the many different lighting fixtures may also be giving off different colors and brightnesses of light, which can be unusual.
Like non-functioning lighthouses, abandoned buildings are spaces without function. The unsettling aspect comes in because they once performed a role and had people in them. Once abandoned, the lights are always out, and they stand as husks of civilization.
Airport Lobbies (etc.)
Terminals at airports are places that act only as a waiting space. Your destination is the plane and an eventual new location.
Other examples of liminal spaces exist, like train stations, etc. If you think of places that leave you in between your usual activities, you will likely think of others.
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. Listed below are some mental spaces that leave many people in a liminal space.
Marriage is often seen as a beginning. The years of a marriage are a journey and the lives we start with others can make us feel like truly different people.
Divorce, however, often happens unexpectedly, so it can leave you feeling like you don't know where you are, or sometimes even who you are. Alternatively, 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, but divorce can be a way station in between the destinations you seek, especially after years of marriage. When you've devoted years of your life journey to a marriage, it can be hard to see who you are and where you're going without that marriage.
Jobs are also milestone markers in your life. So, a job loss is a place in between one job and another, for most people. Job loss can be an especially difficult place to be after you've been employed for a long time.
Moving To A New Place
Moving to a new city involves a physical move, but the liminal state you are in is very much a mental space. You know exactly where you are, physically and geographically, but you don't know where you are as a person. You may not know how you fit into to this new community.
Moving can involve making new friends or even leaving behind a family that you are accustomed to having around. All of these changes put us into a liminal, or threshold, space. Even if you don't physically move to a new town, you may find yourself in a similar mental state if you lose friend groups or need to break yourself away from toxic family members.
You can see then, that liminality is as much a state of the human mind as it is a particular place. Indeed, all the places where one gets a sense of liminality are quite usual as far as structures go. It's only in the context we give to them in our minds that they become unusual.
The liminal veil is what we call the place where a transition occurs between the threshold and the place that waits before us. A liminal space may feel confining, but often it takes only minor changes to get through to the next place.
Liminal Space Tumblr
The topic of liminal space has become a popular discussion on Tumblr. In fact, you'll find the same or a similar discussion thread on many writer's Tumblr blogs. This makes a lot of sense because liminality is often associated with creativity.
Liminality In Art And Literature
Creation and art have a unique relationship with liminality. Creatives can utilize the idea of liminality in various art forms. It provokes an emotional response in people, just like the physical liminal spaces evoke particular feelings. Think about how often you hear stories about "coming of age." Coming of age is a classic tale of liminality when one is not quite an adult but no longer a child.
Liminality in Philosophy, Theology, and Cultural Studies
The Latin word “liminal” also makes its appearance in academia and the humanities.
Author and theologian Richard Rohr writes that liminal spaces should be introspective places rather than unsettling places. To him, “liminal” is a word meaning “threshold between one stage of life as another. As a result, it is only within these spaces that these are good spaces where genuine newness and the bigger world is revealed.
Similarly, the twentieth-century sociologist Joseph Campbell held that the world was made up of sacred spaces and profane space in our lives.
Profane spaces are places that we have to go because we live in modern society, like our jobs, the bank, or the post office. Sacred spaces are places where transformation takes place; where we encounter the world and each other to come to a deeper understanding of ourselves, and a world bigger than ourselves.
Creativity And Liminal Space
Artists themselves can be said to enter a liminal state when they create. There is a place of liminality that is a state of creative being. It is the place where you have the potential to act, but have not yet done so. When you are about to create a thing, you are in that space. Perhaps that is why so many writers or other artists feel anxiety before getting started, even if it's their one-thousandth project.
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.
Being In A Liminal State
One of the first psychological liminal states to be explored by researchers was rites of passage. During a rite of passage, an individual is at the threshold between two different states of being.
Quite often, it is the state between childhood and adulthood, the space between when one isn't quite a child anymore but is not yet an adult. The person is standing in a doorway and hasn't yet gone through. Many religions and belief systems explore these concepts and create rites of passage to coincide with the threshold moments in life.
When one is in a liminal state, like adolescence, it can create a sense of invisibility. As a teenager, for example, you are in an ambiguous place as far as your social standing, as well as in your physical development. Your body itself is in a distinct transition period, with the end destination being adulthood.
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 in order 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 during nap, as you are falling asleep, or just as you are waking.
The Role Of Liminality In A Mid-Life Crisis
Just as the coming of age is a point of liminality, so is mid-life. Indeed, there are many points of liminality in a person's life. This could be why the occurrence of a midlife crisis is so common. Many of us simply reach a point in life where we feel in-between, and we don't know what lies beyond the threshold. We become afraid and act irrationally in that place.
Another state of liminality can occur when a person feels that they do not to belong to their assigned gender, or to be between genders. This can be a liminal state both of the mind and of the body. Your mind can feel like you are transitioning between genders, and your body can also go through a transformative state. It's worth noting that the end destination of each such state may be different for different individuals.
How BetterHelp can Help
There aren’t people who don’t encounter liminal spaces. Most people are able to navigate liminal spaces with no problem. However, some people, whether they are in physical or emotional liminal spaces, can feel as though they are in a terribly cloud when they encounter these spaces.
If you feel uncomfortable in liminal spaces – or like you are living in a liminal space – talking to a therapist can help.
BetterHelp is a platform that connects users with licensed and professional therapists and counselors. Once connected, communication occurs through private chats and secure voice and video calls.
While remote therapy may seem unusual, a number of users have already posted positive reviews to teach you more about the experience.
Frequently Asked Questions (FAQs)
What is a liminal person?
A liminal person could be seen as a person who is going through a liminal experience or as a person who is serving in a transitional capacity in your own life.
How do you create liminal space?
Because liminal spaces are “spaces between spaces” you can turn some places into liminal spaces by reducing their own significance and emphasizing their role as transitional spaces.
What is liminal space in art?
In art, “liminal space” often refers to the act of creating art itself. This can be the experience of the artist and can be expressed by some artists in their art through creating pieces that appear unfinished or that leave artefacts like traced guidelines etc.
What is Liminality in psychology?
In psychology, “liminality” is the movement from one stage of life to another and the feelings that it can invoke.
What is the best definition of liminal?
Because the word “liminal” can be used in so many different ways, the most practical definition of “liminal” is the shortest - “threshold” or “boundary.”
Why is liminal space important?
Liminal space is important because it is necessary. Imagine a train track without train stations, or a house without rooms or doorways. To get from one space to another, liminal spaces must be a part of the experience.
What does liminal space mean?
The term “liminal spaces” refers to places between destinations that aren’t meant to be existed in as much as passed through.
What is a liminal moment?
The term “liminal moment” refers to moments that separate life experiences. Waiting for a diagnosis or opening a college acceptance letter may be described as liminal moments.
What is liminal experience?
A liminal experience is the feeling of transition. They may be brief, like the liminal moments described above, or they may be long like going through a divorce or a job transition.
What is the difference between a space and a place?
“Place” usually refers to a specific landmark or location. “Space” usually refers to the area around it.
What is liminal space in literature?
Liminal spaces mean the same thing in literature as they do in other schools of thought. However, they occupy a different feeling. Where in life a liminal space may seem disturbingly insignificant, in literature they are often where plots unfold and character is built.
What does “Liminality” mean in English?
“Liminality” means “the quality of being liminal.”
Why do airports feel weird?
Airports feel weird because they are a classic liminal space. No one goes to airports, people go through airports. If you pass through the airport as is intended, they may not seem strange. However, if you have to spend any amount of time there, like during a lay-over or flight delay, they can seem stranger.
What does alter reality mean?
“Alter Reality” is the concept of different dimensions or timelines. While from a physics perspective we don’t have real access to these alternate realities, it can be easy to think about alternative possibilities or options that one might take while in a liminal space.
Summarizing The Liminal State, as much as it can be summarized
Being in a liminal state or place can be unsettling. It certainly feels uncomfortable. But if we open up to it, it can be the threshold of wonderful new experiences in life. If you'd like to discuss using liminal states to enhance your creativity or learn to reduce the anxiety you feel in liminal spaces, whether physical or non-physical, you can seek guidance from a licensed counselor.