What Is Liminal Space And How Does It Affect You?

Medically reviewed by Majesty Purvis
Updated March 2, 2024by BetterHelp Editorial Team

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 places like empty bus stops, airport terminals, or even simple hallways. Often, these uncomfortable spaces turn out to be liminal spaces.

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

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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 at a place during a time that's not routine, it can feel unsettling. 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. A liminal realm might even feel eerie, which can cause discomfort.

Some may associate liminal periods and off-putting physical liminal space with the same feelings they may get from horror movies. Places with fluorescent lights like waiting rooms or the airport can be just as uncomfortable, with endless background noise and constant movement. Below are some examples of liminal spaces.

Stairwells and elevators

Stairwells and elevators are in between spaces or thresholds. They are like a hallway to other places. 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. An elevator may feel normal during the day when it's crowded, but certainly not late at night.

Empty art galleries

Rooms in 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 or clear and intentional aesthetics.

Even if the art gallery isn’t replicating a living space, they’re usually spaces that we interpret to be intentionally full of people. As you might imagine, essentially any large empty space can feel liminal.

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 the space seem a bit more "normal." The existence of other people in the room 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; there could be more of a sense of tranquility there. 

If you’re somewhere else that lacks familiarity like a hotel, though, these spaces can feel unfamiliar and even frightening. Unfamiliar spaces typically have more liminal qualities than those we see regularly, especially if they are linking rooms or destinations.

Schools during breaks

Another instance of a place that can feel normal until a certain time is a school. When no classes are in session, a school feels a bit like a ghost town. The absence of the community and activity that is familiar at a school creates 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. It 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. 

Non-functioning lighthouses

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 removed from 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 disturbing.

Abandoned buildings

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 mere husks of civilization.

Airport lobbies 

Terminals at airports are places that act only as waiting spaces. Your destination is the plane and an eventual new location. The image of the airport in the media has also expanded its feeling 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.

Other examples exist, like train stations, for instance. If you think of places that leave you in between your usual activities, you will likely think of other examples.

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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. This liminal period is most often a result of transitional moments that make you feel like you have a new identity or role. Listed below are some situations that often leave many people in a liminal space.

Divorce

Marriage is often seen as a beginning. The wedding may seem like an entry into a new life, and the years of a marriage a journey. The lives we start with our partners 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. 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, but divorce can be a weigh station  between destinations, especially after years of marriage. 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. For most people, a job loss is a place in between one job and another new job. 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 might find yourself in could be very much a mental space. You know exactly 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 making new friends or even leaving behind a family that you are accustomed to having around. All these changes put us into a liminal, or threshold, 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 quite normal as far as structures go. It's only in the context we give 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.

Liminality in art, literature, and nature

Creation and art have a unique relationship with liminality. Capturing this idea of liminality in art has been a key to many creative careers. Creatives can utilize the idea of liminality in various art forms. It provokes an emotional response in people, just like 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 that describes the time period when one is not quite an adult but no longer a child.

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. 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.

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 such 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 includes the shapes of leaves, the running of water over stones and sand in a stream, the rustle of wind through the canopy, the multitude of colors, and the vibrancy of flowers, for example.

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 to another.” As a result, these can be seen as positive spaces 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. Such a perspective holds that a liminal space could be considered, with the right frame of mind, a good space.

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 during a nap, 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 a rite 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.

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Some feelings can be difficult to describe

The role of liminality in a mid-life crisis

Just as the coming of age is a point of liminality, so is mid-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 can become afraid and may act irrationally in that place.

Gender liminality

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 can be a liminal state both of the mind and body. Your mind can feel like you are transitioning between genders, and your body can also go through a transformative state. 

Liminal spaces and mental health

Liminal spaces can present a challenge for some people. However, some people. Whether they are in physical or emotional liminal spaces, these individuals can feel as though they are in a terrible or disquieting cloud when they encounter these spaces.

If you feel 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 these 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, for instance. This can make keeping a traditional office visit with a therapist challenging. Online therapy might be a better 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 proven effective in treating a wide variety of mental health challenges and conditions. One study revealed that participants experienced similar outcomes post-treatment, whether they received therapy in person or online. 

Takeaway

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