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Learning to love the in-between

photo-1458640904116-093b74971de9-250x250A story has a beginning, middle and end.

But in the roadmap for our life’s stories, how do you describe the space that lives between the end and the beginning? It’s the space of in-between, limbo, when you know what you’re leaving behind but you don’t know where you’re going.

I just learned a new word this week from my friend Jeff Rock, master career coach and my partner in a workshop on life/career reinvention that we’re teaching this coming weekend.


I loved the sound of it, with its slightly spiritual, mysterious vibe.

Looking it up, I discovered  “Liminal” comes from the Greek word “līmen” meaning “a threshold.” It refers to the period of disorientation and discontinuity that occurs when an existing order, or way of being, is dissolved, and the new order, structure, rituals and meaning have not yet been established.

  • It’s when you’ve been thrown off your horse by life and you don’t know which way is up;
  • Or, you’ve been given a pink slip at a job that you’ve held successfully for twenty-years, and all you really know is that there’s been a change;
  • Or, your spouse unexpectedly announces she wants a divorce;
  • Or, your beloved suddenly dies after thirty years of marriage, on the eve of your retirement;
  • Or, your company is acquired by an unknown firm;
  • Or, 9-11 shakes your confidence in the world.

Jeff and I have seen our clients go through all this and more (and known some transitions ourselves!)

Not every big change causes us to lose our bearings. And people react differently to circumstances.

When change is of our choosing, it is usually easier to take – although even a positive event – like getting the job we’ve always wanted, sends us into a transition.

And sometimes losing our bearings isn’t such a bad thing. It’s how we shed our restrictive shells and grow into who we can become.

William Bridges, author of many books including his classic, Transitions, has spent much of his career helping people and organizations navigate the psychological zones that accompany life’s changes. He calls the liminal phase, “the neutral zone, “ a word perhaps more palatable to corporate ears, and tells us that after a significant ending, we often need to travel through a neutral zone, where we learn to let the old die away, before we can move fully into a new stage.

He writes:
[The neutral zone] “is a no-man’s land where people are (in Matthew Arnold’s graphic image) “Wandering between two worlds, one dead/The other powerless to be born.” The neutral zone is a time and a state of being in which the old behaviors and attitudes die out, and people go dormant for a while as they prepare to move out in a new direction.”

A lot of us would rather avoid a stage that has us rocking with inner change while we continue to feel the aftershocks of outer change.

And who wants to hang out, disoriented, stripped of what he or she knew, no longer recognizing landmarks, feeling a vestigial aching for what he once had without knowing what the future will bring?

It’s just hard.

If we try to avoid this stage, we miss its potent blessings, for it offer us opportunities for transformation and creativity unavailable at other times. As we wander through a landscape of profound not-knowing, the building blocks of what we use to call ourselves can be re-arranged and our story re-invented.

No longer so limited by old beliefs about “the way things are,” we are able to discover ideas and inspiration that will provide the seeds we need for our journey ahead. This is the stage that sets the foundation for a truly new beginning.

If we are kind to ourselves.

I’ve been there. I’ve stood at the wobbly edge of depression experiencing the dangers of a liminal time, and also experienced big rewards such as: new creative inspiration; a bigger, grounded sense of meaning and purpose; and occasional moments of ecstasy.

You’ve probably been there, too. What did you find? How did you reap the benefit of walking through this land of limbo.

island fog

Keys for positively dealing with the liminal state.

Give it time.

You rush this phase at your peril – so take the time you need. Everyone has a different rhythm and response to it – learn to listen to yours – and honor it.

Go on retreat.

Jesus left for the wilderness. Bridges recommends retreats. We need places, whether in nature or at retreat sites, where we can begin to slough off our skins and be nurtured and safe before our new skins grow fully back in.

Find a coach, advisor or friend you trust.

Be picky.
You want someone who can give you the space you need, while seeing you as the creative, evolving, special, and whole person you are – and standing ready to remind you of these truths whenever you need.

Beware of advice.

Lots of what is written for entrepreneurs and careers seekers is written for people who are anchored in a safe harbor, and no longer sailing through stormy seas. Living in limbo is an emotional trip, and it’s usually NOT the time to make big commitments or plug your pipeline with new prospects. That stage comes later.

Talk with our fellow sojourners.

Recognizing the wholeness and dignity of folk going through a similar passage is a great way to honor your own.

Be more than Do.

And pick things to do that really fit the process you’re in. Talk with people who care about you or people you want to know. Try something you’ve wanted to explore. Ask more questions. Check out things you are curious about, and hold ideas lightly.

Allow for the feelings.

The pain of loss may be with you for a while, along with anxiety and uncertainty about the future. Allow compassion for all of the feelings that come up.

Create new rituals.

When you’ve lost your bearings, and changed your circumstances, you may feel as if you have no structure. No more 6 am alarms demanding you get ready for work, Friday dates, Thursday team meetings or any of the patterns that give life a little predictability.

Everyone needs some structure and you can create flexible routines and rituals that support you through this passage. Maybe it’s a morning run. Monday morning tea with a friend. A scheduled time to write (that’s mine!). A call on Thursdays to a friend. Wednesday night basketball. Creating a gratitude journal and making daily entries.

Eventually the liminal stage will melt into a new beginning. Life marches on, to surprise, and, hopefully, delight you.


The poet David Whyte offers us words that speak to this stage:


Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step you don’t want to take.

Start with
the ground
you know,
the pale ground
beneath your feet,
your own
way of starting
the conversation.

Start with your own
give up on other
people’s questions,
don’t let them
smother something

To find
another’s voice
your own voice,
wait until
that voice
becomes a
private ear
to another.

Start right now
take a small step
you can call your own
don’t follow
someone else’s
heroics, be humble
and focused,
start close in,
don’t mistake
that other
for your own.

Start close in,
don’t take the second step
or the third,
start with the first
close in,
the step you don’t want to take.

So now it’s your turn. Please tell me what the small steps you have taken that have led you though  liminal places into a beautiful new beginning.

2 Responses

  1. I so appreciate your writings, Sally! You stand out with your thoughtful, substantive articles!

    This one, in particular, reminds me of Eric Elnes’ book “Gift of the Dark Woods,” which takes a Christian view of the blessings of the in-between times.

    Christianity is not my main way of seeing the world, but I found the teachings of this book helpful, as my wife (a minister) taught them during Lent this year.

    I’d love to hear your take on this!

    1. How lovely to hear from you Doug. I look forward to reading the Elnes’ book. I am certainly not a Christian scholar, but I am drawn to the more mystery side of Christianity – so full of liminal possibilities. I didn’t write about it – yet – but the mystery of the three days at Easter time feels to me to be an archetypal journey through the liminal. Many people honor the joy of Easter – and occasionally think about Good Friday – the day of crucifixion. But there was a day in between that speaks to me about the journey through the liminal passage – the Saturday when no one knew what was happening – when all, for a moment, was lost, and when there was deep grief and no new beginning. I never heard people speak with any certainty about what CHrist was doing on that day. But to skip from Good Friday to Easter as some churches seem to do is to dishonor a dark, mysterious, liminal passageway. And learning to live with the liminal seems particularly critical for these times. Your thoughts – and maybe your wife can weigh in!!! Thanks again for sharing.

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