Liminal States: A COVID-19 Paradox

Liminal States:  A COVID-19 Paradox

 “Every stimulus must reach a certain intensity before any appreciable sensation results. This point is known as the threshold or liminal intensity.” [1]

And some of us are just impatient with every boundary, above and below.

James Sully. Outlines of Psychology. 1888

I was talking to the wonderful chair and CEO of the Greater Metropolitan Cemeteries Trust (Michael Doery and Deb Ganderton) recently when Michael asked me whether I knew the word liminal. I had heard it before and had a broad ‘lay’ definition of it, but I was much more familiar with the concept of subliminal. An intriguing conversation ensued and so it started me fishing about to find out more about this concept. Michael had said that it might be apt in the context of the current pandemic and this, of course, piqued my curiosity further. It turned about to be true.

The words liminal and subliminal are obviously related. Liminal originally was about design, architecture and spaces while subliminal has popped up in my amateur glances at psychology – as in, subliminal messages below the threshold of consciousness.  A quick scan showed that the word subliminal was a popular term during the threshold career of Sigmund Freud in his book “The Interpretation of Dreams” in 1899.

Liminal, I discovered, comes from the Latin meaning threshold. In neurology this probably means there is a sensory threshold or stimulus and a subliminal state below that, just barely perceptible to the senses.

Anthropologically speaking, liminality is ambiguity in the middle stage of a transition or rite of passage, where people no longer hold their pre-transition perspective on the world around them and we have not yet evolved into the world as it is to become. In this sense, we feel like we are standing on the threshold trying to structure our identity to understand time, community, and a new way of working interacting and thinking.

Extended into cultural change, liminal periods may see all kinds of differences emerge. Social hierarchies can be under challenge, reversed or even dissolved. Tradition may become uncertain. Future outcomes, once assumed and taken for granted, may now be in doubt. The status quo is never a status quo, it is more of a moving, disorienting feast. Order as we know it, is now fluid and malleable as new ways of living, customs and even institutions become established. Simply doing business takes on a whole new dimension. Work is seen completely differently. We Zoom. We work at the dining table. We teach the kids who are at home learning remotely. Then, it changes again. Back to the office. Back to school. But wait, home we go again. Energy levels are up and down like a yo-yo; hope is fractured and restored and fractured again. Our news is consumed with pandemic stories, as are our conversations and our thoughts and empathy are extended to those crushed by it and admiration for the resilient ones. Exhausted, refreshed frequent and confusing blends of emotions.

Family interconnection is not the same. Communion with friends is something different now. How we feel about community, including simple things like taking a walk or having a café meal or spending time with grandchildren, all seem to exist in an entirely new world as we shuffle and adjust. Our capacity to cope with the way things have become is never a flat line.

The COVID-19 Pandemic frequently finds in these liminal periods where social hierarchies may be resolved or dissolved, and traditions of all kinds can become uncertain. Institutional customs can be challenged, re-established, and cast aside quickly. Future outcomes once taken for granted may be thrown into doubt. The dissolution of order during liminality creates a fluid malleable way of the existing.

One of the original thinkers about liminal periods was Arnold Van Gennep. [2] I have adapted his threefold structure here, trying to describe what might be happening.

 Liminal Stages:

Stage 1:  This involves a metaphorical “death”, where we have been forced to leave something behind by breaking with previous practices and routines.

(The Pandemic is real, serious, and global.)

Stage 2: Transition – involving a strictly prescribed sequence, where we are told what to do and how. A lot of our activity is done under an authority, almost ceremonially. This Stage is highly disruptive with considerable changes being made to identity – who are we, what are we, where are we? There is a strong sense in this stage that there is a ‘passing through’ that marks the boundary between two phases. This is the core of luminality.

(Do Government rules and edicts describe this?)

Stage 3: The post liminal stage where we are re-incorporated into society with a new identity, as “new” beings, with a new order of things. (Does “Covid Normal” strike a chord?)

“Life itself means to separate and to be reunited, to change form and condition, to die and to be reborn. It is to act and to cease, to wait and to rest, and then to begin acting again, but in a different way.”

Arnold van Gennep.

I have spoken to many people about the ambiguity of this liminal stage (without using the term of course) where their sense of identity is under challenge (perhaps even dissolving) and, to some extent, bringing about disorientation and loss while at the same time feeling a sense of new perspective and possibilities. Some people have seemingly lost the plot doing things that they would never have contemplated before. This can take the form of protest that was never a habit before or endless email commentary on the political skills of those who govern us or a simple comment or post about a neighbour failing to wear a mask, panic buying of toilet roles or acts of random kindness.

If this liminality is some form of withdrawal from the normal way society works it can also be a time for us to look hard at our values and culture, where our normal boundaries about thoughts, understanding and behaviour can be challenged or even undone. The question becomes whether the structure of our society is under suspension, on hold, waiting a better future or passively accepting that it will be like this for ever.

Talking to many colleagues (again without using the word luminal) there seems to be an emerging sense that the current situation will eventually dissolve culturally. Its intensity cannot last without some sort of structure, process or societal behaviour change that at least represents a modicum of stability. They long for and seek breathing space.

My colleagues also talk about the need for community and while they each have different needs for connection, they universally value it. They have all taken on something new. Whether this is to counter lockdown boredom or genuine self-exploration does not matter. Gardening for a person who has never gardened, baking by someone who has not eaten dessert for a decade, making films on your iPhone, painting an overdue ageing deck, getting a new property, inventing a new business, converting an old business with high touch to low touch. We swerve unconsciously as we pass another person on the footpath. The list goes on and yet there is an argument that they are all experiencing similar liminal experiences.  And the need to share these experiences seems to have grown exponentially alongside the resistance to making judgements. Have we become kinder? Have we worked harder to grow relationships? Are we all so immersed in this pandemic that it has a binding effect, a sort of immersion both good and bad?  Have social distinctions reduced providing a sense that we are all in this together?

Without exception, people talk about uncertainty with both its constructive and destructive elements where the order of things is, at best, confusing and, at worst, confronting. Aligned to this notion is a commonly expressed view that this part of history will leave us sooner or later. Without it being stated expressly, there is a hope that leaders will guide us through this time as it will affect a future we do not really know and where we may find ourselves in moments of brilliant creativity and self-actualisation.

In the past 20 years, I have worked a lot with issues of organisational change. We have always pushed the proposition that it is not the changes that do you in, it is the transitions. Change is not the same as transition. Change is situational: the new site, the new boss, the new team roles, the new policy, new societal rules. Transition is the psychological process people go through to come to terms with the new situation. Change is external, transition is internal. [3]

We have lived out our old reality or old identity and we are asking what do we need to let go of?

What won’t we do anymore?

What endings are we marking? What is going to change – systems, processes, attitudes? 

Just like the liminal phase, we ask whether organisations are in “No Man’s Land”; a redesign zone where some of the old is gone and the new is not yet comfortable or even clear. This “No Man’s Land” is the limbo of liminality. Like the Twilight Zone it feels like the ground between light and shade. Nothing is clear, much is on hold.

 What happens if you feel that you are anxiously floating in the in-between?

Do you feel there is a cloud of unknowing? 

Does it feel as though you are crossing a space where something has been left behind, yet not fully in something else yet?

As in traditional change management, many people are now searching for a new beginning to which they can commit and dream. What will it look like? How will we symbolise the new identity?

“Somewhere, something incredible is waiting to be known.”[4]

If we are in transition, and floating in the Liminal Space, our best option seems to be to trust that answers will come.  We will figure it out. We will find a better place.

The liminal space is like a waiting room. We sense that everything is up in the air while events are unfolding around us that will have a significant impact, yet we cannot control the circumstance or the timing. We are facing into our fears and anxieties, highlighting how we show up, who we are, what we are good at, what we struggle with, what we believe, what we value.  This space can shake our habits without knowing what is around the corner.

“In these pandemic times, the days feel liminal. As the weeks go by, I find myself neither alone nor among, as I shelter in place, hunker down, stare at screens, grasp at fog. I watch within my community as previous social structures dissolve and are made new. I see the invention of new rituals: masks, handwashing, temperature checks. We look at each other through glass windows. We learn to smile with the top half of our faces. We perform calm for our children. “

 Sarah Osterhoudt November 2020 (USA)

Being in this space invites us to take a deep contemplative breath. To accept what is going on as something larger than self, trusting that we will be helping to support and navigate the discomfort and uncertainty. We get to choose how to be with what is happening. We get to fight and struggle against the liminal space, we get to be passive and indifferent or we can flow with it, listening, connecting, sensing, responding, opening our minds, and adapting. We are not in charge. We are not in control, but we can influence our transformation with the hope that the liminal space will become an agenda for us starting with something dissolving, so that we can discover our lives in the next iteration.

This is not just about going with the flow, but being thoughtful, organised, and walking into our fears and anxieties, naming them accurately and not judging ourselves for feeling as we feel. After all feelings are simply information about us, not who we are.

“Ring the bells that still can ring

Forget your perfect offering

There is a crack, a crack in everything

That’s how the light gets in.”

Leonard Cohen


[1] James Sully. Outlines of Psychology. 1888

[2] 1873 -1957. French ethnographer and folklorist, best known for his studies of the rites of passage of various cultures.

[3] Sourced in part from William Bridges, Managing Transitions, Making the most of change.

[4] Blaise Pascal, 17th-century French mathematician, physicist, inventor, writer, and philosopher