Red means stop. Green means go. But what do you do when you’re living life in amber? You’re bracing yourself to move forward but you haven’t got the green light yet.
This is what is known as a liminal state, a transitional, often disorientating ambiguous experience. Humans don’t tend to like maybes. We like a solid yes or no. But so much of life is the maybe, the grey, the unpredictable and the unknown. It’s in the ‘in between.’
In stories, we outsource the unknown into the peripheries of our society, into the woods and forests where wolves lurk to lure little Red Riding Hood into ravenous jaws and witches draw children towards gingerbread houses. In life, liminality is far less easily boxed away. It can be part of our relationships and careers, engrained in the big and small details and choices of our life’s.
So, if a certain degree of liminality is unavoidable and we are all likely to experience it at one time or another, how can we cope better when we are held at the amber light?
Understand that transition is a natural part of life
Nothing stays fixed. Everything changes. Consider the seasons. Autumn always follows summer. It is a fundamental fact of life (unless you live in Australia.) There are certain non-negotiable truths of life and alteration is a natural state of play. Buddhist wisdom teaches that it is only attachment that leads to suffering. If we can let go or allow things to pass, then we can lean into acceptance and understanding. There is no need to hold on tightly, we can let things be. It is easier to do this if we believe that we can handle whatever comes our way.
Perhaps the frustration with the liminal stage is the being between an undesirable state and a desirable state. We feel unhappy where we are and long to be in the desirable state. This state might be in a different relationship, or country or job. If we were ‘there’, wherever there is, we think we’d be happy.
The frustration may occur because we are in a happy place but know we have to move into a less happy one. Perhaps we have to move states for a job and are afraid of this unknown terrain. Perhaps it’s moving from married to divorced or well to sick. Liminality can trigger excitement, or deep-seated fear and anxiety. Isn’t that the nature of transition? Some transitions are from better to worse, and some are from bad to good, some are simply moving into a state of difference and cannot be measured as being ‘better or worse’, it is just a variance. A situation can change once or twice, or it can change multiple times. The feeling of being unsettled is not a desirable one for most of us, but it can signal the need for some kind of change, whether that change is internal or external.
What questions are you asking?
Being in a liminal state forces us to answer difficult questions.
What if I never meet someone else?
What if I regret leaving?
What if I never have children?
What if I never figure out what to do with my life?
It is an intrinsic part of human nature to feel fear. It is perhaps our oldest emotion, forged in the dinosaur part of our brain. Being afraid of the unknown is perhaps the darkest fear of all, which is partly why humans as a whole are so compelled to follow a set path or rulebook that seems to have been forged by many before them. This path is tried and tested and seems safe and comfortable, even if it may not always be a satisfying place to stay. The upswing of being in this state is that it is often a time of possibility, of opportunity and of excitement. If we can flip from fear into excitement (and the root of these feelings is shockingly similar), we may see the benefit of being in such a state, or if not a benefit, a lesson or a sharpening in focus, revealing what our deeper values are.
Check in with the questions that your mind is asking. Do the questions reveal deeper fears, insecurities and concerns? This can be a time of great restoration if we approach it from the right place.
Let the past go
When we hold on rigidly to the past, it can feel impossible to move on. Of course, our past shapes us and it is natural for us to either look back on it fondly and with sentimentality, or to look back with some regret and dissatisfaction that things didn’t quite go as we hoped, dared or planned.
Our picture of the past can keep us prisoner. It is essential that we make peace with what was, be grateful for the good parts and learn from the bad parts. We have to find a way to let the past go.
Don’t keep your foot on the break for too long
During any time of transition, there are natural breaks, pauses or stops. These are times of shock absorbance, reflection and of just being. We don’t always need to be go, go, go all the time, especially if we are just moving frantically from one thing to the next. Problems arise when we keep our foot on the break for far too long. We become paralysed, passive and inactive. We then get stuck in anxiety, unable to ever move on. Usually life will find a way to snap us out of this, it becomes essential for us to move perhaps for our children, our health or our financial situation, but it can also be all too easy to stay stagnant, and in stagnation, we often begin to sink with time.
Don’t jump from the frying pan into…another frying pan
Because the liminal state is so intolerable for most of us, it can be tempting to avoid the discomfort by jumping the quagmire (where the lessons can be learnt) into something new.
This may happen automatically. There may be some overlap between relationships or careers that feel organic to you. Often, it is a way of avoiding uncomfortable emotions, thoughts and fears. It is monkey-branching, latching onto one thing or person before letting go of the last.
It may also prevent us from becoming truly healthy and autonomous. If we are always reaching for the next thing, without learning to face the fear, we may settle for something that is not quite right but feels more tolerable to us.
Set small goals
When life feels too much, the big decisions may feel too tough to tackle. In such situations, setting and achieving small manageable goals can bring a sense of relief. This relief can abate some of the anxiety surrounding bigger issues and perhaps even give us the confidence and courage to tackle the real fish we want to fry! Small goals might include writing 200 words a day for your book, committing to writing 2x blog posts a week or exercising for thirty minutes. Set goals that you feel are within the realm of possibility. This is not the place for blue sky thinking.
Focus on the present
The present is rarely utterly miserable. We are normally lingering in the past or projecting into the future, which makes the present moment harder to bear. Even when the present truly is awful, when we settle into the emotions (fear, anxiety, sadness, regret, envy), they usually begin to fade. With acceptance, allowing the emotion to move through us compassionately, helps us find an outlet for it. The emotion may return several times, especially when in a state of grief or trauma, but it typically lessens every time we let it be. We can explore and play around in the present. Focus on the moment you are in. What is good about it? What little moments can you appreciate? Is the sun shining? Are you eating a delicious meal? Are you warm? Finding joy in the little things can make a big difference when the big things feel uncertain.
It is when we feel that we don’t have time to relax that we need it most! Whether you are an active relaxer (exercise) or a passive relaxer (having a bath), finding an appropriate way to relax that suits your temperament and personality is essential.
What helps others relax may not work for you so don’t be concerned if you find outlets in unusual ways. It doesn’t really matter. The point is that you are able to bring some peace and calm to your emotional state.
Connect and be curious
The key out of the mist is often in finding something to connect to, something to be curious about. There are certain childlike traits that serve us well if we can retain them. One is a sense of wonder, faith and hope in the world and in people. It is an unabashed way of reaching out, offering affection, listening, sharing and communicating. When we can connect and be curious, we can find meaning in the here and now, a place of belonging. We can meet others who feel as we do, or who have been through similar experiences. We feel less alone and answers may come to us. Answers always come from unexpected places.
Practice positive thinking, hardiness and optimism
Positive thinking is a powerful way of putting a good spin on a neutral or negative situation. Humans lean towards the negative. We are wired that way. I once read that for every negative, we need seven positives to counteract the damage. If you are a negative person, you have probably gone through a lot of bad things in quick succession, not dealt appropriately with the situations you have been through or are stuck in unhelpful mental or emotional loops that feel safe or familiar to you. Of course, there are some situations that are very hard to put a positive spin on, however we can still do some good from the bad even if we cannot forgive or understand the situation.
Hardiness is our ability to bounce back from life’s struggles, challenges and disappointments. It is our ability to endure. It’s the ‘hang in their kitty’ poster in the garage. It literally gets us THROUGH liminality.
Optimism is our ability to believe or hope that the future can be brighter or better or that we can be okay. It is the opposite of cynicism where we expect the worst to happen. Tempering optimism and positive thinking with hardiness is a recipe for success. We can cope when we think the best of others, but also have the emotional resilience to cope regardless of what happens.
If we can view the liminal state as a place of transformation, excitement and opportunity, we may just find a new way to forge a relationship with it and offer help and support to others when they find themselves in the same place.
All my love