[This post is also a blogcast; you can listen here:]
Back in the summer of 2008, the first module I completed as part of my training to become a coach was a process called “Living Your Vision®.” The idea was that before we could support our clients in discovering their truths and acting on those revelations, we needed to do that work ourselves. After three-days of intensive reflection with my colleagues, I’d crafted a highly personal vision and purpose statement. My vision statement has continued to be a powerful reminder of who I am at my core. Yet it’s my purpose statement that is resonating with me most these days. Almost 9 years after writing the words, I’m astounded by how much they still say about what’s most important to me.
Here’s what I wrote:
My purpose is to live within the questions, hold the sacred space between the words, gratefully and courageously receive and create possibility, and inspire others to fully realize their essence.
To summarize, my purpose is to live in curiosity, openness, possibility, and truth. That’s not my goal; it’s my purpose. It’s why I was put here on this earth, because when I fully embody those traits, I make everything else possible. If I don’t embody them, then I’m set adrift and lose my sense of purpose.
The Challenge with In-Betweenness
That’s the challenge that I’m sitting with right now. And it occurs to me that regardless of if my purpose resonates with you, we probably have something in common: a discomfort with that space in between, where we feel adrift. We experience it at different points in life, like between the final day of classes and graduation, when we find ourselves between jobs, when a mother is enduring nine months of waiting and planning, or at its most painful, when we come to the realization that a beloved person, or even a pet, is no longer happy and healthy and is much closer to the end than to the beginning. There’s a sense of helplessness that can set in. We’re aware of where we’ve been, but we’re not always sure where we’re going.
There’s also a sense of possibility, sure – depending on what else is happening in our lives, or how optimistic we are about the future, we can feel an overwhelming excitement and anticipation for what’s next, even though (and maybe even especially because) we don’t fully know where we’re going.
That said, based on the millions of words written about change and how to deal with it, I feel secure in speculating that most of us feel a bit lost in that space in between, even if we put on a brave face, even if we know that everything is going to be okay.
The challenge for me is that while my statement is true – I hold the sacred space between the words – I’m much better at doing that for others than I am doing it for myself. When I reflect on my life, I’ve tended to leap from space to space without lingering.
The first time I was fully aware of the pattern was in the waning days of graduate school. I was part of an arts administration program that had three semesters of study and one semester of internship. The keep-people-at-a-distance aspect of my introversion was out in full force those days. I was part of a small program – there were only 12 of us – but I still was reluctant to become too enmeshed with my fellow students. I collaborated on group projects and was a team player, but I didn’t socialize with them and didn’t get to know them very well. It was only in the final month or so of the program that I relaxed and let my personality come through. In doing so, I found out my classmates were charming, funny, and people I probably would have enjoyed getting to know. And they seemed to enjoy knowing me.
But even so, the day classes were over in early December, 1995, I was on the road from Bloomington to Milwaukee, without so much as a look back over my shoulder. Six months later, on graduation day, I made the impulsive decision to drive to Bloomington to see if I could find the ceremony and connect with my classmates. Of course, I never found them. My trip ended up being nothing more than a nice drive through the beautiful Indiana countryside. I remember feeling both silly and sad that I had missed the opportunity to know them better when I was still around them.
There were two lessons in that experience: (1) let people in and risk the possibility of friendship, love, and connection, and (2) don’t rush the in-between spaces in life.
It’s that second lesson that I need to lean into right now. Perhaps you feel it, too? Over the past few months, I’ve noticed a lot of restlessness and questioning amongst my friends and colleagues. There’s a sense that what they knew before isn’t adequately serving them in the present, and something new is waiting to be revealed. I know for certain that the recent election cycle in the United States played a big role in waking people up. But I only see that as a pivot point, not the actual reason. The shift has been happening for a while. We’ve been in that in-between place of what was then and what is to be for a long time. It’s a more significant shift than what we experience in the everyday. It’s like we’ve slowly learned a truth and are now wondering what to do with what we’ve learned.
There are different names for this in-between state: being in limbo, in transition, at the threshold, on a plateau, or suspended in time. One of the most vivid expressions of it comes from Parker Palmer, who uses the phrase, “tragic gap.” As he describes it, it’s “the gap between the hard realities around us and what we know is possible — not because we wish it were so, but because we’ve seen it with our own eyes.” That particular phrase – the tragic gap – captures some of the angst that can happen when we’re in the midst of a psychological, societal, or emotional transition.
I recently had dinner with a friend, and as I talked about this feeling of restlessness, she offered up my new favorite word: liminal. Liminal is defined as being in an intermediate state, phase, or condition. In another definition, it’s “of, relating to, or situated at a sensory threshold; barely perceptible or capable of eliciting a response.”
Here’s what Wikipedia says about it:
In anthropology, liminality (from the Latin word līmen, meaning “a threshold”) is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stage of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During a ritual’s liminal stage, participants “stand at the threshold” between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.
There are multiple layers in that explanation, and the idea that there’s disorientation deeply resonates with me. I’ve mentioned a bit on this podcast but more in other interviews that I feel I’m in that liminal state. I’ve felt for about a year that there’s a new phase of my business emerging.
The best I can describe it is to draw a Venn diagram with two overlapping circles. The circle on the left is The Introvert Entrepreneur and where I currently am. The circle on the right represents whatever is next. And I am looking for what is in between those two, that state of being which will encompass pieces of what I am doing now with pieces of what I will be doing soon.
I am most curious about that overlapping section, that liminal space that reflects the intersection of what is, with what will be. I know that if I can lean into and embrace the space in between that, what is next will take care of itself. That’s something I’ve always trusted: if I do the best I know how in the present moment, the next moment will be exactly what it’s supposed to be.
It’s easy to embrace that philosophy when one is firmly planted in one circle or the other. But when the denser, more intense middle space approaches – when one is almost to the plateau, that liminal edge – then it’s not so easy anymore. The part of us that thrives on certainty wants answers, and wants them yesterday.
I could skip the liminal space in the past because the next school, the next job, the next town, was always known in advance. As an entrepreneur, it’s not as clear-cut. It’s much more of an evolution, rather than a start-stop-start pattern. It’s a different experience when the thing you’re evolving is your own creation. It’s a huge disservice to what you’ve built and the people you serve if you simply apply the start-stop-start mentality. The threshold, the process, must be honored.
When did you last feel you were standing at the threshold? When were you aware that the space that contained your sense of identity, time, or community was a bit distant, and you were still in it but at the same time aware that you were moving out of it? It can be disconcerting to be in that space, because the rituals that happen before and after seem to disappear. A ritual is a series of actions or activities that happen in a prescribed manner. There’s a level of predictability to them, and we take comfort in that routine. I see ritual as a close cousin of tradition. Both bring order to chaos. They help us to feel anchored and secure.
In the liminal space, the anchor is still there, but it’s not digging securely into anything. It’s looking for a new home, a new ritual. My husband came up with the perfect way of describing what he’s witnessing. He says I’m “pre-verbal.” What’s ahead is unknown, and I’m having trouble putting words to it. When I try to articulate what’s swirling in my head, it comes out so jumbled that I feel like I’m learning a new language. I am, in effect, and I’m in a pre-verbal stage.
Moving Through Pre-Verbal
So what do you do when you’re in that space? What if you can’t even find the words to describe your confusion? And what do you do when you’re yearning for the stability of whatever’s next, even if you have to skip town from Bloomington to Milwaukee to get there?
It doesn’t matter if it’s happening in your business or your life. The response is the same.
You wait. You breathe. You listen. You get curious. You notice and let go of attachments. You trust that the next phase or step will reveal itself if you remain open to possibility. You do the best you can to stay present in the moment, without going down the rabbit hole of what ifs, and without getting ahead of yourself.
Then you wait, you breathe, get curious, and let go some more. Until finally the new ritual that brings you to the new place starts to emerge from the fog.
There’s a gift in the liminal space, that sacred space between the words. We are given an opportunity to notice – and even to celebrate – where we’ve been, without any burdens about where we’re going. There’s nothing but possibility. Sure, it’s all squishy. The ground might feel uncertain under your feet. It’s tempting to get in the car and drive as fast as possible in the direction of your next destination.
Resist the temptation. Instead, wait. Breathe. Listen. Be Curious. Notice. Let go. Trust.
Life is full of these liminal edges. In one sense, they’re really what organizational development types call growth or growing edges. They’re areas where we have some strength or potential, but something’s holding us back – often fear. Perhaps there’s wisdom in the fear. It slows us down and keeps us safe for just a little bit longer.
I’m starting to believe it’s where we experience our greatest expansion. If we fully let ourselves be in that in-between space, our heart has room to speak to both the fear and the possibility. Its voice isn’t getting swallowed up by new rituals that require our complete attention. And then when we move into that new space, we’re better informed. We’re more solid in ourselves and in our truth. We’ve given ourselves the gift of confronting our fears, of being untethered and free, of dwelling in possibility.
While I don’t think there’s a linguistic connection, I like that liminal sounds like a close relative of illuminate. Instead of it feeling like a place of shadows and uncertainty, there’s an invitation to see it as a place where light can shine on what’s emerging. As I’ve written before, fears grow in the dark. They shrink in the light.
As I wrap up these thoughts – for now (so much more to say!) – I’m reminded of one of my absolute favorite quotes. It’s about writing, but it’s really about life. It comes from E.L. Doctorow, who said, “It’s like driving a car at night. You never see further than your headlights, but you can make the whole trip that way.” Being in the liminal space is like driving the car in the dark, and the headlights are the illumination, the hope and possibility that light the way.
It’s all you need to find your way home.
PS: If you’re looking for the Virtual Networking for Introverts information I mentioned in blogcast, you’ll find it here!