“I don’t know what to do.”
“I don’t know who I am anymore.”
“Everything is up in the air.”
So many of us are finding ourselves repeating these mantras of the unknown these days.
They’re the language of endings and new beginnings, the lexicon of the in-between, the parlance of transformation. These phrases are on constant rotation in the minds of new mothers, the newly single, recent retirees, burned-out employees, and the grieving – but also in the hearts of all of us who are living in these times of unprecedented unrest.
In my work with people navigating life transition, I call this the “liminal space.” The space between. That time when you cannot return to your old way of being, but you aren’t yet sure who you are becoming.
The liminal space be really uncomfortable, especially living in a culture that deifies certainty, goal-setting, and Pinterest-worthy vision boards. In a world where we can Google just about anything, not knowing what you’re doing, who you are, or what’s going to happen next can be deeply disconcerting.
It’s this discomfort that tempts many people to bypass the liminal phase. We do this in one of two ways: we’ll either scramble to recreate the circumstances of our past, trying to fit ourselves into a former self or a former life that we can no longer occupy (cue suffering), or we’ll try to “do” our way out of liminality, setting goals and plowing ahead blindly (cue finding yourself in a job or relationship or location that still doesn’t feel like you, because you were unsure who you were when you sought them).
The result, no matter how you look at it, is that you avoid engaging with your own process of evolution. You might bypass discomfort, but you’ll also bypass the opportunity to learn and grow deeper into who you are and closer to what matters most to you.
If you can find a way to hold your feet to the fire of the discomfort you’re feeling – to find a way to stay here in the messy middle, the liminal space can be a beautifully fruitful time. You’ve probably had an experience when you’ve come up with an amazing idea while on vacation, in the shower or during a long walk in the woods. These are liminal times – times when your brain is engaged in a different way; when you’re resting. They often, ironically, result in greater productivity and more clarity about the way forward.
But because most of us still long for something to do during this space between, I’d like to offer you five Things To Do When You Don’t Know What To Do. They’re a way to help hold yourself in the liminal space, avoid the temptation to bypass it, and reap the benefits of this incredibly rich time. Here they are:
Rest and tend. The liminal space is a time to learn how to rest well, and to learn how to attend to your own needs. “Tending” comes about 30,000 steps before what we usually think of as “self-care” and involves recognizing, validating, and then meeting your needs. Like, your actual needs. Usually, the easiest needs to start learning how to meet are your basic physiological needs, like drinking water when you need to drink water, or peeing when you need to pee (I know myself and SO many people who manage to somehow put others’ needs ahead of even this one). Getting good at this allows you to begin better meeting your more complex needs – your emotional needs, for example. All of this tending contributes to a stronger sense of self-trust – that idea that you’ve got your own back, even when you’re navigating the unknown.
Make space. The liminal space is often accompanied by literal spaciousness in our lives – maybe you’re no longer working or perhaps you’re spending long hours caregiving for a small child or unwell loved one. In our society, we can feel pressured to try to fill up this spaciousness in our lives with productivity – but the power of this time of not-knowing is in the in-between moments. Making space is about allowing spaciousness in your day – a cup of tea unaccompanied by a book to read, or a long walk that isn’t about burning calories, for example. Creating moments of open space allows for rest, and also for new ideas, thought patterns or inspirations to come through.
Be still and know. This in-between time is ripe for learning to cultivate your intuition. Intuitive nudges don’t happen in an overfull brain and a body that’s locked into rigid routine: intuition flows in the space between. And because you’ll need your intuition to hear the clarion call of What’s Next when it finally arrives for you, this is the perfect time to begin to listen to it. Intuition may show up as a visual image, a sound or word that pops into your consciousness, as an embodied feeling, or as a fierce but mysterious sense of “just knowing.” The best way to reconnect with your intuition? Begin following the seemingly random urges in your life – to turn left instead of right, to eat oatmeal for breakfast rather than eggs – and see what happens. Those urges are often the whispers of your inner knowing, waiting to be attended to.
Ancient remembering. When caterpillars enter their chrysalis, they become total goo. No longer a caterpillar; no longer a butterfly. That’s their liminal phase, by the way, and if you feel a bit like goo right now too, know that you’re not alone. But what most people don’t know about caterpillars, goo, and butterflies is that they all contain these cells called imaginal cells, where the blueprint for the butterfly is contained in the caterpillar and the memory of the caterpillar is contained within the butterfly. I think of imaginal cells as the essential self of the caterpillar and butterfly – the part that remains steady and constant through the most radical of transformations. You, too, contain imaginal cells – at least metaphorically. You, too, have deep truths about who you are living within you, shrouded though they may have become over time. The liminal space is the time to engage in an ancient remembering of who you are. This remembering is often easiest to come in contact with by looking back – way back – to who you were, what you loved, and how you lived as a child, before you began assimilating ideas about who you should be or what was expected of you. As you think back, you may remember that you loved to paint, or adored classical music, or couldn’t go a day without having some kind of adventure. Explore these as a map back to who you are and what matters most to you during this time of transition in your life.
Engaging in the art of the possible. The liminal space is the perfect time to start to playfully and creatively explore what might be possible in your life. Do some thought experiments: without judgment, imagine what it might be like to open that cafe you always said you wanted to own, what it might be like to quit your job, or move to a new place. Take it one step further and draw up a business plan, experiment with a new budget, or look for real estate. These are small, safe actions you can take to begin exploring what’s possible, and what might be waiting for you on the other side of the unknown.
In these ways, times of uncertainty and unknown in your life hold tremendous potential. They hold the possibility of learning how to really show up for yourself and be okay during the discomfort of the in-between, and they help you to set your compass not only for What’s Next in your life, but for a path back home to yourself.
This article was originally published in Spirituality & Health Magazine.