What Is The Coronavirus ‘Liminal Phase’?

And Three Tips to Help you Reinvent and Survive

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Photo by James Pond on Unsplash

Covid-19 destabilized existing socio-economic structures and disrupted our existence. With the systems that supported many lifestyles decimated, your life goals may have changed, moved, or disappeared altogether. Being unable to plan your future with certainty may leave you restless, feeling as if you’ve nothing solid to work towards.

According to Alison Cook-Sather, this multi-step transitional process between our predictable life before the Coronavirus, adjusting through months of continuous change, and an uncertain future we cannot plan for, can be described as a liminal phase. In literature, liminal space, state, stage, phase, and liminality are used interchangeably.


What is a liminal phase?

According to Gwynyth Overland et al., liminal phases for individuals or communities are stages of disorientation between how they previously structured their identity, time, and existence, and a new way they are creating — before the new way is fully established.

Allison Wright, of the University of Chicago, writes that liminality can be a moment, a life phase, or a long period. Transitional in nature, liminal spaces create discomfort, making us want to get through them as quickly as possible and are not meant for lengthy stays.

Betterhelp.com offers that liminality as a mental state might feel as if you’re holding your breath, waiting for something to happen. You cannot hurry it, but at the same time have little patience to wait. This can create internal conflict, which may tempt you to push in a fruitless effort to force an impossible outcome.

According to Dr. Sarah Thomas and Dr. Chris Drew, we are almost always ill-prepared to navigate liminal spaces. This can often lead to feelings of confusion, grief, optimism, creativity, fear, anger, anticipation, uncertainty, loneliness, uneasiness, frustration, excitement, nostalgia, hope, despair, feeling lost, resignation, helplessness, impending doom, determination, apathy — in no particular order.

Unprepared as we were for life under Covid-19, we may have experienced some or all of these emotions. Restrictions and uncertainty continue to weigh us down, as we wait for Coronavirus to hand the controls of our world back to us.

To manage liminal phases productively, Betterhelp.com proposes the best use of any liminal space to be to rest, reflect, restructure, or reinvent. You may reinvent your identity, life, business, relationships, perception of reality, and any other aspects of your existence affected by liminality. This is further reinforced by Dr. Sarah Thomas in her Tedx Talk about liminal spaces.



Life events that may signal liminality

According to betterhelp.com, job loss, family breakdown, and moving home, can set off liminality in individuals.

At a group level, individuals in cohorts such as recruits undergoing orientation in a firm, and teenagers transitioning into adulthood, might experience shared liminalities.

Some triggers of liminality at societal levels include wars, political and socio-economic instability, health epidemics, and revolutions.

Any change or disruption of the status quo, therefore, has the potential to signal liminality in individuals, groups, and societies.


World War II as an example of a change-infused liminal space

This global conflict reorganized societies, accelerated technological discoveries, opened employment opportunities for women in industries, and catalyzed activism for women empowerment, gender equality, and human rights. By the time liminality wrapped up and communities stabilized, life before the war was a pale shadow of the liberal post-war society.

Unlike life under Covid-19, World War II filled those involved with a sense of purpose and gallantry. Whether in the frontlines or behind the scenes, the ‘war effort’ brought people together to solve a huge world problem.

Instead of bringing us together, Coronavirus has dispersed us to our homes to hide behind masks and screens. Yes, we have a part to play in ‘flattening the curve’, but I doubt that wearing a mask or avoiding people leaves you feeling gallant or even useful. Pitted thus against each other, these two liminalities affect the society differently.



Liminality and Covid-19 society

Agnes Horvath, et al. state that during liminal periods, social hierarchies may be reversed or temporarily dissolved, continuity of tradition may become uncertain, and future outcomes once guaranteed, can become doubtful. This instability enables new traditions to be established.

Coronavirus — whose ripple effect destabilized economies, merged work-life spheres into one, redefined how we connect as communities and families and gave healthcare workers celebrity status— has undoubtedly upset social hierarchies and set new traditions in motion.

We hail it as our new normal, but normal is not what we feel about it.

Quick questions

If life were an escalator, what was your ‘destination’, or goals in January, for November? Are you there yet? Is this destination still within reach?

When we step onto an escalator, we boast certainty and specificity. We know the floor we’re going to, who we’ll meet there, what we will do, how long we’re likely to stay. We also have certainty the escalator will be there to take us back after we conclude our business.

Specificity, this capacity to be clear and exact, emboldens our decision-making in life, and work.

Unfortunately, Coronavirus mangled up that specificity and we don’t know plenty. Our future is a hazy socio-economic muddle and our present is plagued with innumerable probabilities. The only thing we’re certain of is change.

However, since we cannot exit life, we stay on, searching continuously for a detour or staring intently ahead for any signs of a destination. We call this destination ‘back to normal’. But I wonder how normal things will be when we finally get there.



What this multi-layered liminality might look like

How we define our Covid-19 liminality varies, depending on how disrupted our lives are, and our ability to cope. However, it might suffice to say that the period between Italy’s lockdown, and the time we may travel freely anywhere in the world — and hug a stranger while rubbing their nose — is liminal. Some liminalities interwoven into this major liminal phase can be described as the periods between:

1. March 2020, and the complete eradication of Coronavirus from our nations

2. Today, and cessation of mandatory wearing of masks

3. The end of Covid-19, and regaining our ease of social mingling

4. The end of Covid-19, and the lifting of all travel restrictions

5. Lifting of travel restrictions, and substantial economic recovery

6. The fluctuating status of mental health and emotional wellbeing through the changes in each liminal space

7. Add your own

These thoughts, to which we have no answers, recurringly occupy our minds. They subtly drain our energy because they’re always there, and never resolved. To remain in this space of combing our thoughts and news in a bid to predict what might happen — over and over — might feel like being stuck in an endless escalator. You can’t get off, you can’t change direction either.

We are mourning the loss of the past, the present, and the future in the same breath because we’ve been in continuous transition since March. We’re simultaneously hopeful, and frustrated, with an ever-ready sense of impending doom to dim any vibrancy in our hopes.

In some cases, even lifted restrictions do not signal complete freedom to immerse ourselves into life, as we fear the lift might be temporary. It’s as if the door to our freedom is always in view, but keeps moving, and is still closed or only partially open, adding to our frustration.




Three tips to help you reinvent and survive

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Despite the Coronavirus, life still beckons us to live, albeit differently to what we envisioned. Some things that have kept me anchored through the Covid-19 storm include:


1. Invest in family

There was a time I’d watch my gadgets anxiously for notifications, now I resent them. But I don’t want to be an island on the other side of lock-down. Besides, if there’s one structure that must survive Covid-19 restrictions, it’s family.

Family means different things to different people. It denotes your immediate support structure, be it a biological family or a tribe of people with whom you feel understood, cared for, and supported.

Also, families are central to personal and societal well-being. ‘When a man is bruised and battered by the world, he finds comfort in his family,’ is a quote from an army husband and father, who is a friend of mine. Like him, most of us can recount times when family served as a cushion against loneliness, despair, anxiety, and other negativities that emanate from life’s challenges.

If the family is our healing balm, a place to retreat from current restrictions and difficulties, then we should protect and nurture it when all is haywire around us. When our families thrive in the liminal space, our society will survive as well, equipped with the most vital resource with which to rebuild — resilient individuals.

Like most personal relationships, family thrives when we prioritize time and emotional availability to remain connected, even when it’s a struggle.

Since the only way out of liminality is through it, we might as well adopt an attitude that can sustain us, and others whose lives, success and wellbeing are intertwined with ours — family.



2. Assess and affirm your self-efficacy

A simple question that might capture the essence of self-efficacy is this: Do you believe you‘ve got what it takes to get through this? It’s not the means to get you through, but how you believe you’ll fare through the process.

So, what is self-efficacy?

Verywellmind defines self-efficacy as an individual’s belief in their capacity to execute behaviors necessary to succeed in a task or area. It says you have confidence that you can control your motivation, behavior, and social environment.

Presently, we cannot control our wider social environment. But we can control how we feel about the future, how much we feed our fear and uncertainty, how much hope we build in the process.

Self-efficacy aids our growth because the more we believe in our ability to carve some beauty out of the chaos obstructing our progress, the more we deploy our problem-solving skills to demolish obstacles that threaten this belief.

How to build self-efficacy

Factors that can strengthen your self-efficacy include past success in adversity, support, and constructive feedback from trusted members of your family and networks, and positive self-talk.

Self-talk is how we speak to ourselves through thoughts, attitudes, and perceptions about ourselves, and life. Self-criticism and self-affirmation are aspects of self-talk.

Unfortunately, we criticize ourselves more than we affirm ourselves. That’s the negative self-talk we don’t want. Positivepsychology lists these positive phrases to counteract self-criticism and build self-efficacy:

  1. I have the power to change my mind.
  2. Even though it wasn’t the outcome I hoped for, I learned a lot about myself.
  3. I am capable and strong, I can get through this.
  4. This is an opportunity for me to try something new.
  5. I can learn from this situation and grow as a person.

If you find yourself more in the negative self-talk zone, Positivepsychology suggests practicing the switch to affirming thoughts when barraged by negativity.

Some of the negative self-talk I’ve heard from friends struggling with the reality of unemployment is around self-worth, such as: ‘I feel worthless because I’ve nothing to do, nothing that I can contribute towards.’

A switch to positive self-talk might sound like: ‘My job was the medium through which I felt worthy and valued. I have lost that medium, but I still have value’.

Homing in: Imagine that all your negative self-talk is said to you by someone else. If I said to you: ‘Lisa, you’re so weak, you’re such a loser, you always mess up. Quit trying already!’ How would you feel? If it’s not a positive feeling, then for you to say the same things to yourself beats logic.

You can set the example for others to follow by affirming yourself. It’s easy to make the switch, one positive phrase at a time.



3. Redefine productivity and success

Are you trying to attain the same level of success and productivity under the current restrictive conditions as you did before Covid-19? If yes, it might be why you feel restless, unfulfilled, and disappointed.

Redefining success in both personal and corporate spheres can turn your overwhelm and defeat into confidence and self-efficacy.

Two questions:

If your productivity in March was about quotas, what is it about now?
If it was about targets, but you lost your job, what does it mean for you to be productive today?

I view productivity as that sense of accomplishment and satisfaction a person gets from completing a task that is their responsibility, anything from putting away laundry to chairing a board meeting.

If you previously attached your productivity to the dollar sign, it may be liberating to redefine it by what you can do now, whether you can monetize it or not.


An example from my life

Two months ago, I became a volunteer encourager on World Pulse — an online platform that supports marginalized women to voice issues important to them. Some of the women are grassroots leaders, changing their communities through various development projects.

I engage with these storytellers to let them know they’ve been heard, and what they are engaged in matters enough for someone to stop and listen to their pain, frustrations, and triumphs.

Going through my liminal space has opened my mind to a different kind of success beyond my corporate goals and aspirations. It unearthed in me a voice that others value — a voice I’d never acknowledged before.

My new sense of success boasts zero monetary value, but not everything worthwhile can be monetized.

Redefining success can open your eyes to opportunities to immerse yourself into. When your life is abuzz with purpose, you’ll no longer compulsively focus on the inflexibility of life under Covid-19. With a fresh perspective, even Coronavirus restrictions can evolve into a conduit that simply holds life, as it unfolds.

To Wrap Up

Liminal phases can be unsettling, but they are ripe with potential and possibilities for growth and self-discoveries depending on how we respond to them. We have to wait for Covid-19’s social upheaval to run its course before life can assign us a destination, where we’ll get off the Coronavirus ‘escalator’ and get back to business. Until then, you get to choose how you interact with this transformational, multi-layered liminal space: be immobilized under the uncertainty, or reinvent and survive.

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