Liminal Space: Why This Period of Nothingness Is Critical to Being Present and Processing Your Thoughts

UPDATED: April 3, 2024
PUBLISHED: April 3, 2024
A man commuting, listening to music and reading a book, enjoying his liminal space

Seven hours per month. That’s how much I used to spend commuting to my in-person job. In total, it’s a full day of thinking, listening to podcasts and generally getting to zone out as a means of transitioning between my two lives: work, where I used to be a teacher in a busy student newsroom, and home, where my five kids require constant nose wiping, hugs and help finding a spirit-day shirt for the next school day.

I never thought I needed a commute, but since losing it, I’ve felt its absence weighing heavier and heavier. There’s no separation between work and home for me now as a freelance writer, and my joke that my commute is 10 feet from the office to the kitchen? It’s getting old.

In February 2023, NPR pointed out that people were starting to realize how much they lament their lost “liminal space”—time where neither work nor home was the focus. Though the conversation started during the pandemic with the rise of remote work, it has taken a few years for researchers to identify the necessity for liminal space. In one study, researchers concluded there are physical, temporal and psychological ramifications of missing this space.

What is liminal space?

At work, you are your work self. At home, you are your home self. In between, who are you? That lack of having to subscribe to the role of either persona is where the term “liminal space” lives. It derives from the word “limen,” meaning threshold. The organization by the same name defines it as the time between what was and what’s next—“a time of waiting.”

So what’s so special about this time? Jon DeWaal, founder of Liminal Space, which specializes in life coaching for people in transition and leadership, says most people feel overwhelmed and confused in liminal space.

“For most of us, waiting is a space that inherently holds uncertainty. As humans, we see things that hold uncertainty as bad, something to avoid at all costs,” he says, adding that we zoom around without much awareness or intention.

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Melissa Cohen, LCSW, a therapist at A Redefined You, has researched liminal space. She says there are three types to focus on:

  1. Physical: Going from one place to another, as in moving down a staircase or through a doorway or hallway
  2. Emotional: Any life transition or milestone including divorce, moving, retiring, birth, death or a change in career
  3. Metaphorical: When you feel stuck while trying to make a decision or while planning something

Why we still need liminal space

DeWaal says, “How often do we transition from home to office and then office to home without much alertness to that transition space? We pull into the driveways or parking spots often having been inundated with a lot of noise—radio, podcasts, news—rarely do we use this time to prepare our minds, bodies and hearts to engage and be present when we sit down at our desks or arrive at a meeting or walk through the front door.” He adds that we are missing a “profound opportunity.”

“Ask the question, ‘How do I want to show up when I arrive? Who do I wish to be?’ They become moments to become more alert to the person we want to become.”

Dr. Andrew Cuthbert, clinical director at Timber Creek Counseling in Ann Arbor, Michigan, says he’s seen negative impacts of the lost commute with clients, including:

  • People always being “on” and not having bored/slow time
  • People are unable to be fully present with their families
  • People spend too little time processing their thoughts and feelings
  • People have less time to be forced to sit and do something like sing to music or listen to their favorite podcast

He adds that the absence of this liminal space has even changed the “rhythm of life” in marriages and partnerships for his clients. “If the rhythm is changed, it needs to be discussed, or it will have negative ramifications. We all go through frequent rhythm changes, and we can use them as an opportunity to connect, empathize and strategize,” he explains.

How to rediscover the benefits of your commute without the frustration

In-person employees can prioritize walking or biking to work, where applicable. For others, those few steps out of your home office might not do the trick. Here’s how to consider alternate “commute” types to tap into the benefits of liminal space.


For some, that car radio wasn’t just background noise. “One positive effect of commuting I was missing was time away from my phone just listening to music, which was recharging for me,” Cuthbert says. “Once I realized this, I started a new routine at home where I would pause at the top of the stairs, put on some music on the speakers downstairs, leave my phone upstairs and enter the room to see my kids while dancing to new music and being away from my phone.”


Add in some movement and you have a dopamine boost waiting to happen. “I have a playlist of classical music that I will turn on at the end of the workday and put my AirPods in and take a walk while listening to classical music before I get my kids from the bus,” says Olivia Dreizen Howell, co-founder and CEO of Fresh Starts Registry, certified life coach and clinical hypnotherapist. “Because there are no lyrics, I have the space to process my workday and help pivot my mindset from hustling all day to parent and home life.”

Ann Magnin, owner of Ann Magnin, Inc., a PR agency in New York City, missed her commute badly. “I commuted by train from Connecticut to Manhattan—about an hour each way. I did so with a great group of gals who worked primarily in advertising and publishing. We sat in the same seats every day, where we caught up on all things personal and professional. We called ourselves the ‘Train Wrecks,’ and it was a blast,” she says.

She re-created the vibe by finding a friend to walk with, and she picked him up every morning at 7 a.m. “In 2021, I averaged 14,000 steps a day! I’ve since managed about 10,000 a day, which continues to be my new commute. I miss the Train Wrecks, but getting outside and connecting with nature has been a gift. Keep moving, breathe deep.”


If your commute was your time to space out and read articles on your phone or in a hard copy newspaper or magazine, you may love carving out some time for learning.

Vanessa Gordon, CEO and publisher of East End Taste, is learning Italian for 20-30 minutes each day, making notes in her workbook and talking out loud. You can also find her reading the encyclopedia.

“Yes, I still have my encyclopedias from almost 25 years ago! I refuse to get rid of them. Instead, I dedicate 20 minutes per day to read or become reacquainted with a new subject, whether that be reading about the human body, astronomy or about a country I may not be too familiar with,” she says.

Cohen adds that meeting a friend for a short visit or coffee, calling a family member and turning your computer on and off to signify the start and end of the workday can also help.

And a word of advice from DeWaal, for your commute (no matter the length): “Stay awake to your life. Use the in-between times during the everyday routines and rhythms of life not to check out or numb, but to reconnect and align with your true self. The world needs more people who are confidently connected to who they are.”

Photo by – Yuri A/