Liminal Thinking, Identity and Mental Play Doh

I moved into a bigger at the end of the summer in what is arguably the best neighborhood in Munich – the Glockenbach. Anyone who lives in Munich knows how tough the housing market  here is, and how rare an opportunity this gem of an apartment was. But for me, it was still a hard decision. I was raised by a second-generation immigrant mother who was born just after the Great Depression. I was brought up to be thrifty and cut costs whenever possible. A bigger apartment comes with a higher rent, so my outdated ideas about thriftiness were in conflict with my desire for growth and more space. I hummed and hawed about it but in the end decided to go for it.  I sensed the physical shift would lead to greater shifts in ways I wouldn’t understand at the time. So far, I am right.  


Changes, especially big ones, are scary. Will I be able to afford this rent? if I quit my job and start my own business, will my clients follow me? If I move to my dream location, will I find a job, friends, a home, etc? Uncertainty is just plain, old unsettling. It is also a practice -- not unlike a yoga or meditation practice. We observe the minds stories about what might go wrong and, in the words of Jack Kornfield, we bow to it.. saying,Thank you for your opinion. When we give these thought patterns some space, we can see them for what they are – stories. Stories, however repetitive or compelling, are merely made up things that have not happened in actual life.


Fear-based stories about what might go wrong in my new, pricier flat played out in my head as I unpacked my boxes and waited for my new furniture to arrive. I put on a podcast hoping for a fresh perspective and an end to the rumination. I found a podcast with Dave Grey – the author of Liminal Thinking.  


What is that? Well the word liminal comes from a Latin root that means threshold. Literally, a threshold is a doorway. Symbolically,it is also the beginning of a journey. A threshold is also a boundary that marks a point of transition between one state and another. Liminal thinking involves recognizing that transitional states are doorways to new journeys. New opportunities. New upgrades of our own operating systems..


According to Grey, while liminal thinking can be practiced by anyone at any time, there are certain times when our minds seem to naturally shift into liminal spaces  -- like during big life transitions such as when we move, get married or divorced or change jobs. Because our identities are tied to these things, when they change, our identities are less defined and more fluid. We open up to a more expansive idea of who we are, how we can work, play, love and spend our time. Our lives can feel more malleable, design-able and shift-able. Like play-doh. We can see ourselves as painting a stroke on the blank canvas. The initial change can create a ripple effect to other areas of our life -- beyond just the job, the new spouse or the new neighborhood. So the single stroke leads to the beginning of what looks like a full scene.


When I read about this, I thought about my friends’ normal dad who got divorced and suddenly become an adventurous world traveler. And my other friends’ move to the ocean and subsequent shift into being a health-conscious, vegetarian yogi. Have you observed this? Liminal thinking at work.  


In my world, I call this identity evolution. It's a similar concept but with a different name. The me who decided  to take the leap into living in a new flat is a new person who values more space and being in a cozier home. That person has to change their behavior (around work and travel, for one) to reflect the new identity. I teach this concept in my health coaching around health habits.


How so? It is common to think of yourself as a night person or an early bird. A person who loves to move or a couch potato. A person who makes conscious choices or a go-with-the-flow kind of person. These identities are often seen in extremes and as absolute. Then something happens to challenge whether this identity is indeed natural or if it is just what we are used to.


Because we may have the habit of working, eating, and caring for ourselves in a certain way does not mean it is our nature. It means we have habituated a lot of behaviors. For example, I work with a lot of people who have the habit of staying up too late  working, eating late and cramming in the last of the days activities into the wee hours of the night. They claim to be "night people", (which, by the way, is considered a pathology rather than an inherent state in both Ayurveda and Chinese medicine). When  I have people experiment with what happens to their "night owl" persona when they try eating a little bit earlier, having a set  turn off and de-plug time, and shift some of their evening activities to winding down rather than up, this identity comes into question. The habits shift into a different behavior. Then the different behavior starts to contradict the old identity. They start to see that they are not the night person they assumed they were. A new identity starts to emerge.


Being underslept, stressed out, or laissez faire with caring for our bodies are all based on  what we do every day, not our inherent nature.The good news is, habits are malleable. We have the begin by seeing ourselves as something different – the person who values a nourished and rested body, a healthy mind, or the like.


Aw, but changing habits is so hard, isn’t it? Haven’t we all tried to give up sugar or bread or carbs or Netflix or ……? Sure. Changing habits IS hard. If you do it alone. If you know nothing about how to change habits. If you rely just on willpower. It’s not so hard if you work with me.


What if rather than focusing on your big goal like losing 15 kilos, or running a half marathon, or becoming a vegetarian, you shifted your focus to making the smallest possible step – so small you can’t make an excuse to not do it??? Are your running shoes collecting dust in your closet but you have a dream of running a half marathon? Start with running around the block every day for one week. If you do that, the next week, run for 2 blocks.  Then 3. If you start listening to your excuses to stop running, go back to the previous week. It is consistency – or what you do every day – that matters most. Want to eat like a super healthy yogi like me? Start by adding just one plant to your diet each day. Slow and steady wins the race.. like the turtle and the hare. 


Liminal thinking, identity evolution and mental play doh. Learning to see yourself as a constantly evolving being, with you at the drivers seat determining how far and how fast is a practice.  Once you get it, you can apply it to everything. And then you are truly free to design the life that you want.


So what is keeping you from signing up for a coaching course with me? You are obviously interested or you wouldn’t be 1000 words into my newsletter. My next course starts in January. There couldn't be a better time to set healthy intentions for 2019.  Let's chat more... 


Peace and love, 



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Kari Zabel