The Liminal Phase: How To Successfully Navigate The Most Uncomfortable Stage Of Your Career Change

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You’ve disengaged with your current career, but you’re not yet anywhere near your new one. You don’t feel like who you used to be, but you don’t yet know who you’re becoming. You’re taking action, but you’re not sure where it’s leading you. Welcome to the in-between. Natasha shares why this strange, uncertain space is an integral element of finding fulfilling work – and five ways to make it through to the other side.

“Midway in life’s journey, I awoke to find myself alone in a dark wood.”

– Dante Alighieri, The Divine Comedy

Your career change is taking some time, isn’t it?

Longer than you’d hoped. And it doesn’t feel the way you thought it would.

You know you can’t do what you’re doing any more – it’s untenable – but you can’t see where you’ll end up.

You’ve made the decision to make a change, and you’re taking action, doing as much as you can think of to find confidence and certainty. You’re talking to people, exploring new areas, testing out ideas... but you still haven’t hit on the answer. You’re right in the middle of the swamp.

This middle space – this in-between-ness – can be a shock. People don’t talk about it enough.

It’s where many career changers give up.

But – and this is important – they don’t give up because they don’t want it enough. They don’t give up because they haven’t put the effort in, or because they didn’t have the skills, or because it’s unrealistic for them.

They give up because they weren’t expecting this feeling. They think they’ve done something wrong. But it is a part of the process. It’s OK to be there.

And there are things you can do to harness it in a positive way.

But first, let’s look at what you’re feeling – and why.

What you’re doing is bigger than you think it is

“I understood quite fast that, for me, this wasn’t just about shifting careers. It was a much deeper, urgent need to actualise my potential and become a richer, more rounded version of myself.” 

– Francesca (Careershifters course participant, shifting from communications and marketing)

Career change is always, on some level, a process of transformation.

It affects your self-image, your relationships, your social status, your sense of agency and responsibility in the world.

In periods of transformation, your very identity is redefined as much as, if not more than, your circumstances. It’s fundamental – who you are, how you see the world, and how the world sees you, shift irrevocably.

You can’t put the toothpaste back in the tube. You can’t return to childhood once you’ve become an adult.

Embarking on a shift into fulfilling work is the same.

In the early 1900s, anthropologist and ethnographer Arnold Van Gennep studied transformative experiences, specifically in the form of rites of passage.

He found that there were three stages of movement from one phase of life into another:

  1. Separation, where you leave behind what you were,
  2. Liminality, and
  3. Incorporation, where you fully take on and embody your new identity.

Liminality, the second stage, draws its name from the Latin for ‘threshold’. It’s the space between one thing and another, one identity and the next.

It’s the feeling of standing in your empty house on moving day, after the van has left and the boxes are all gone.

It’s the potent, angry awkwardness of adolescence, or the station platform at 3 a.m. after the last train of the night has clack-clacked away into the distance.

And it’s the tumbling silence inside your mind when you realise two truths at once:

“I simply cannot still be in this career a year from now”, and
“I have no idea what I want to do instead.”

Liminality is an inherently powerful, ripe, and potent space.

It feels intense and discordant – a time of both destruction and creation at once, disorientation and reorientation, an unmaking and a becoming.

Simultaneously, it’s blank and empty, ineffable and silent. There’s nothing to hold on to, nothing to orient yourself with, nothing to rely on.

It's not likely to be a smooth ride.

You’re going to feel a mess.

And part of the mess you’re likely to feel arises from not being sure what kind of a mess you should be.

So what are you likely to be experiencing, if you’re in this place?

1. Invisibility and confusion

“I don’t know what I am. I know that I am not a category. I am not a thing – a noun. I seem to be a verb, an evolutionary process.”

– R. Buckminster Fuller

The liminal space of a career change can feel like a fundamental crisis of selfhood.

Titles and categories, after all, aren’t just comfortable; they’re how we make sense of the world, and of each other. We all want a box to tick on the form, a solid one-liner to define ourselves by, and a menu of options with which to understand other people.

But in the liminal space of a career change, you find yourself without a category, without a name. And without those things, people don’t know how to make sense of you. You hardly know how to make sense of yourself. You feel un-knowable, forgettable, invisible.

How do you introduce yourself when you’re no longer interested in being what you were, but you don’t yet know what you’re going to be?

How will people know where to find you, when you’re floating in the in-between?

As you try to explore new possible industries and career paths, you feel a huge pressure to be able to explain yourself clearly to the people you speak to. But you can’t.

You feel like you’re going to slip through the cracks. You can’t ‘put yourself out there’ to be noticed, but you don’t want to be overlooked, either.

You’re ‘both-and’ and ‘neither’ at once; nothing and everything at the same time.

“It's hard when your friends introduce you to someone new who asks you what you do.

Do you say your old job, as that's what your friends would expect? Or do you say what you're exploring and where you think you hope to be? So much of our identity comes from our job title that when you don't know what that title is anymore, it’s hard to answer the basic questions, and it can all leave you feeling a little off kilter.

You have to explain the same things over and over again: Yes, I am leaving my job, no, I don't know what I'm going to do yet, yes, it's scary, no, I don't regret my decision...”


– Vic (Careershifters course participant, moving from accounting to her own business)

2. Multiplicity and chaos

One of the hallmarks of liminality and the in-between is the feeling of juggling multiple possibilities at once.

You feel caught between a variety of identities and options, none of which you’re ready to commit to, and none of which you’re ready to give up. Social psychologist Roy Baumeister describes the experience as having a “multiply-defined self, whose multiple definitions are incompatible.”

In practice, this feels chaotic. Where do you focus your energy? Which options should you prioritise? Who should you speak to first?

You don’t want to stay in your current job. But there’s a potential promotion coming up, so maybe you should work overtime for a few weeks anyway. You don’t truly want the promotion, but perhaps it’s still worth going for, just in case…

An organisation you admire is hiring. The job isn’t quite suited to you, but you might have a chance at it. But you’re not sure yet if that industry is definitely what you want – and wouldn’t you make a stronger first impression on them once you finish this short course you signed up for last week?

You’ve got a spare 30 minutes. Should you reach out to the CEO of the start-up you admire to see if she’d be open to a conversation about her work? Or should you research the project management qualifications you think you’ll need, if you eventually decide that’s the best path for you?

In her book Working Identity, Herminia Ibarra shares the story of a literature professor trying to switch into a finance career:

“It is Sunday and I don’t know where to begin working… For now, it’s up for grabs: shall I clean the house; buy food for the family; read “El Burlador de Sevilla”, which I assigned to my students for class tomorrow; go to the business school to search the alumni database for names of people at the firms I’ve applied to; learn more Excel; or look for information about alternatives to an MBA program.

My husband thinks I should start talking to people about staying here in some capacity or another. I, of course, want a new career, a new life, independence, new knowledge, excitement, passion, and challenges. In the meantime, I continue to learn and I continue to make mistakes. It is like living inside a hurricane.”

Sound familiar?

3. Frustration and shame

How much of what you’re ‘worth’ is tied to how hard you’re working?

And how does this in-between space leave you feeling, as a result?

Much of modern society is built on ‘the hustle’.

Work hard, and you’ll get what you deserve. Set goals and strive for them. If you’re not pushing for something, achieving something visible and tangible, you’re failing, wasting time, and there’s something wrong with you.

So, to find yourself in a liminal space, whether voluntarily or not, can feel like a gut-level failure.

You can’t hurl yourself wholeheartedly after one clear aim, because you don’t yet know where you’re going. You can’t show the hours and weeks of hard graft, because so much of what’s happening for you is an interior transformation. You can’t even set your gaze to the finish line, because there’s no way of knowing how long this is going to take.

Yes, you’re taking some actions, exploring different possibilities, but there’s no certainty around any of them. You don’t feel confident about the things you’re doing, and you’re unable to show any solid outcomes for any of it.

It feels like you’re floating, suspended in a viscous liquid of nothingness.

It’s the perfect opposite of everything we’re taught to do and to feel. You don’t know if you’re being lazy, or stupid, or missing something obvious… or if this is, indeed, just a part of the process.

And in fact, the more you push for productivity and busy-ness, the harder it gets.

You thrash and churn, getting nowhere.

“In my culture, high achievement is everything. Get the highest grades at school, get into a good college, get the high flying job, go for the next promotion… If you don’t have your eyes on the next prize, you have nothing to talk about at family dinners and nobody knows what to say – they imagine that there must be something wrong with you.

“And to be honest, I like the fast pace and consistent work of that lifestyle. It can be stressful at times, but you always know where you stand, and I’m used to it.

“So I was mortified to find myself in a place where there was nothing clear to aim for, apart from a new, non-specific career. I didn’t know how to live like that. To be honest, I’m still not very good at it.”


– Binyamin (Careershifters course participantmoving away from civil engineering)

The only way out is through

Periods of liminality show up in all areas of our lives, not just career change.

And while they’re never easy, the ability to navigate them with some intentionality (rather than trying to rush them, or simply surviving them) adds a powerful dimension to our growth.

The in-between space can certainly feel like a place of passivity and nothingness, but in fact it’s quite the opposite. And the more you can harness it, and support its role in your transition, the more potent and fruitful it will be.

1. Grieve

“We must be willing to let go of the life we have planned, so as to accept the life that is waiting for us.”

– Joseph Campbell

In many tribal rites of passage, the liminal stage is characterised by costumes and masks that represent the dead.

Participants in the ritual are sent outside of the village, often to burial grounds, where they spend time away from the world of the living. To all intents and purposes, they are no longer a part of it.

Experiences like this may appear macabre or cruel – but they serve an important purpose: accepting and processing the identity that’s being given up, lost, or left behind.

This isn’t to say you’ll need to don a mask and hang out in a graveyard to make your career change happen – but don’t be surprised if part of your time in the liminal in-between needs to be spent in release and in grief.

You may choose to do this in a very tangible way: to take a sabbatical, a career break, or trip abroad. By physically extricating yourself from your life, you mark the end of an era and reduce yourself to the fundamentals, preparing for the next stage.

You might choose to process your ‘ending’ more internally, spending intentional time thinking about the elements of your past career that worked for you, those that didn’t, and who you became thanks to those experiences.

Even if you feel you hate your current career, it’s still been a big part of your life. Give it the send-off that it – and you – deserve.

“I really struggled to make any inroads on my career change for a long time, and at some point I realised it was because I hadn’t fully come to terms with the fact that I couldn’t make a big shift and still be Hannah the Lawyer. 

“I went through a very tough few weeks as I tried to work on letting that part of me go; but I think I got to a good balance of being grateful for what I got out of those eleven years, and also being willing to give it all up if I needed to.

“Perhaps unsurprisingly, I started making much quicker progress on my shift after that.”


– Hannah (Careershifters course participantleaving commercial law)

2. Surrender

“We have to allow ourselves to be drawn out of ‘business as usual’ and remain patiently on the ‘threshold’ (limen, in Latin) where we are betwixt and between the familiar and the completely unknown…

“This is the sacred space where the old world is able to fall apart, and a bigger world is revealed.

“Get there often and stay as long as you can, by whatever means possible.”


– Richard Rohr

Liminal states are uncomfortable, and uncertain, and many other things that most people don’t like.

And yet, they’re vitally important.

Being in the in-between is not just about tolerating a period of not-knowing until you get out the other side.

And the skills involved aren’t about trying to ‘do it better’ in order to ‘get through it faster’.

In fact, liminality is very much about not-rushing, being-with and active participation in the process. The more you try to escape it, the less space there is for what needs to happen within.

If you feel you’re in the in-between, be there.

Get curious about the middle ground. Rather than trying to thrash your way out of the other side, take a look around.

What’s it like to be here, in the not-knowing?

What clues and thoughts and experiences are there here, en route, that might help you navigate?

How fully can you surrender to the process without giving up on the commitment?

“I feel like I’m climbing ladders in the clouds. I have one foot still on the previous ladder – I’m still working in my old career to make ends meet – but the other one is dangling in mid air, trying to find a foothold somewhere. I'm trying new things and exploring options, which is exciting, but also terrifying.

“I often think I should just let go and jump, but without seeing where I'm jumping to, it feels so scary that I constantly chicken out.

“I'm worried about making the wrong choice and falling, but at the same time it is full of possibility. It's a weird place to be stuck.

“However, over time, as I am getting more comfortable with this situation, I realise that this is a necessary situation to be in for the magic to happen. So my approach right now is to sit back, relax and enjoy the ride.”


– Annika (Careershifters course participantshifting from science research)

3. Build boundaries

Trying to do, and be, twelve things at once is always going to be stressful.

And when those things aren’t just different from, but actively at odds with, one another, it’s positively paralysing.

Professor Blake Ashforth coined the term ‘identity buffering’ to describe the practice of putting boundaries around the different paths and personas you’re exploring. Make it clear when you’re being ‘old you’, and when you’re playing with your various possible ‘new you’s.

By putting up barriers between potentially conflicting selves, you can concentrate on one identity at a time, rather than trying to integrate or resolve the conflicts too fast.

These barriers might be physical, like having a particular spot in the house that you use purely for career change activities. They might be temporal – dedicating your Saturday mornings to exploring one potential new career path, and your Tuesday evenings to another.

Or they might be identity-driven – if you’re at an event dedicated to a particular industry, embrace that possibility wholeheartedly as you speak to people, rather than trying to explain all the different pots you might have on the boil.

Give yourself the space to immerse yourself in the worlds you’re exploring.

“I introduce myself with different job titles currently, depending on who I am speaking to. I tried working on a little spiel to say "this is who I am and what I do" without mentioning jobs, but so far I’ve failed to manage it.

“I guess I am a chameleon, scientist one day, proofreader/translator the next, art director the day after that.

“It’s weird, but nice, in a way; like trying on different outfits to see how they fit.”


– Annika

4. Seek Communitas

In the 1960s, cultural anthropologist Victor Turner adapted the word ‘communitas’ to refer to the sense of egalitarian sharing, intimacy and recognition felt by people experiencing liminality as a group.

Outside of normal social structures and hierarchies, you don’t feel like you fully ‘belong’ anywhere. But when you encounter others who also ‘don’t belong’ in the same way as you, you become part of a new community, bound by a shared understanding of the in-between.

Where possible, seek out other people who are also going through a career change – or who have made one in the past. Make friends. Ask questions. Hold one another up, and to account.

A shared understanding of where you’re at can help ease the sharp edges of a challenging experience, reassure you that you’re not weird or terrible for feeling the way you’re feeling, and create the kinds of relationships that carry you forward in the most unexpected ways.

“I can’t begin to describe the relief I felt when I found myself in the midst of a whole group of people [on the Launch Pad] who felt like me.

“We came from such different backgrounds and industries, but we all understood what it felt like to be unhappy at work, and we’d chosen to make a change, even if we didn’t yet know what that change would look like. They’ve cheered me on, helped me through tearful moments of doubt, kicked my b*tt when I was being lazy, and inspired me to keep going.

“Nobody in my life, even my most well-meaning family members, ‘got it’ in the way these people did.

“I don’t know where I’d be now if I hadn’t had this community, but it wouldn’t be here.”


– Rebecca (Careershifters course participantshifting from software)

5. Get excited

Astrophysicist Jedidah Isler refers to liminality as an “untapped genius.”

“There’s freedom in the in-between, freedom to create from the indefiniteness of not-quite-here, not-quite-there, a new self-definition.”

Yes, you’re in a strange space outside of accepted social structures – and yes, that can cause confusion and uncertainty.

But it also gives you the mobility and space to play beyond anything you’ve been able to imagine before. 

Victor Turner described liminality as “a realm of pure possibility whence novel configurations of ideas and relations may arise,” which lends itself to a “kind of fructile chaos.” Embrace that chaos. Have some fun with it.

You get to go to places that 'people like you' don’t go to (because who are ‘people like you’, now?). You can dream up possibilities and ideas that you’d never previously have dared to dream up (because heck, in this free-falling state of in-between, why not?). You can get brave, you can give yourself permission to be quiet and still, you can create and demand what you need instead of what your identity or your role requires.

We spend most of our lives inside of categories and statuses that shelter and restrict us in equal measure.

This is your time to be free.

“I have ended up at the 'bit in the middle' for a long time.

“Downsides include loss of status and a bruised ego when you meet new people.

“You wake up in the middle of the night, worrying about lack of a plan. 

“On the other hand, you are free, freed up from the slavery of maintaining the perfect CV,  free to question again what you want from life, free to try new things, take art classes, start running, volunteer in my case. 

“You will meet new people, often very interesting people. Gradually friends & family see that you haven't disappeared. You might be happier, and healthier, even if you don't have all the answers yet. 

“I have come to realise life is a journey, not a grand arrival at a destination. You can take control of your narrative, and you care less about what anyone else thinks.”


– Marilyn (Careershifters course participantshifting from retail strategy and consultancy)

Move

“If you're going through hell, keep going.”

– Winston Churchill

Liminality is an integral element of meaningful change.

It’s not a mistake, or a sign that you’re doing the wrong thing. It’s a part of getting it right.

And ultimately, all that’s required to emerge into the other side is that you don’t stop.

Yes, liminal space can feel fumbling and untethered, and yes, the direction you’re heading in may not be clear. It may not feel like the things you’re doing are leading anywhere. There’s no traction here, no clear cause-and-effect or increase in certainty.

But this is a lot like swimming: if you stop moving, you sink. So tread water, if you must – settle for as long as you need to in the in-between – but don’t stop moving.

Keep having exploratory conversations with interesting people.

Continue experimenting with ideas that pique your curiosity.

Carry on with your drive to expand your fishbowl and discover new things.

Trust that you are where you need to be in order to get to where you’re going.

Keep going.

What has the liminal phase of your career change felt like? Let me know in the comments below.

Natasha Stanley's picture

Natasha Stanley is Head Coach for Careershifters. She also speaks, writes and facilitates events on the art of human connection.