In liminal space, we seek absolutes and binaries to help us make sense of the world
I washed the windows this past weekend. Well… I washed MOST of the windows. And those that I washed, I had to do twice.
I am remarkably bad at washing windows. If there’s an opposite of a “superpower” mine would be window-washing. I have never, in my fifty-five years on this planet, had a streak-free window.
After washing the outside of the windows of the front and west side of my house, I came back inside and saw that they still looked like they were covered in at least a year’s worth of grime and dust. I gave up and tossed my squeegee aside in frustration. The next day I tried again – this time with the stepladder and various cloths for scrubbing and drying (as the experts on the internet told me to do). When I finished the last of those (with reasonably good results), I smashed my finger in my stepladder and was in so much pain, I gave up on the rest. Perhaps the windows on the east side will be cleaned before the snow falls and perhaps they won’t. I make no promises.
Sadly, I’ve been dealing with some self-doubt recently that comes with the territory when I’m in the kind of liminal space I mentioned in my last two posts. When I’m feeling this way, my brain quickly slides into a self-doubt spiral… and so… I am bad at washing windows, therefore I suck at keeping my house clean, therefore I don’t really deserve to own a home, therefore I am a bad parent, therefore I have failed my daughters, therefore I am bad at all of the important things in life, therefore I must suck at my work, therefore I am a horrible person, therefore… Sigh. You get the picture. Perhaps you’ve been there too? (It’s a little like the children’s book “If You Give a Mouse a Cookie”, but instead it’s “If You Give an Overwhelmed Brain a Self-Doubt”.)
Seriously though?! WHAT does washing windows have to do with parenting or running a business? Since I’ll never make a living as a window-washer, there is NO logical connection! (I hereby banish you to my messy basement, self-doubt gremlins! You can make friends with the dust-bunnies down there. Be gone!!)
Here’s the thing… When we’re in the middle of liminal space, where things feel uncertain and the future looks murky, our brains try really hard to simplify the world by casting it in absolutes.
It doesn’t matter WHAT that absolute is, just so long as it is clearly black or white and it’s dependable and solid and it’s not as murky as the rest of the world looks at the time. That gives the anxious brain something to land on in liminal space. I am ABSOLUTELY a failure. The world is ABSOLUTELY going to hell in a hand-basket. One of my family members is ABSOLUTELY going to die of this pandemic. Our government leaders are ABSOLUTELY failing to protect us. There are ABSOLUTELY evil masterminds in the world trying to control and destroy us.
That’s why we become increasingly polarized during a time like this. It’s why we’re more likely to find an enemy to blame when we’re stressed out (or we turn ourselves into the enemy, which is often my tendency, as the window-washing story reveals). We lose our capacity for nuance and for seeing the grey-zone because the whole WORLD looks like a grey-zone and that’s SCARY! The higher-functioning, rational parts of our brains give way to the more immediate demands of the freaked-out amygdalae and, in our fight for survival, we simplify whatever we can so that it’s easier to navigate and easier to make decisions. We can’t see that someone (or something) is “sort-of bad and sort-of good”, we can only see GOOD and BAD and nothing in-between.
This is not something we do consciously and often we’re completely unaware that we’re doing it. (I, for example, was only aware of how I’d done it a few hours AFTER the window-washing debacle.) But I would venture to guess that if you were to do a media scan of how differently media reports the news during a crisis compared to when we’re not in crisis (or even how differently we communicate on social media), you’d be able to see the pattern of how things get more simplified into binaries and absolutes during times when more people are scared and overwhelmed with the uncertainty (including those people reporting the news). Dig deeply enough and you’ll likely find that this is an explanation for much of the conflict in the world – we get scared, we lose sight of nuance, we turn people into enemies, we justify our own righteousness in black and white terms, and we attack in order to defend our safety.
What starts with “that person make a questionable decision” soon deteriorates into “THAT PERSON IS BAD AND I MUST DEFEND MYSELF AGAINST THEM.” Or the internalized version… “I failed at this particular task” deteriorates into “I AM A COLLOSSAL FAILURE.”
My window-washing story was a benign example of this, just to make a point, and fortunately I didn’t create any enemies or even break any windows. I bring it up for a good reason though – it helps us see the patterns in ourselves in moments that are relatively benign so that we’re more able to see those same patterns when there’s a lot more at stake.
When I’m not in liminal space, I’m able to laugh off my lack of window-washing skills, ignore the streaks, and still see the big picture. I can acknowledge that I’m good at other things and therefore my streaky windows don’t tell a very important part of the story of who I am. And I can do the same for others – I can see them as complex and flawed and still doing their best to be good people.
But in the liminal space? All of that is harder to see. That’s when the streaks in the window REALLY matter.
The more we know ourselves, the more we see these patterns in ourselves and the better we’re able to soothe ourselves so that we don’t make destructive choices. The more capacity we have for holding space for ourselves (and finding others to hold space for us) during liminal space, the less we find ourselves trapped by binary thinking and the less tempted we are to lash out at the “enemy”.
Because I’ve witnessed this pattern in myself again and again, I was able to step away from the window-washing to regain my perspective. I went for a walk and instead of looking through streaky windows at a murky world, I appreciated the bright sunlight and could clearly see the way the natural world greeted me with its imperfections and beauty. I witnessed the changing leaves on the trees and remembered that the world is cyclical and always changing and there are no absolutes. Eventually I felt grounded again. On my walk, I reminded myself of how insignificant a skill window-washing really is in the big picture of my life and I came back feeling much better about myself. By the time I was home, I had regained my capacity for nuance and complexity as well as my ability to see myself as imperfect and yet beautiful. (And now I’m looking up from my desk at a streaky window and it makes me chuckle.)
When I teach people in the Holding Space Foundation Program, I hear again and again from people that what surprises them most about the program is what they learn about themselves. The second module, on holding space for ourselves, is always the most profound because people learn to see themselves differently and they begin to recognize (and learn to hold space for) the patterns that drive them. They witness their own tendencies in the middle of liminal space, they see how and when they are tempted to reach for absolutes and binaries, they see their social conditioning and they recognize how all of that may have resulted in unconscious bias and/or self-destructive behaviours. It’s one of the most beautiful things to witness, because when people learn to treat themselves differently, they learn to see the world differently, and then they’re able to treat others differently.
The more clearly we see ourselves, the more capacity we have to face the world even when it feels uncertain and scary. The more we can hold space for our own nuance, complexity and imperfection, the more we are able to do the same for others.
And this is where I can’t resist returning to the metaphor… It really doesn’t matter how good I am at washing windows. Because I am much more focused on helping people see themselves and each other more clearly than I am on streak-free windows.
P.S. If you’d like to join us in the Holding Space Foundation Program to learn more about your own patterns, there’s still time to sign up for the session that starts October 25, 2021.