The Liminal Period

Well The New Year is finally here, the much lauded but perpetual disappointment it always is. The two-day hangover has dissipated with nothing to show for it but a bunch of half-hearted promises. Everyone’s thoroughly back in to the swing of things and Christmas is a distant dream. The prospect of a bright, fresh new start has been thoroughly dampened (quite literally) by the British weather. It hasn’t stopped raining since last year.

It’s been a long time since I’ve vowed to change something just because it’s 1st January. They reckon it takes 60 days to make (or break) a habit. That certainly requires a lot of perseverance (or resolution), a quality that seems to have gone out of fashion. Cue the hashtag #brokenalready appearing on Twitter less than two days into the new year.

Yes, the fact that person x, y or z couldn’t go without chocolate, wine or smoking for more than 48 hours matters little in the grand scheme of things. Change is hard, no matter how small, or whether it’s positive or negative. But if one can’t put the effort in the change a small aspect of daily routine, how then can they be expected to deal with the many giant curveballs life tends to throw?

Here’s where HR could be setting a good example, enabling staff to be open to change, facilitating resilience and encouraging coping strategies. Unfortunately many change initiatives amount to little more than a bad new year’s resolution. The change itself sounds wonderful when the end goal is announced amongst inordinate pomp and ceremony, only to swept quietly under the carpet soon after when it’s realised what hard work it’s going to be to implement.

Academia is great for learning new words (if one is the type of person who wants to sound knowledgeable). I found a great one the other day that I’d never heard of before – liminality. For those of you who also haven’t come across the term before, you’ll find out from the Wikipedia link there that it’s from the Latin word Limen, meaning threshold, and is wonderfully defined as follows;

“liminality…is the quality of ambiguity or disorientation that occurs in the middle stages of rituals, when participants no longer hold their pre-ritual status but have not yet begun the transition to the status they will hold when the ritual is complete. During the ritual’s liminal stage, particpants “stand at the threshold”, between their previous way of structuring their identity, time, or community, and a new way, which the ritual establishes.”

It’s this period that must be traversed for any type of change to be successful. The reason it so often ends badly is that the emotions it brings – ambiguity, disorientation – feel pretty terrible. It’s in our nature to try and stablise those feelings, and the situation. The easiest way is probably to retreat to our initial standpoint, if that is even possible. Hence the liklihood of change failure.

Perhaps liminality stuck a chord with me because I’ve been experiencing my own liminal period. As I get deeper into academia, it’s now time to wave goodbye to some of those things I held close as a HR professional. Despite the willingness to transform, despite the fact I’ve never looked back, it can still be hard to let go.

It’s been a whole month since I last blogged – the longest period in the two years since I started. It’s been hard to find the words because I feel like somebody else. I want to be somebody else. Now I’ve broken the ice maybe I can get back to my regular weekly spot. If that sounds a bit like a New Year’s Resolution to blog every week from now on, I can assure you it’s not. It’s not 1st January any more…

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