Liminality, Boundaries and Self-care

No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man – Heraclitus


Not The Same River

The myth goes like this: Once upon a time (in a place that looked a lot like the 1950s), things were calm, stable and prosperous. Change was slow and planned. Jobs, careers, marriages, friendships and communities were forever. It was easier to cope.

Heraclitus calls bullsh#t. He lived from 535-475 BC. He was aware enough to look through our desire for predictability and stability and see that even in the ancient world 2400 years ago change was everywhere. Imagine sharing that meme so widely without an iphone or the ability to embed text on an image file and pop it on Instagram.*

We are enveloped in change. Change is how we perceive time, measure our lives and it is the very point of our work and daily tasks. Human beings are engines to create liminality. We are constantly creating change to make this moment a threshold between a lost past and a new way. Because we are social, we are also participants in everyone else’s change creating an exponential effect of all this transformation.

While we may prefer stability, we are engines of transformation, pushing through each threshold on a massive scale. We push ourselves to make more change faster and for more people. Our increasing global connectivity has increased the scale, the demands and our awareness of the need for change. Even global thresholds are no longer limits for our desire for change.

Boundaries, Liminality and Self-care

Change and its demands are tiring. Ancient cultures made rituals of liminality infrequent because the move to a new state was demanding in preparation, transition and afterwards. For those, like Heraclitus, who look through faux stability to the underlying flux, the endless liminal state can be draining. There are demands everywhere and constantly.

One of the greatest demands of this change is our agency in change. Making the decisions to act or not to act, how to act and so on, imposes an ongoing burden. We like repetition, habit and routine. After every change we create new ways of being. Constantly being asked to exercise our agency is draining.

Imposing boundaries becomes a new act of self-care. Ancient cultures created staged transitions to mitigate the challenge of continuous adaptation. We can learn from their wisdom. Just as humans are change machines, we are also machines of creating boundaries. Just look how we have divided our planet, its people, resources and so on.

We can care for ourselves by setting our own boundaries (and not just accepting those imposed by society or others). If we invest time in being deliberate around what we do and won’t do, help and won’t help, what matters and what doesn’t. and so on, we begin to shape our role in the flux in ways that help us to manage the change. We can try, but can’t do everything. Personal productivity and human sanity demands that we make choices and that we give those choices time to have effect before choosing again.

We cannot escape the ‘in-between’ spaces. Our human nature is to continue to create them. The ongoing flux of our world brings them to us constantly. Our agency demands we create new change. Pretending we live in a stable mythical 1950s-style world, is simply a delusion, both today and to the memory of that era. Living in a delusion is ultimately more dangerous. We must engage with the reality of our world as it is. However, we do not need to be passive in that engagement.

We need to choose our own boundaries. We need to choose them well. They are an important part of our self-care in the ongoing flux.

It’s frankly amazing comment on our lazy meme culture that so many of the images with that quote on it are not of rivers and almost never someone standing in a river. Mountains seem to be the commonest replacement.


Thank you to Fiona Tribe and Pauline Holland for inspiring this post.

Related reading: Bruce McTeague on the in-between



4 thoughts on “Liminality, Boundaries and Self-care

  1. Simon

    Thank you for sharing your thoughtful piece.

    If we, qua humans, fully understood the import of ‘change’, namely that we live in a formless world, we’d stop taking everything so seriously and accept the COMPLETE flow of life — good, bad or MEH.



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