The Window Of Tolerance

What is the Window of Tolerance?

We all have varying capacity to deal with intense emotions or difficult situations while still being able to function in life. This is our ability to self-regulate. The ‘Window of Tolerance’ refers to the capacity we have to face everyday challenges of life without falling into chaotic or rigid states (Daniel Siegel, The Developing Mind 3rd Ed.). A person who has a greater capacity to deal with difficult situations or emotions while still maintaining their ability to self-regulate mood, emotions, or behavior is said to have a wider Window of Tolerance. Someone easily triggered, overwhelmed or prone to dysfunction is said to have a narrower window. And unfortunately, it is those who endured chronic abuse and neglect as children who are characterized by narrower Windows of Tolerance, and thus highly susceptible to dysfunction.


According to Daniel Siegel, when we fall out of the window of tolerance we slip into chaos or rigidity. When someone slips into chaotic states they can be flooded with thoughts, emotions, memories that often go along with states of high emotional arousal. They may act impulsive and not think things through. Someone in rigid states is often shut down or depressed. They may hold themselves back in ways that prevent them from experiencing life fully.


Individuals may be more prone to either chaotic or rigid states, but experiencing both is not uncommon either.  Drawing on Attachment Theory, chaotic states may be more predominant in those with Ambivalent Attachment who have high emotional arousal due to a fear response which is seen in this ‘get close, pull away’ type of behavior. Rigid states may be more predominant in those with Avoidant Attachment who demonstrate a shutting down in their inability to form close connections, and are also trying to maintain control in order to maintain a sense of safety. That said, we are not fixed beings, and the same person can experience both chaotic and rigid states – a person experiencing chaotic states with a flood of emotion may become so overwhelmed that they eventually shut down.

So Why Does This Matter?

1) We are all prone to fall out of the Window of Tolerance. We all have our unique set of experiences, relationships, and upbringing that shapes our sensitivities or resilience to life’s challenges. And we’re also imperfect, we all have our moments where we’re not our very best. That’s normal. We’re human.


2) Individuals who experienced childhood trauma, in the form of abuse or neglect, often carry the emotional wounds of the past and are highly susceptible to falling out of the Window of Tolerance. In addition, the coping mechanisms that kept them ‘safe’ as a child very often contribute to dysfunction as an adult.


3) We can widen our Window of Tolerance. Our ability to maintain and enhance self-regulation in the face of challenging circumstances can change. No matter who you are, no matter what family came from, no matter what your past or what difficult experiences you’ve endured, the capacity to deal with life’s challenges and intense emotions while maintaining harmony can be widened. We can become more resilient.

Some Ways to Widen the Window of Tolerance

1) Meditation – Adopting mindfulness principles including a regular meditation practice helps us to separate from our thoughts. When we’re not so identified with every thought or emotion, we learn to see that thoughts will come and go, and we become less constrained by them. Meditation also helps us improve our focus of attention – both outwardly and inwardly. This is vital because the quality of our attention, our presence, shapes the quality of our life. Being more mindful helps improve our ability to respond to life’s challenges – rather than be in a reactive or threat state, it frees us from repeating past patterns that keep us stuck, and see new options we didn’t previously see.


2) Journaling – Journaling is widely used for dealing with unresolved issues. There are different ways to approach journaling. It’s not simply writing for the sake of writing. And it’s not meant to simply dig up painful memories or thoughts that make us feel worse than we already do. With unresolved issues, journaling is often effective when dealing with what is already present. This could be a difficult situation, difficult thoughts, emotions or sensations that are already here, difficult interactions with family members, colleagues, or friends. When done properly what journaling does is help us to learn from life’s challenges, see patterns in our behavior, and see patterns in our internal reactions to the world. Over time journaling can help us gain insight into why we repeat certain patterns or remain stuck by connecting the past to the present – this process of making sense of our lives can often liberate one to create a more rewarding future.


3) Gratitude / Compassion Practice – Having a daily gratitude practice, or compassion practice are often underrated tools but can be vital to those who endured childhood trauma. A simple gratitude practice could include journaling for 2-5 minutes daily for 30 days straight on things one is grateful for – over time this helps a person access different internal states, rewiring the brain and strengthening new connections which can help a person change their experience with life. A compassion practice could be something like a 10 minute self metta meditation for 30 days straight. If a person has not had many positive experiences with family, or has not had others who show them love or compassion, this is a small step in beginning to experience and give these things to one self which is vital in order to allow one to be able to share love or compassion with someone else.


4) Seeking a Coach / Therapist – We are social beings. We are not meant to deal with everything on our own. In difficult moments, our need for connection is heightened – and unfortunately many people don’t have a reliable, dependable, trustworthy person they can count on (which ironically is part of the reason we can have such a narrow Window of Tolerance or become easily dysregulated). Being with someone who is safe and trustworthy who we feel ‘gets it’ can not only widen our window of tolerance in that moment, it can help us re-regulate in more difficult moments, help us make sense of difficult situations, and process stuck emotions. In an ideal world we would grow up having these experiences with close family members, and then friends, which would result in us becoming more resilient – but in reality, this disconnection from others often starts for those who grew up with abuse and neglect and ends up being the gift that keeps on giving, which is why a coach or therapist can play a vital role.


So whoever you are, whatever you been through, and wherever you’re trying to get to in life – change is possible. We can widen our Window of Tolerance by becoming more integrated, and doing so frees us up to take on the challenges of life with greater stability, composure, and harmony.

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