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  • Jan Flynn

I Can See Clearly Now

Widening my window of tolerance — and why we all might want to

Photo by Miriam Alonso

Recently, I went through a round of telemedicine talk therapy. It had been a long winter, and I’d been struggling with a pattern of self-defeating thoughts.

But once I found myself heading down a spiral of feeling bad for feeling bad, I recognized it was time to take action.

This was my first experience with phone therapy

Not to be confused with phone sex, this is a treatment delivery method that’s become increasingly popular, especially since the pandemic. It offers at least one distinct advantage over traditional face-to-face counseling: no need to schlep to someone’s office and sit there feeling weird in a waiting room shared by a group of practitioners while you and everyone else flip through magazines and avoid looking at one another.

For therapists, it offers the advantage of not needing an office at all.

Of course, it also means that, unless you’re doing video visits, the whole nonverbal communication dimension is limited, to say the least. In my case, this was a negative overshadowed by two positives.

One, this wasn’t my first rodeo with therapy. I didn’t feel the need to delve into my past (been there, done that) or examine my primary relationships (they’re fine, and also been there, done that). I’m pretty aware of who I am and how I got to be that way. I wasn’t looking for an overhaul. More like a tune-up.

Two, under my current healthcare plan, my copay for an eight-week course of teletherapy amounted to $0.00. That right there was a powerful incentive.

Cut to the chase: after eight weeks, I felt much better, and I still do

Even though there’s a strong whiff of brochure medicine about teletherapy delivered according to a set course of metrics, as this was. My therapist was required, at each session, to ask me certain questions.

In the interests of efficiency, I learned to start out every week by getting those out of the way at the outset (“Hi! No thoughts of self-harm this week either!”).

Every two weeks I had to rate myself on a scale of one (not at all) through four (some days, several days, most days) in response to a survey: “Over the past two weeks, how often have you (had trouble sleeping, felt hopeless, had trouble making decisions, talked or moved so slowly others noticed, etc.) . . .”.

Another benefit of telephone therapy is that you can roll your eyes without worrying about insulting the therapist.

However, as the weeks went on my responses to these admittedly tedious queries revealed that I was making steady and measurable progress. After all, evidence-based treatment requires evidence, and that’s what the repeated questionnaires supplied.

Once past all the data-gathering, it was good old talk therapy

But with a refreshingly pragmatic approach: the therapist wasn’t focused on delving into whatever ogres might be lurking in my subconscious closet. The emphasis was on practical methods to cope with whatever was going on and, ultimately, thrive.

Having been around the sun a significant number of times, I found this approach appealing. Life, we all learn at some point, is mostly out of our control.

All we really get to control is our response to what happens in life.

That’s much better news than it might seem.

Since our experience of life is largely governed by our responses, it follows that the more emotionally skillful we are, the less we’ll be jerked around by external conditions.

It also means we can relax a little. The world might be going to hell in a handbasket, but we can each only do so much about the handbasket. Once we’ve done that, we can turn our attention to making a really terrific cup of tea.

This might seem obvious, but for hyper-responsible Type A-ers like me, it bears repeating: there comes a time when you gotta let that s**t go and take care of yourself.

Tools for emotional regulation

One of the things I discovered while in therapy — or rather, rediscovered — is that there are techniques to call on when things get overwhelming or we find ourselves getting either uncomfortably spun up or sliding downwards on the emotional spiral.

It’s easy to forget about these when we’re upset. Maybe it’s the negativity bias at work: emotions like fear, anger, and anxiety have a way of commanding our attention so totally and so seductively that it seems absurd that something as simple as, say, mindful breathing could have any effect on them.

But that’s exactly when we need those tools. The first step, always, is simply noticing our feelings. Again, that sounds so simple it seems silly. OF COURSE I KNOW HOW I’M FEELING, you might thunder while in a towering rage. I’M F***ING PISSED!

It’s almost always better to catch yourself before you get to that point — and to do it without judgment. Hmm, I notice my chest is tight and I’m breathing faster, might be your inner observation as your beloved drops their wet bath towel on the bed (again). What’s a good way to address this?

Just doing that gives you literal breathing room, and many more choices than the dreary options of fight or flight, freeze or appease. Those are about all your brain has to offer once your amygdala is riled up enough to take your prefrontal cortex offline.

One such tool: the Three C’s

This, again, is a deceptively simple idea and one that, in the face of looming depression or other psychic pain, might sound like being offered a Tylenol while having your foot amputated.

But hokey as it sounds, it works. You just have to give it a fair go.

The Three C’s are: 1) Catch; 2) Check; and 3) Change.

First, you Catch yourself heading into a negative spiral: the editor said her inbox is already full of books about (fill in the blank) so she’s not interested in mine . . . therefore I’ve just spent two years writing the wrong book, which just goes to prove I’m a crap writer and a garbage person and I’m wasting my time not to mention the space I’m taking up on the planet . . .

Whoa, you tell yourself. Hold on just a stinkin’ minute, there.

Next, you Check that reaction against reality: one editor out of the hundreds or thousands out there doesn’t see a place for your book in her list based on one element of it, which could well mean she didn’t read past the synopsis, or even that one of her interns didn’t read past the synopsis, and in any case, that means nothing at all about your book except that she’s not the right editor for it.

Then you Change your response: based on the many positive responses to your manuscript from other industry professionals and savvy readers, you simply have to keep going until you do find the right fit. You’ve just succeeded in eliminating one wrong one.

Notice this doesn’t change one iota about the event that set you off. But it changes everything about how you interpret it and therefore feel about it, and that gives you both more energy and more choices about what to do next.

Since my recent teletherapy boot camp, I’ve found myself using the Three C’s often. My aim is to instill them as a habit, and a screen through which I run all my reactions before I, well, react.

Even better: welcome to the Window of Tolerance

For all my adventures in counseling, this concept was a new one on me. My therapist mentioned it several times, although she didn’t go into it deeply — for our purposes, she didn’t need to. The idea of extending my acceptance, or at least reducing my sense of resistance, to cover a wider swath of experience was pretty intuitive.

“The wider your window of tolerance is, fewer things can get to you and throw you off center,” she said, which made immediate sense. In fact, it seemed so obvious that I didn’t even think of it as a specific concept so much as simply a helpful metaphor.

It stuck with me. I found it a powerful reset button for my more reactive moments. So I looked into it and discovered that “window of tolerance” is indeed a Thing.

It was introduced by Daniel J. Siegel, M.D., a clinical professor of psychiatry at the UCLA School of Medicine, in his 2009 book Mindsight. Full disclosure: I have yet to read the book. But I’ve looked into the window of tolerance concept and it’s a bit more comprehensive and nuanced than I first assumed.

It’s also even cooler.

Basically, your window of tolerance is the zone you’re operating from when you’re dealing effectively with the world. You have full awareness of and access to your emotions, but they’re under your control. Whatever’s going on, you’re handling it.

It’s the emotionally regulated state that exists between hyperarousal — when you erupt in anger or fear and resort to the fight-or-flight options — and hypoarousal, when you freeze, go numb, and shut down emotionally.

It doesn’t mean that you don’t feel unpleasant things in your window of tolerance, or that bad things don’t happen. It means that you are able to register them and respond proportionally (no flying off the handle about the damp towel on the bed) and effectively (“Honey, maybe you didn’t notice, but the towel you just threw on the bed is still wet. Could you hang it on the hook in the bathroom?”).

Widening my window

Out and about, banging around in the world in the normal course of a day, I’ll think about my window of tolerance during moments of minor challenge — someone in front of me just sitting there even though the light’s turned green (what are you waiting for, buddy, a written invitation?) or my navigation system interrupting the podcast I’m listening to (I know I’m turning left here, you don’t have to tell me again, Siri!).

If I’m having big reactions to such small stimuli, it means my window of tolerance is too narrow. That’s not because there’s something deeply wrong with me; it means I’m human, and something about whatever has just happened has touched a nerve.

But since life isn’t going to adjust itself to fit my view, it’s my responsibility to figure out how to expand my window to better accommodate reality.

That doesn’t mean blandly accepting the unacceptable — far from it. When I’m operating from my window of tolerance, I’m far more able to speak up and advocate for myself than when I’m lashing out or lapsing into resentful helplessness.

The window of tolerance concept is a handy tool to determine what’s actually worth addressing and what can safely be let go of without compromising my values or needs.

As in, I need to not have wet towels on the bed, honey, unless you dropped it there because you just stubbed your toe on the footboard. In that case, I will gladly pick up said towel myself after I’ve offered my condolences to your aching toe.

It can also offer clues to when something else is going on — something beneath the surface that I’m not sufficiently aware of. If that towel on the bed makes me want to scream at my otherwise inoffensive beloved, is it because I’ve unsuccessfully stuffed the feelings I didn’t want to deal with after that last phone call from my sister who has dementia?

To torture a metaphor, what’s clouding my window of tolerance? What can I do to see things more clearly?

What if we all widened our windows?

We all know people who are admirably serene and unruffled. We know others who go off like firecrackers at the least provocation. Nobody wants to stifle individual personality — I enjoy my passionate, live-out-loud friends just as much as my easygoing, laid-back ones.

But I think we can all agree that our society as a whole these days has become way too touchy. We live under a cloud of divisiveness, of suspicion, of mindless reactivity — all you have to do is tune into the 24-hour news channel or troll the depths of social media for ten minutes to encounter that sad truth.

At that level, it seems like we’re all looking at each other through a very narrow window indeed, and one that’s warped to show us images that have little to do with reality.

It’s so tempting to confront the complexities of modern life — especially the people we don’t understand — by lumping others into categories so we know who to wall off rather than deal with.

Maga crazies! Snowflake liberals! We can spot each other a mile away, right?

But that hardly makes us any happier, does it?

The more time we can spend in our window of tolerance, and the broader that window is, the better we can cope with stuff, and the better we’ll feel about both ourselves, and each other, and life in general.

At the end of the day, isn’t that what we all want?

Oh, and by the way — if you too are considering an emotional tuneup, I recommend teletherapy. Turns out it can work pretty darn well.

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