What is Our Window of Tolerance

We all have a window of tolerance. It is that place where we have full access to our Wise Mind, where both our emotions and our logic inform us to make decisions. This is the state in which we are mentally engaged and in a growth mindset. It is here that we function optimally.

When we move out of our window of tolerance, we move into either a hyperarousal state where we can overreact emotionally, or into a hypoarousal state of shutting down. In either case, our emotions are what begin to dictate our behaviours. In a heightened state, we begin to feel overwhelmed, anxious and can have emotional outbursts, triggering our fight-or-flight response. In a dulled state, we begin to feel numb, unmotivated, separate from our feelings; triggering our freeze response.

Our window of tolerance lies in our comfort system; it is the place to which we can self-soothe, think clearly, act accordingly. We can strengthen our window of tolerance by first recognizing our triggers that will lead us away from it – anxiety, feeling frazzled, exhaustion, worry, being emotionally or physically drained. We can use grounding techniques such as deep breathing or a guided meditation to strengthen our familiarity with what our comfort system feels like. We can create an inner dialogue that is supportive and non-critical. We can remind ourselves that taking a break to re-group is okay. We can prioritize self-care.

By expanding our window of tolerance, we move towards feeling more comfortable with our emotions,; we are better able to handle the ups and downs that daily life presents us.

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The 3 Functions of Emotions

How exactly do emotions work for us?

  1. Emotions help us to non-verbally communicate our feelings. We can tell the tell-tale signs of emotion by: the look on the face of our partner if they had a bad day at work, the quiver of our two year old’s little chin when on the verge of tears, the heaviness of grief in someone’s eyes, the look of terror that is captured when riding a roller coaster (you’ll never see that on my face, ha-ha!) or the universal look of joy when someone is wholeheartedly laughing. We wear our emotions in our body language, tone, facial expression and posture, and we can learn to put trust in our non-verbal expressions and those of others around us.
  2. Emotions prepare us for action. Undoubtedly, our emotions will produce an action urge and we are motivated to act on them. At times, this can work for us (the tears that follow feeling sad, hugging someone when we feel happy) and other times the behaviour that follows an emotion we can live to regret (sending a nasty text when we’re angry.) Emotional regulation becomes an important part of learning how to manage our action urges so that the emotion and behaviour can work together for optimum success.
  3. Emotions give us valuable information about ourselves. When we tune in to how we are feeling, our emotions can be self-validating, they can serve as a signal that something is wrong and they can help us to find words to how we are feeling. It becomes about listening to our gut. 

Defining both emotion and it’s functions can allow us to move towards a greater understanding of how our feelings are hard-wired into our amazing, complex system of mind and body; ready to work efficiently for us if given the opportunity. 🙂

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“I Don’t Care What You Think”

Is often the sentiment when a difference of opinion gets to a heated place. We may not say that (or maybe we will) but either way, the point of the conflict has moved to one of having to prove that we are right; an indignant, inflexible place. Lost to our own anger, we are fueled to feel justified in our belief until it reaches the point of conviction, both parties becoming stuck in an unyielding pigeonhole of wanting to get your own way.

I always tell clients that “there is no point in arguing with an angry person or a drunk one; either case will get you nowhere.” As soon as anger rises in contention, you move into defensiveness and denial and there is no space left for solution. It is always best at this point to take a time out, agreeing to come back to resolution when everyone’s jets have cooled.

But how do you do this when you know you’re right? 🙂 Well, I suppose two things can help:

  1. Approach the problem with a healthier aim; one in which the focus becomes to find a win-win solution to the issue. This helps in creating an open-minded, curious position.
  2. Focus on the notion that listening to another person’s opinion may not be about changing your mind, but rather about developing your thinking.

Approaching conflict in this manner helps to move us to a more receptive position; one whose focus is of a deeper sentiment of care and benevolence. (As a side note, these tips work great with teenagers too!)

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A Focus on De-Escalation

Sometimes we are faced with someone whose anger is getting the best of them. This might be a child, partner, co-worker, friend, or someone at the grocery store. In any case, we are better served to employ some de-escalation strategies in an effort to bring the communication back to a place where compromise has space to be sought.

  • Remain calm. Or at least act it. When someone is getting angry, it automatically creates in us a defensive or frustrated stance. By centering ourselves to not fight anger with anger, we are helping to de-escalate the situation.
  • Lower your voice, speak clearly. When anger is rising, so does the cadence of our voice. By purposely lowering your voice, it creates space for listening.
  • Use language in which they feel heard.  “I’m here for you.” “Tell me what happened.” “How can I help?”
  • Be aware of the non-negotiables. Just because someone is angry, it doesn’t mean we automatically give them what they want. We may be able to compromise, but we might also be in the position of reminding them (calmly) that “sometimes no is a no.”
  • Take a break. Sometimes we need to encourage our loved one to create some space for themselves to slow down the emotion train. This might include taking some deep breaths, holding the hands of our little ones, asking the person to take a walk if they need to. Revisit the issue when things have settled.

Healthy communication requires calm parties. Sometimes anger will get in the way of that process; however it always takes two people to have a conflict. Sometimes we are better to take the high road and move first to de-escalation as a means to pave the way towards a healthier way to deal with someone’s troubles. 🙂

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“Before You Put the Cuffs On….”

I want you to ask yourself, “Did I actually do anything wrong?” This is often the counsel I give to clients who are struggling with guilt. The definition of guilt as written in  Webster’s Dictionary: “the fact of having committed a legal offense // the fact of having transgressed the moral law // a feeling of culpability.” In my “Dictionary of Emotions by Patrick Michael Ryan,” he lists guilt as: “remorse caused by feeling responsible for some offense.  In either example, there is the element of having made some form of a transgression that elicited the feeling of guilt as a direct consequence of the mistake. Seems pretty straight forward, right? And yet many of us struggle deeply with this emotion.

Guilt is actually one of our healthy emotions because it allows us to repair. But we also learn a lot about guilt growing up; from our caregivers, our communities such as school or church, our extended family and so forth. If one of the people in our life used guilt as a way to elicit compliance, then it can sometimes become a default setting for us.

So before you put the cuffs on, ask yourself “Is this guilt warranted?” “Did I do something wrong?” “Did I hurt someone’s feelings by my words or my actions?” And if you did, fix it. Say you’re sorry, ask for understanding, reflect on how you can change that behaviour in the future. If the answer; however, brings you to the conclusion that you, in fact, did not do anything wrong but rather have slid into default guilt, then acknowledge that too. Take a deep breath and remind yourself, “I didn’t do anything wrong in this situation. It is what it is, I am going to move on” and let Officer Guilt know on the way out the door that he had the wrong suspect. 🙂

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The Shame of a Secret

There are many times in therapy when a client is finally able to share a secret that they have held onto since childhood. The air becomes palpable with relief, the client expresses how the space around them feels lighter, and there are often tears indicative of their loss.

When we are children, we internalize everything. When trauma occurs, when we witness something or are a victim of something that we understand is ‘wrong,’ we automatically feel that somehow it must be our fault. There can be both an unspoken expectation, or a verbal message that we must keep this a secret. Sometimes a child comes from a background where they have no one to tell; but in many instances, even children who have trusting adults in their lives, will guard the secret. The reason? Shame.

Shame is an insidious emotion; it resides in us because it was given to us. It accompanies childhood trauma and until it is spoken aloud and processed, it will continue to occupy a space in ourselves. In telling the secret, it is important to understand that something can come of it, or nothing can come of it – the choice as an adult is always ours. The important part is the integrating; the sharing; allowing a trusted friend, partner or therapist to help you hold it.

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Anger 101

Anger is a universal emotion; when we see an angry face, we are able to instantly recognize the emotion. It is also our safest emotion; we know not to ‘poke an angry bear.’

Anger is a useful emotion in that it produces an action; it also provides relief. Anger however, is only productive when it is in our control; as soon as it moves to aggression (raised voice, yelling, hitting, name calling, etc.) it is no longer in our control and then works against us. When that “angry bear” shows up, it is either going to keep others from engaging with us or increase the conflict (anger will automatically make you feel defensive; it’s a survival strategy.)

We are in a much better place when we can recognize our anger and then work to keep our cool. Anger is always precipitated by another emotion. Sometimes this is sheer frustration, but other times we skip over our vulnerable feelings such as sadness, guilt, fear and go right to anger to keep us safe from those tougher emotions. When we feel anger rising, we need to take a deep breath and ask ourselves “What am I feeling first?” Just focusing on this initial feeling can often help keep the anger away from a place that begins to feel out of control.

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Instead of Saying “Calm Down…”

When our kids are having a meltdown, tough go, or panic attack we can inadvertently compound the situation by telling them to ‘Calm down’ or ‘Relax.’ Most of the time, this is also said with a tone that is less than calm.

Taking a deep breath ourselves before using these alternatives will help to deliver a supportive message:

“You look upset. Do you need a hug? 

“I can see that you are struggling with something. Do you need my help?”

“Hold my hand and let’s take a few deep breaths together.”

“Let’s fix this problem together.”

“Let’s start by counting to 10 together.”

“I can see that you are upset. Tell me about what is bothering you.”

“I’m listening.”

As parents, we have the ability to teach our children that the emotions they are feeling are valid. We can give them the gift of normalization by acknowledging their emotional struggle. By focusing in on how to calm when anger or upset takes over, we are teaching them that they have the ability to contain, process and choose an alternative behaviour. It may take a bit of practice on our part, but the outcome will be worth the effort. 🙂

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Why Do We Suppress Our Feelings?

I often speak about our emotional system and how it is wired to work for us. With every experience we go through, there is a feeling attached to it. And so why the tendency to suppress? Why do we push them down, set them aside, ignore them completely? Suppressing our feelings catches up to us at some point – by way of a build up – or perhaps we will experience them physically, with pains in our tummies and tightness in our chest.

For those who would say that they generally suppress their emotions, it has most likely come from childhood emotional neglect. We can’t come to understand our emotions or sense validation for feeling something, if we didn’t have a parent that was attuned to our emotional needs. Very often, clients will remark that they “went to no one” when they were upset, or have memories of being dismissed or chastised for their outward display of emotion. Lesson learned? “It is safer to suppress.”

Sometimes we suppress our feelings because of learned behaviour. Clients have often noted to me that they have no memories of their parents crying – not at funerals (even of significant family members), not out of frustration, not out of empathy. Lesson learned? “It is not safe to cry in front of others.”

And sometimes an experience can shut down a particular emotion. A client once spoke about her mother’s anger management issue; as a result, there was no room for anyone else to express anger as it was shut down immediately by the mother’s need to ‘out anger’ everyone. As a result, this young woman under-reacted to her feelings of anger, she would dismiss it to the point where her own needs suffered. Lesson learned? “There is no space for my anger.”

The first step in allowing our feelings to have some space is to recognize the suppression. When we can explore where we feel the suppression started, we can begin to give ourselves permission to give those feelings a little bit of space; to recognize that they are okay, that they are meant to help us process experience, that we can feel comfortable with them in their rightful place.

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Processing Our Emotions

Yesterday’s post explored the importance of accepting our emotions, without judgement. It includes being able to label an emotion as you are feeling it, without linking it to any learned associations.

“I feel angry right now and that is okay.”

“I am feeling sad and lonely.” 

“I am feeling peaceful and content.”

This may seem simplistic, but essentially, we are going back to what we usually learn in childhood – emotional regulation. It is our caregivers who have the ability to teach us that our emotions are meant to be felt. It is also our loved ones who are there to teach us how to process our emotions.

This is the part that allows us to slow down enough to ask ourselves “What do I want to do now?” Sometimes, it might mean having a good cry, other times, we may need to contain the emotion temporarily. Sometimes, we may need to say something to someone who has hurt our feelings, other times, we might decide this situation is not one worth going into battle for. Sometimes it is going to mean not doing something we might have usually done by way of an action urge – such as sending an angry text – and finding a healthier way to deal with disappointment.

In any given situation, we are going to have feelings. Acknowledging the emotion without judgement is the first step, followed by asking ourselves how we want to best use this feeling to not only inform us, but to work for us. Making decisions about how we want to proceed has an empowering effect and when we work to process our emotions, we are better prepared for the ebb and flow of every day life.

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