Episode transcript from “2. Opening a Window” on The Restorative Grief Podcast with Mandy Capehart.
Welcome back to the Restorative Grief podcast with Mandy Capehart. I’m your host, Mandy, and I am so grateful that you have chosen to join me again. Each episode is written with a desire to help you grow in grief literacy and understanding so that you can become the person you need the most when it comes to navigating loss. There is an invitation that goes around social media every few years, and I saw it again this week: Become the person you needed when you were a child. The same is true of grief; by deciding to do this work for ourselves, we become the space-holders and grief supporters we are looking for in the world around us. With any luck, our newfound knowledge and awareness of loss will create that same space to heal for others we encounter as well.
This week we are going to learn about what it means to become aware of your tolerance levels. As humans, we need to notice when our tolerance is low, and learn how to support ourselves through the lack” until we feel ourselves increase in capacity again. This awareness is a lovely starting place, so in cultivating it we might just learn how to recognize ourselves again, because I don’t know about you, but when my tolerance is low, I feel like a different person. And although we are always becoming a new version of our past selves, when grief enters the conversation, clarity often seems just out of reach. We need new ways to see ourselves and gain insight about where we are going and ultimately, about where we truly want to go.
So my favorite concept to start with is known as the “window of tolerance.” Developed by Dan Siegel, a clinical professor of Psychology, the “window of tolerance” is best described as a state of mind when we are most capable of functioning and thriving in everyday life. The interruptions to our workflow, the phone calls with heavy news, or the complete derailment of our plans are easier for us to handle when our tolerance window is wide open. But what does “wide open” mean? When our window is wide open, it means we are feeling confident and capable of navigating and coping with interruptions, stressors, and triggers. It means we feel aware of and able to access our own emotional responses.
Our natural tendency in life is to fluctuate between a wide open window and one that is almost nailed shut. As a coach, I offer this concept to every one of my clients first and foremost. When our window is narrow, interruptions can set our internal self-defense mechanisms to action. Essentially, we are carrying too much on our back and it only takes one small pebble to make us trip. Our body takes over, by design, to engage in a way that protects us in the moment with zero regard for long term consequences. This can look like hypoarousal, which just means you’re feeling numb, zoned out, or kind of spacy. It can also manifest as hyperarousal, which looks like an influx of anxiety, anger, or overwhelm.
The hardest thing to understand about our window of tolerance is that our responses during that “narrow window” period are not in our control. Which may lead you to ask why learning about a window of tolerance matters if we can’t control the way we respond.
Because while our body is going to activate our internal defense system and send out the guardians no matter what, we are still able to recognize our tolerance level BEFORE we engage with other people or even ourselves.
You see, not all grief has trauma, but all trauma has grief. If you are wading through something that hurts more than you expect and perhaps for a longer duration than you anticipated, the window of tolerance language and concept can help you identify how you are responding to it. This is a tool to help you offer yourself a little more grace as you grieve.
For an example of how this knowledge can be a helpful tool in your toolbox, let’s take a look at social media. Everyone I know (truly) has exploded over an article or post from an online connection at least once in their lifetime. They may not respond directly to the person, but they are immediately triggered into hyperarousal – that volcanic response so easily accessed when the window of tolerance is narrow. I often see people on Twitter asking, “Why is it so easy for some people to spend hours replying with rude remarks and criticism to things you disagree with? Can’t you just scroll on by and forget the offending post?”
And of course, the answer is nuanced. We love to point at freedom of speech, self-control, and more… but also, there is a very good chance that the person posting is also experiencing a narrow window of tolerance. It is much harder to “keep your mouth shut,” so to speak, when you are experiencing that narrow window. It doesn’t take much to throw your self-control to the side.
Or maybe we give up social media and connections all together because the conflict is too much to navigate and understand. Sometimes, I find myself unable to engage at all because I cannot sort my thoughts enough to share. We end up blocking and unfriending others, setting social boundaries, and sacrificing relationships we once held dear.
This disconnect is a source of grief (which we will talk about more in future episodes).
The breaking of bread has turned into a breaking of relationship and none of it makes sense.
In response to your losses and all the pressure in the aftermath, your internal systems are helping you survive. You might tuck away, throw the blinds, and sleep it off. And by the way, this is a morally neutral decision – it is not good or bad. It’s not bad that you feel the need to remain in bed, nor is it bad that you can’t handle an intense conversation online over hot button topics. Perhaps you just can’t help but pop off with the sarcastic comment, hoping to drive your perceived attackers away. This too, is morally neutral, as easy as it may seem to vilify such a behavior. You are reacting in a way that protects your wounds.
The beauty of awareness around our window of tolerance is that we can start to make sense of why we are sleeping more than usual or starting all these little fires in our relationships. And with awareness, we can make a decision. With sight comes insight.
So what can we do when we recognize that our window is shuttered and locked? Rest.
Each morning, as we start over, we check back in with ourselves. How is the window today? Do we feel a little more settled? Could we see the window cracking a bit, or even some sunshine coming through the curtains?
When I wake in the morning, I try to avoid my phone first thing. It’s too easy to be quickly triggered or sucked into a thought process I’m not prepared to engage. And part of my morning routine is to pull out my faithful journal. I’ll reflect on how well I slept, any dreams or anxieties that arose, and how I think I’ll be able to approach the day ahead. I’ll often list my plans for the day and the emotions already connected to those events, because maybe there’s some information in my gut responses that I overlooked.
And as often happens, when my morning time is missed or interrupted, I try to remain present. I want to say that I’ve never popped off in sarcasm but of course I have – and those are the moments that I may have overlooked. I could be writing the most hope filled journal entry ever and then snap when my family starts asking questions about breakfast. Well, there’s a sign that I missed something in my own state of mind at the start of the day.
These tools are soft invitations to return to myself. To engage with the person I love to be. To bring awareness to my path and help me course-correct when I feel off center. Recognizing and honoring our window of tolerance is how we start to increase our capacity again, one day at a time.
A bonus bit of coaching, for those of you reading:
This coming week, as you decide to do a little processing, invite wisdom to the table. Get out of your own way by overthinking what could happen, and make a list of the people or situations you’re no longer connected with. This is not something you’ll share with anyone, so get honest with yourself about how you feel. If all you feel is anger, that’s okay. And expected. There is a lot to feel helpless, angry, and grieved about in the world around us right now. Just remember that anger is a secondary emotion. Your anger is valid, but don’t deify the rage – simply give it a chance to breathe and then, ask it to step aside and show you what that anger is protecting you from feeling.
I have a feeling that many of you are thinking, “MANDY! I have enough grief on my plate as it is. I do not want to stir up these broken relationships as well! I can’t handle thinking about them at all!”
I want to tell you that I get it. Your window of tolerance should always be the first thing you check before moving into grief work, without exception. This assignment might be one that you make a note of in your phone or calendar and return to at a later date.
HOWEVER… I would lovingly suggest that the mental overwhelm you are experiencing around your grief – esp. as related to the pandemic – is being compounded by the repeated decision to avoid these ambiguous losses that you’d sooner see swept under the rug. This work is about becoming active in our own stories; not passive in reaction to what happens around us. I love your heart and want to see you living fully in your day to day life. This necessary confrontation is a big part of it.
Practicing little movements back toward ourselves and who we want to be is a huge triumph in our grief story. What feels like the smallest action can have the greatest impact on our restoration through loss. We who grieve know that grief does not come to an end. I wish it did; I wish I could offer you a concrete solution to resolve the unresolvable problem. But in the meantime, I will continue to invite you to look again toward yourself, your faith, your circle of support, and anything else where you are experiencing relief. Those are the resources and people who can become window washers, if you will. The ones who will help restore clarity to your story as you process for yourself, and begin to invite them to see from your point of view as well.