Ken, a client of mine, is the newest person working in a venture that provides employment training and placement services to unemployed and under-employed individuals. He is the operations manager for the largest site of the several locations run by the organization. He experienced a running start, with little opportunity to sit back and review his situation, as the organization operates in an intense mode pretty much all the time, with various programs ramping up, starting, completing, with competing space and staffing requirement high on the list of issues requiring immediate attention. The organization has several key partners and multiple other stakeholders who must be attended to as part of program planning and operations. In his role as operations manager, Ken is responsible for both the smooth running of day to day operations, as well as oversight of the organization’s budget, which requires a strategic perspective. While he has a critical and senior role at his site, and the financial training and savvy under his belt to support this, he notices that in meetings with several key stakeholders, he consistently feels that they walk in on the defensive, assuming he is not being forthcoming with them, as well as their seeming to doubt his legitimacy, given both his lack of seniority in the organization and in years of experience in their particular field.
Ken has a regularly scheduled meeting with these individuals to discuss issues relevant to all of them. He is responsible for setting the meeting’s agenda and facilitating the meeting. Even though he goes into the meeting prepared, he notices that he gets “hooked” or “triggered” by what he perceives as their consistent negative assessments of him. This has become problematic for Ken because he finds that in the face of his getting triggered, he loses his “cool”. He doesn’t get angry (visibly at least) or fly off the handle. Rather, his confidence gets shaken, and he finds that he sometimes gets flustered, and becomes less able to respond to their concerns with the depth and clarity that would establish him as their equal. Said another way, in these moments, he loses access to his sense of his resourcefulness – the depth of his intelligence, his ability to respond in the moment, his usual easy sense of connecting and relating.
The Window of Tolerance
Most of us can probably relate in our own way to what Ken experienced. We find ourselves in situations where we are “triggered” or “hooked”. We find ourselves in a place that is emotionally uncomfortable (anxious, angry, frustrated, you name it!), taking actions that are not necessarily the most useful or beneficial to us, the work we are committed to, or the others involved. And, more often than not, we experience “finding” ourselves there. It’s kind of like we arrive after the experience is upon us. And, even when we recognize that we are in this kind of situation, we are unable to get ourselves “out” of it, and we feel like we’ve lost access to our more usual creativity, intelligence, energy, ability to connect, and resilience.
We all have a “window of tolerance” – our capacity to stay present and operate with more or less full access to all our internal resources. When we are within that window, we function pretty well to great! When we find ourselves outside that window, we have gone beyond our current capacity at that moment to stay present. We often flip into a fight, flight or freeze mode. When we are in that mode, a different part of our brain takes over. And that part of the brain has us focus on our survival – How can I be safe? We may find ourself getting defensive (fight), withdrawing (fleeing), or closing down (freezing). (See the resources below if you are interested in a longer discussion of this.) When we find ourselves outside our window, our conditioned tendencies have been triggered. We find ourselves tightening, contracting, mobilizing in one way or another rather than being present in the situation as it is unfolding.
Since we we don’t always (or usually) get to choose who we work with, and certainly don’t get to control how circumstances unfold (even with the best of planning), how can we work with this kind of triggering that inevitably happens, if it compels us to act in ways that are counterproductive to accomplishing what we are committed to, as well as inconsistent with the way we’d like to show up as a colleague?
Expanding Your Window of Tolerance: The Edges of Your Comfort Zone Here’s how I worked with Ken. First, I had him take a few deep breaths. I asked him to recall an experience at work where he felt access to all of his resourcefulness and had him hang out with that for about 30 seconds or so. Then, I shared with him that I was going to ask him to recall being in one of those meetings in which he found himself triggered “outside his window” – when he felt that feeling of being frustrated, out of touch with his ability to respond effectively, feeling small, dismissed and ineffective. But before he “went there”, I asked him to imagine that he had his hand on a dial, like the dial on a gas stove, where he had the ability to turn the flame up and down. I shared with him, that as he was recalling the meeting, he could at any moment control the “heat” of the feeling it evoked in him. He could turn it up or down. I encouraged him turn it up high enough so he could feel the heat, but not enough that he burned himself. And, he could turn it down at any time. The idea here is that he find the intensity that evoked the just the edge of his comfort zone.
With this control in his awareness, he recalled his most recent meeting. I asked him to describe what he was experiencing, checking to see if he had his “flame” at the right intensity level. Could he feel it? Was it too high, about to overwhelm him? Was it too low, where there was no challenge involved for him? In his imagination he played around with adjusting the intensity level. He settled in a bit to “hanging out” with the experience. I asked, “What are you noticing? What emotions? What sensations in your body? What kinds of thoughts?” He shared a noticeable tightening in his chest, a sense of withdrawing, fear, anxiousness, a impulse to run away. I kept checking on the intensity of his experience. He adjusted the flame in his imagination from time to time for the few minutes of the exercise. He hung out with it a bit more. Then I asked him to return to the experience at work where he felt access to his resourcefulness, and had him finish up by hanging out there.
I encouraged Ken to repeat this exercise himself each day for the next couple of weeks as he walked to work.
The point here is that by hanging out at the edge, Ken is able to expand his window of tolerance. Rather than trying to avoid the experience that triggers him, he is learning to stay with it. But he’s doing in an incremental, kind and gentle way. No making himself withstand something too strong, no requiring himself to “break through” or “tough it out.” Rather the mood of this kind of exercise is more of akin to massaging a tight muscle. It may take a while before it relaxes. But when it does, you can sure feel the difference!
Doing this kind of exercise helps us have to avoid less and less of life, as we are able to stay present to more and more of the experience we encounter.
Let me be clear, if Ken’s colleagues are being inappropriate with him, this does not preclude his dealing with that. But his chances of dealing with them effectively are far greater if he is “in his window” vs.his being “outside his window” and activated.
What you can do: Finding and working with your edges
You can work with expanding your own window of tolerance by experimenting with the kind of exercise I offered to Ken.
How to orient yourself: Kindness, gentleness, patience and encouragement
First, a key element is your orientation toward yourself in doing the exercise. I can’t emphasize enough that it’s important to have a orientation of kindness, gentleness, patience and encouragement toward yourself in doing this kind of exercise. While you are certainly challenging yourself, doing this with in the right spirit makes all the difference. Doing this kind of exercise with harshness and/or impatience is not helpful and will just end up being discouraging and potentially hurtful to yourself.
What to do:
Identify a situation in your life where you find yourself triggered “outside your window”. Does it matter to you? That it matters is critical! If it doesn’t matter to you, if the consequences of your behavior are not significant enough, you probably won’t bring forth the wherewithal to stay with the exercise. So, pick something that matters – where expanding your window of tolerance would make a significant enough difference to make your effort worthwhile.
Find a place where you can sit undisturbed for 5 minutes or so. I suggest you do this exercise sitting down. Sit in a comfortable position, feeling your feet on the floor, your buttocks on the chair or couch you are sitting on. Place your hands gently on your thighs. It’s very helpful to have a sense of a strong foundation under you. If you’d like, you can try to do this while you are walking. If you choose to do it that way, begin by feeling your legs and feet under you. Walking makes it a bit more complicated, if you are also trying to navigate your way. But, it’s certainly do-able.
Now, take a few deep breaths to settle your body.
Recall in your imagination a memory of a time when you were in touch with a full sense of your capacity – your intelligence, creativity, ability to respond effective, effectively navigate your circumstances. Let yourself sense into that. What was the situation? What does that feel like in your body? What emotions are present? What images and/or thoughts come to mind? Hang out with that for 30 seconds or so.
Now, imagine in your mind that you have a dial in front of you. It’s like the dial on a gas stove that lets you control the intensity of the flame. Imagine turning it up and down to test it out, to make sure you are comfortable using it. You’ll be using it in the next several steps of the exercise.
Now, recall a time when you experienced finding yourself triggered in the way that you identified earlier. What was the situation? Where were you? Who was there? What did it feel like? What emotions were present? At this point, check in with yourself. Is it too intense? If so, turn down the flame! Turn it down until you can felt some heat, but it is tolerable. Enough intensity so that there is a level of challenge you can hang out with.
When you’ve found the right level of intensity, hang out with it. Continue to review the situation in your mind. What sensations do you feel in your body? What emotions are present for you? Hang out with this for a minute or two, with a focus on continuing to sense into your body.
Now, return your awareness to the memory of when you were in touch with a full sense of your resourcefulness. Hang out there for 30 seconds or so.
Take a few moments to reflect on your experience of the exercise. What was that like for you? What did you learn? How does it feel in your body?
When working with this kind of exercise, it is best to repeat it over a period of time, as this has the effect of “massaging” the edge of your window. It takes repetition over time to relax the edge. Plan on repeating the exercise several times a week for a couple of weeks, or more, depending on the issue.
Remember to approach the exercise in a spirit of kindness, gentleness, patience and encouragement toward yourself!
If you are interested I learning more:
How We Get Hooked and How We Get Unhooked, by Pema Chodron,
- Mindsight, by Daniel Siegel (Bantam Books, 2011)
Window of Toleranceby Shirley Stratton Dorritie, MA