The necessity of honoring your “Window of Tolerance” without guilt
We stand now during a pandemic poised to make radical changes in how we see ourselves and the world. With our lives indefinitely in flux, we are seeing how mothers are expected to bear the brunt for the sake of the cohesion of culture and family. In Jessica Valenti’s article “The Pandemic Isn’t Forcing Moms Out of the Workforce — Dads Are,” she says, “It’s true that the unprecedented impact of COVID-19 is already having an outsized impact on American moms, but that’s not purely because of the virus itself — it’s because the country has seemingly given up on the idea that fathers will step up and do an equal share of parenting, even if it would save their wives’ careers.”
In her article in Harper Magazine, “Women aren’t nags We’re just fed up,” Gemma Hartly explores in detail the vast asymmetry of emotional labor that women do in the home, and how men dismiss this feedback as a personal attack rather than as their responsibility to show up as equal partners. “The Myth of the Male Bumbler” explains the frustrating issue that even though men claim brilliance in the realm of work, they feign helplessness in household tasks such as making doctor’s appointments for the kids, folding laundry or cleaning, leaving it all on women’s shoulders.
It’s clear that becoming equal partners (not just helpers) is going to require a fundamental transformation of how men see themselves, and it will require inner work that many men are simply not willing to do. It’s easier to pretend to be helpless and apologize later than to do the steady work of examining and dismantling one’s male privilege. Many men will take the easier route. But women can’t wait for men to change. What inner work do we need to do as women to liberate ourselves in these situations?
As women living in a patriarchal culture, many of us have been conditioned into a pattern over-functioning and over-working, in which our worth feels tied to how much we do for others. We may know we’re going beyond our limits, but feel we do not have a choice to do it otherwise.
This isn’t true only in the context of men and women. I would say that any woman in the world is involved in a daily struggle for her own energy. This may take the form of caring for an elderly parent, being a single mother, managing one’s own chronic illness or navigating the internal daily pressure that comes with healing one’s own childhood trauma. Many are feeling stretched without enough support.
From a very early age, girls are taught to ignore their internal signals and boundaries. These messages often start with confusing messages about our bodies. Messages such as, “If a boy hurts or taunts you, it means he likes you.” It could take the form of adults ignoring your protests to stop touching your body (tickling, playing, hitting). Not to mention the relentless diet culture and media focus on women’s bodies and attractiveness. There is also the impact of watching one’s mother cope with society’s “superhuman standards” for motherhood, perhaps pushing herself to the exhaustion, feeling the overwhelm, and for some, the resignation and despair. Witnessing that no matter how much she did, it never seemed enough to herself, to other people, or to the culture’s gaze. In response to these messages, some daughters opt-out and rebel entirely from the pressure, while others may exhaust themselves on the hamster wheel of people-pleasing and experience some form of exhaustion, chronic fatigue, burnout, or collapse.
Women are conditioned to “self-abandon” from birth
Growing up, I learned that being a “good person” meant always saying yes to helping people with their problems. I had learned that a noble person puts others first and works very hard. I had no model for boundaries or how to say a healthy No. My parents were so overwhelmed and absorbed in their own problems that there wasn’t much soothing, presence, or emotional reassurance. I felt like a small adult; it wasn’t until decades later that I realized I had never actually identified as a child. I was rewarded for over-achieving, being very mature for my age, handling adult problems, and discussing adult issues. Merging with what my parents expected of me was equivalent to survival. Having limits, needs, or being confused or upset were cause for withdrawal or humiliation. To survive, it’s as though I turned off that internal signal for when I was reaching a limit or boundary.
As a young woman, the only time I really allowed myself to rest was when I would have no choice but to collapse in exhaustion. I was so high-functioning that I did not see myself as a trauma survivor. I was praised for my achievements and helpful personality. I was so out of touch with where my limits were and conditioned to ignore them for love and approval. My normal mode was pushing, striving, and struggling for the next thing. Parentification had warped my expectations for myself; they were way out of proportion to what I could comfortably attain and when I couldn’t meet them, I felt shame. As an adult, it’s been enormously empowering to listen to my exhaustion, to learn to hear those signals that a limit is approaching and act accordingly, slowing down, stopping, or saying no on a regular basis. It’s taken a long time to see my limits NOT as a personal shortcoming, but as a neutral fact of being human.
So, what is your “Window of Tolerance?”
This phrase was coined by author and psychiatrist Daniel J. Siegel, M.D. to describe that sweet spot in which we are not overwhelmed (hyper-aroused) and not spacing out (hypo-aroused) to cope, but generally feeling calm, comfortable, and connected. We feel in control, safe, grounded, emotionally regulated, and able to easily soothe ourselves.
A fact of being human is that all of us have a limit in which we go outside our window of tolerance and for trauma survivors, it can be smaller than average.
Historically, women have long suffered from—and yet have been expected to collectively pick up the slack—for dysfunctional institutions that are not set up to honor us.
Whether the institutions be marriage, healthcare, education, religion, or governments, they depend on the females’ willingness to do what must be done, to please and provide for our families, to somehow fill the gap against incredible odds. One could say the world rests on the backs of tired women, especially tired, poor women of color. On a more macro level, in America, it seems that all that “caring professions,” such as childcare, teaching, nursing, and housekeeping are “feminized,” meaning populated mainly with under-paid women dealing with substandard conditions.
What would happen if millions of women started to honor their window of tolerance? No longer forcing themselves to stretch beyond their limits?
This would mean peeling off the familial and cultural projections and declaring the unvarnished truth:
- As a human being, I am limited in what I can do, handle and be. I am aware of my “window of tolerance” and I consciously choose to honor it.
- This is a neutral fact; I don’t feel guilt or shame about this.
- I refuse to be bullied or manipulated into stretching beyond my limits by family and culture because it’s futile and only creates more pain. The cycle ends with me.
The most revolutionary thing is women’s connection with other women.
We know men have much inner work to do but we can’t wait for them to be willing to do it. The bottom line is that our salvation lies with other women. Part of this involves getting quality support for the long-term from as many sources as possible, including professionally from a therapist, from friends and communities of women who get it and are also on this path. White women must use their privilege and platforms to amplify this issue and the voices of women of color who have long been bearing the heaviest brunt of this imbalance.
We must grieve that as females living in a patriarchy, we’ve had to abandon ourselves over and over, to survive, to fit in, to get approval. It’s important to make space for this grief, which is part of letting go of the illusion that we’re being un-compassionate to others when we say no to honor ourselves. That “either/or” is not real. Grieving gives us the strength to embody the “middle way” that says that compassion and containment go hand in hand, even when others around us disagree.
This is taking boundaries deeper into the body. It comes down to the fact that our nervous systems can only handle so much and we ignore this at our own peril. It means listening even more closely to the signals our bodies are sending us, rather than just the thoughts in our minds. It’s about standing behind the wisdom of our bodies AND refusing to be bullied by external pressure (from the culture, from our families) to stretch beyond what is best for us. Our children need to see women owning their limits and holding firm in the face of internal and external pressure. This is a form of teaching resiliency and modeling self-worth to the next generation.
How do we stand by our limits?
- We decide to.
- We listen to our bodies, read the signs and act accordingly.
- We get support from other women who are on this path with us.
- We get creative, looking freshly at options and choices.
- We get fierce; we trust ourselves and let the chips fall where they may.
- We consistently pivot away internally from self-abandoning thoughts and behaviors.
- We stop looking for approval from people who are still coming from a patriarchal worldview and value system.
We all need to experience what life is like without the over-functioning of women. Without this lived experience of what the cost truly is, how much motivation is there for true change to happen? This is a risk we have to take.
Part of this is learning to de-couple one’s sense of worth and safety from the number of things we can accomplish and the number of people we can please or impress. This is also part of psychologically unplugging from the patriarchy, capitalism, and all those dysfunctional institutions that value human production over human wellbeing. The pandemic is in some ways helping us become more aware of our limits, to what we are actually capable of, and to shed any guilt or shame about that.
What it can feel like to be outside your window of tolerance:
- Feeling constantly exhausted. Never actually resting deeply enough to bounce back.
- When you physically rest your mind is still active and restless.
- Feeling foggy, spacey and out of it. People say you seem off.
- Everything feels too much. Small tasks take up a lot of mental space.
- You’re snapping at people around you, feeling reactive and impulsive.
- You’re neglecting your body and self-care.
- You’re just trying to “get through the day”.
- There are daily fights with your spouse, partner or kids.
- Anxiety is through the roof.
- Time passes but you’re not clear on what you accomplished.
We all have moments like this, even those of us who are not trauma survivors. The difference is when these situations are ongoing, with no relief in sight, and compounded by many of them at once. When we’re constantly triggered, overwhelmed, or disassociated, it’s impossible to get traction with much beyond immediate daily survival. This is an unsustainable way to live. It can lead to relationship problems, health issues, and more.
Things you can do in the moment: How to build awareness of your window of tolerance
If you notice yourself feeling spacey, disassociating, numbed out, bored, flat (hypo-aroused), try these energizing techniques:
- Movement or dancing.
- Taking a walk in nature, noticing the sounds, smells, sights.
- Rocking in a chair.
- Smelling essential oils.
- Splashing some refreshing cold water on your face.
- Doing some short burst of physical activity like jumping jacks.
If you notice yourself feeling hypervigilant, agitated or overwhelmed (hyper-aroused), try these grounding techniques:
- Warm (or weighted) blanket.
- Soothing, calming music.
- Comforting foods & drinks like tea or hot chocolate.
- Some kind of craft or art, like coloring or painting.
- Looking at nature, wind in the trees, bees in flowers, clouds in sky, etc.
- Deep breathing and stretching.
This process takes time, like learning the roadmap of our own internal systems.
As we explore, learn, and integrate over time, we can better read the signals from our bodies and make adjustments accordingly. We become more regulated, more resilient, and self-attuned. Gradually, we start to have much more energy, more empowerment, and more clarity.
Sovereignty – Mantras for owning your window of tolerance:
- I accept my limits and honor them. I get to say no without guilt.
- Honoring my limits is a form of self-love.
- Honoring my limits is my responsibility and I’m always at choice.
- My worth is not tied to people liking me or how much I do for them.
- It’s OK if my limits don’t match up with others. I honor my own separate experience.
- I refuse to push or force myself to do things that feel outside my Window of Tolerance.
- Only I can know what my limits are, no one else can decide that for me.
Things you can say to your inner child:
- “Your feelings make total sense to me. Of course, you would feel this way given what you’ve been through.”
- “You’re not powerless or trapped anymore, even though it may feel like it in moments. We always have choices now. “
- “I’m with you now as your Adult Self to help you, to speak out for you and protect you.”
- “You’re not alone anymore. You don’t have to handle things on your own. I’m here to help and support you every day.”
- “You can rest in me. I’m your Adult Self and I’m here to do the adult stuff. You can be a child now.”
- “I’m always with you. You’ll never be abandoned again.”
- “There’s more than enough care and reassurance for you now.”
- “I love taking care of you. Your needs and feelings matter to me.”
Energies for honoring your window of tolerance:
- Generosity and Gentleness with yourself.
- Lots of grace and compassion.
- Non-judgment. Not trying to fix or change yourself.
- Kindness, allowing yourself to be as you are.
- Slow, honoring your own rhythm and pace.
- Mindfulness, really being in the moment.
- Patience and flexibility, letting go of rigidity.
- No longer prioritizing what other people think.
- The energy of “Being With”.
- Calm observation and loving curiosity.
- Allowing people to have their own feelings and not taking it personally.
- Sovereignty: You are the authority and expert on yourself, no one else.
Honoring one’s window of tolerance looks different for everyone.
It may take many forms, big and small, such as…
- Declining an exciting offer or work project that you know will make your schedule too crammed.
- Listening to your gut when it says not to do something, even if you don’t know why.
- Telling your spouse you need a break or separation for a while.
- Decreasing your workload or taking some time off work.
- Creating a communal childcare arrangement with neighbors or other parents so you can get a reliable break.
- Deciding to let your kids play outside instead of doing more schoolwork.
- Ordering takeout instead of cooking dinner.
- Deciding to let the laundry sit so you can take a walk instead.
- Choosing to spend time with your partner instead of cleaning the house.
- Turning off the phone so you can lay down for 30 minutes without interruption.
- Choosing not answering the call of a friend who constantly needs support; letting it go to voicemail.
- Making the decision to communicate openly with your partner about your limits and how to negotiate together as a team.
- Setting a timer for your time online and sticking to it.
- Planning to invest the time to find a good therapist so you can get the support you need.
- Asking for support right when you need it, not waiting until you are approaching a crisis moment.
- Deciding not to have another child.
- Making arrangements to go stay somewhere else for a weekend so you can really rest and recover; Perhaps making this a regular thing.
- Committing to a practice of journaling every morning so that your day goes better.
- Checking in with your inner child in the morning and evening.
- Leaving your marriage.
- Leaving your job.
- Decreasing contact with dysfunctional family members.
- Going low-contact with friends who are high maintenance.
These are not popular decisions in the American culture of showing no weakness, having no boundaries and feeling the pressure to do it all with a smile on our faces. Honoring our window of tolerance is a form of dismantling the destructive “grind” culture that pervades so much of the media we consume, telling us that we constantly have to do, have and be…more.
Awareness of our Window of Tolerance is a powerful form of Inner Mothering.
The child in us who was overwhelmed or disassociated and didn’t have enough emotional support to stay in her window of tolerance gets the attunement and care she needs NOW from your adult self. Over time, this builds inner trust and safety, a firm inner bond for incredible empowerment and growth in your life.
Now is the time to reclaim your window of tolerance and truly honor it.
This bears repeating: Owning one’s limits is not a cause for shame or guilt. There will be a backlash when we honor our limits and stand by them. Stand strong.
The world of “I can’t” is NOT a world of collapse or resignation, but a world of energy, clarity, and empowerment borne through consciously choosing to honor the legitimacy of our limits.
It’s re-claiming our bodies, our capacities, and ultimately our ownership of ourselves. As we scale back, others will be stimulated to own their un-explored capacities, which will ultimately be empowering and life-giving for everybody.
To stand by our own limits in the spirit of fierce and loving protection of ourselves and other women, we are also standing up for the earth, the mother of us all, who also has her own limits.
In owning our window of tolerance, we stand in allyship with all women and with the Earth.
The bottom line is that for women in 2020, the buck stops here.
Something, someone else has got to give.
Now back to you — have you been feeling pushed outside of your Window of Tolerance lately?
If so, how?
What are some inner signals and messages that you’ve been ignoring because you felt you had no other choice?
What would it be like to take some action as soon as you hear that signal instead of waiting until it feels like a crisis? What would typically stop you?
What can you do now to honor that limit and begin come back into your window of tolerance?
What would that look like in the short term, in the longer term?
Check out these books by Dan Siegal:
Pocket Guide to Interpersonal Neurobiology: An Integrative Handbook of the Mind (2012)
Mindsight: The New Science of Personal Transformation Daniel Seigel (2010)
Please consider buying these books from a bookstore owned by a woman of color. Here’s a list of bookstores by state.
Photo by Andreas Dress on Unsplash