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Self-Knowledge • Mood

The Window of Tolerance

When we think of what it means to feel mentally well, we often picture exuberance or excitement. But what really defines our optimal moments is that they are ones in which we are able to feel stable – that is, to take things in our stride and to be neither weary nor fearful, bored nor manic. The goal of psychological life could be said to be stability.

It’s unfortunate therefore how rarely we pay close attention to our levels of stability. We seldom directly interrogate ourselves as to the steadiness of our state of mind – and so allow our moods to yoyo and veer, swinging between extremes without studying what activities, people, places and thoughts have the power to push us beyond our limits.

It is in this context that we might lean on one of the most useful and simple concepts in modern psychology, the idea of the window of tolerance. This proposes that all of us have parameters within which we can operate comfortably, with a sense of competence and security, adequacy and spiritedness. Challenges may come our way, but we can engage with them collectedly; they aren’t going to be the end of us and everything we care for. We might feel tired, but we know how to offer ourselves the rest and calm we require to recover. Something or someone is proving very frustrating, but we don’t veer into rage – animated by a terror that everything is falling apart. We can pull a wry smile and forge on. We are under pressure, but we don’t have an impression of being persecuted. There’s some gossip circulating about us, but we’ll get on top of it mentally and find strategies to cope. We’d like to have achieved more but we aren’t going to tear ourselves apart. We might be in high spirits but we don’t slip over into risky ebullience. Our moods are ebbing and flowing within a sustainable range. We are – as the psychologists would say – living safely within our window of competence. 

We could picture a dial within the dashboard of our minds a little like an airplane’s altitude indicator, where our mood moves up and down between two lines indicating our safe parameters. Above the top line lies everything that feels overwhelming: this is where we slip into terror, hypervigilance, mania, guilt or shame. And below the bottom line lies everything that renders us uncomfortably numb: states of debilitating loneliness, boredom, deadness and alienation. 

If we are fortunate, our moods will deflect sustainably between the two lines, sometimes coming a little close to overwhelming, sometimes near to numbness, but always remaining within a harmonious window. But for many of us, one way to conceive of our troubles is that we are continually, in one way or another, smashing through the mental window – without even necessarily being aware of the zigzagging involved. The morning might start well but by midday, something has triggered a breach and we are soon in a zone of high anxiety and self-persecution – which is then followed, a few hours later, by mute sensations of loneliness and despair. We feel tossed from one extreme to another. Life is an uncomfortable storm. 

Remaining within our window of tolerance is a skill – and those of us who find it easy to be there probably learnt the art of self-regulation in childhood, by having been closely coached by a loving adult. This person (who would themselves have know how to remain within their window) will have been on hand at moments when we felt terrified and would have known how to make the world feel manageable again. We would have trusted them, and they would have helped us to deal, with incipient feelings of shame or guilt. They would have sensed when it was getting too much and we were exhausted or needed to be held calmly for a while. Likewise, they would picked up on our feelings of numbness when suppressed anger or self-hatred were blocking our ability to be authentic and purposeful. 

Luckily, even if we lacked such a person, the skill can be learnt. The first step is to get a picture of the window of tolerance in our minds and to develop the habit of looking at it constantly, much as a good pilot will keep their altitude indicator always in view. We should learn to determine at all points of the day what sort of direction our mood is heading in – and when we sense that we are on a slightly overly-aggressive trajectory towards the top or bottom borders, at the earliest moment, should take light aversive action, as though we were playing a particular kind of psychological video game.

For this manoeuvre, we need to start to notice what in our way of life threatens – often insidiously – to send us out of the window of tolerance – and everything that we know can bring us back into it. Through a lot of self-observation and introspection, we might realise – for example – that spending too much time on social media, seeing a particularly competitive acquaintance, visiting a demanding family member, dating new people, attending parties, drinking, watching pornography, interacting with a certain colleague are all at risk of sending us beyond our window – and should therefore be undertaken only with the greatest care and in limited doses. At the same time, we should observe and cultivate everything with the power to bring us back into our window: long hot baths, early bedtimes, sexual moderation, reading history books, astronomy, conversations with a therapist, walks in nature, light meals, Stoic philosophy, a lot of time on our own with a diary and a trusted kind friend who knows about suffering. Remaining vigilant about our course through the window of tolerance might require us to be rather firm with ourselves and others. At points, we might need to moderate our people-pleasing impulses in the name of saving our own minds.

We might also start to tune into the windows of tolerance of those around us. We might stop trying to have certain difficult conversations with people when they are obviously far too in breach of their limits to listen to us and we might feel more compassion for people who aren’t simply ‘evil’ or ‘mad’, but are temporarily, for reasons we can guess at, operating in the far extremes of their windows. We need to keep this dial on the emotional dashboard of humanity always in our sights – and do everything we can to stay artfully within its safe parameters.

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