(Note: The title of this blog post was lifted from a song by the Mountain Goats that has been getting a lot of play in my life lately. Scroll to the end of this post to listen to the song.)
A friend recently shared with me a piece of writing by Rupi Kaur, a writer and artist based in Toronto. She wrote this piece at the end of 2014, but it speaks to the year that 2016 has been for many of us:
“it has been one of the greatest and most difficult years of my life. i learned everything is temporary. moments. feelings. people. flowers. i learned love is about giving. everything. and letting it hurt. i learned vulnerability is always the right choice because it is easy to be cold in a world that makes it so very difficult to remain soft...we must learn to focus on warm energy. always. soak our limbs in it and become better lovers to the world. for if we can’t learn to be kinder to each other how will we ever learn to be kinder to the most desperate parts of ourselves.”
The past year has been one of tremendous loss for many of my clients, family and friends - from life-altering diagnoses and the death of loved ones to the end of long-term relationships and serious financial crises. Here in western North Carolina, the forests where many of us find solace erupted in wildfires that blanketed the region in thick smoke - a reminder that even the ancient trees and species unique to southern Appalachia are vulnerable to the winds of destruction that are sweeping through the end of this year. In the another part of the state, lawmakers in Raleigh concocted their own form of destruction, dismantling the authority of the state Governor’s office to prevent the fairly-elected governor from exercising his power. The same week we watched in horror as Syrians in east Aleppo shared farewell messages on social media as bombs rained down around them. The year 2016 has seen the rise of a political administration that promises to keep the most vulnerable among us - immigrants, black and brown people, queer and trans people - directly in its cross-hairs.
Taken individually, these losses are heartbreaking. Combined they are enough to completely overwhelm our capacity to breathe, to function, and to share the unique gifts we each have to offer our wounded world. Renowned psychiatrist and educator Dr. Dan Siegel explains that each of our nervous systems has a uniquely calibrated “window of tolerance.” When that window narrows due to stress or trauma, we can easily find ourselves outside the window of what our nervous system can absorb and integrate. We’re either in the high zone, with the gas pedal of our nervous system stuck on, or in the low zone, where there seems to be a brick on the brakes of our nervous system and we can’t find the gas to get moving. Personal stressors, longstanding patterns of belief and behavior, and the circumstances of our current environment all conspire to compress our window of tolerance and leave us feeling either frantic and fearful or helpless and hopeless. Our most effective actions and communications emerge when we are in the window of tolerance, and, conversely, the harmful patterns of blame, judgment, criticism, and isolation are born from the overwhelming experience of being outside the window.
Luckily, there are some things we can do to find our way back into the window of tolerance, where we can think and feel at the same time and connect with others in healthy ways. I’ll list a few that have helped me navigate the chaos of the past few months.
Focus on taking care of yourself. Within the window of tolerance lie our resources. If you’ve been running with the gas pedal stuck on for a while, there’s a good chance that your resources are depleted. Allow yourself to take a break. Rest. Reconnect with yourself. Allow yourself to feel your feelings, even if they not in keeping with the expectations of the season. Be patient with yourself. Ask for help. Turn these practices into a daily self-care routine. Luckily we focus a lot on self-care at Porch Light, so you can find some great tips for taking care of yourself here - 4 Strategies to Find Your Way Back to You, here - Pause-Connect-Unplug, and here - Self Care as a Fundamental Imperative.
Offer kindness and compassion to others. When we’re outside of the window of tolerance, our brains’ social engagement systems go offline. Simply put, there’s lots of brain science behind the reality that we shut down or act like jerks when we’re stressed out and overwhelmed. Once you’ve offered yourself some compassion, see if you can offer that to someone else who might need it. Just by engaging the systems that connect you with others (smiling, making eye contact, laughing, touching), you can reboot your stuck nervous system and find your way back into the window of tolerance.
Don’t believe everything you think. If you pay attention to your thoughts when you’re outside the window, you’ll probably notice a pattern. They’re most likely negative, reactionary, and based in fear. Do your best to resist the temptation to get bogged down in the thoughts that come up when you’re feeling overwhelmed. Instead, focus on taking care of yourself until you’re able to experience the more positive thoughts that go along with being in your window of tolerance.
Once you’re back in the window of tolerance, notice what actions you might be able to take to create the world you want to live in. One of my practice specialties is working with members of the trans community, and one simple, tangible action I focus on daily is respecting people’s pronouns. It just takes a little bit of effort my part and makes a world of difference in the lives of the trans and gender nonconforming people around me, who may be struggling to return to their own window of tolerance.
Some of the losses we experience can’t be prevented, but we can control how we show up for ourselves and others when the going gets tough. If you’re among one of those groups in the cross-hairs of violence and hatred, remember that, in the words of Audre Lorde, caring for yourself “is not self-indulgence, it is self-preservation, and that is an act of political warfare.”
Here’s some traveling music for the final leg of our journey to 2017. May you be gentle with yourself and others in the weeks ahead.
Heather Branham, LCSW, specializes in helping individuals, couples, and families navigate the complexities of gender, sexuality, and family building.