Thermostats, Thermometers and the Window of Tolerance

If you’ve ever been in an environment where there was a set temperature that you didn’t have control of, whether it was a freezing office building, or a boiling dorm room in college, you have some appreciation for the importance of a thermostat. It sets the temperature.

Now a thermometer has a different job. A thermometer reads the temperature of something and turns to that temperature. It reacts based on its environment.

In life, we have moments when we are either the thermometer or the thermostat, reacting to our surroundings or setting our temperature and responding how we’d like to. What this generally depends on is our window of tolerance. 

Everyone has a window of tolerance—or in other words, the amount of space we have to accept our experiences, emotions and circumstances. When we are inside of our window of tolerance, we are able to think and feel simultaneously, be present, and can feel open, curious, and safe. When we are in our window of tolerance, we are able to be a thermostat, set the temperature for ourselves, adjusting in a measured way, deciding how we want to respond. 

When our window of tolerance is too small to hold our experience, and we go out of our window of tolerance, we become like a thermometer—we react based on the experience at hand.

Being out of the window of tolerance can look a couple of different ways. We can be up-regulated and hyper-aroused, which often looks like being generally emotionally reactive, but specifically can include being defensive, feeling overwhelmed, anxiety and panic attacks, hyper-vigilance, anger and rage, and racing thoughts. 

We can also swing to the other end of the spectrum, becoming hypo-aroused and down-regulated. This looks like:

  • Shutting down
  • Feeling numb
  • Feeling disconnected
  • Feeling passive
  • Having no energy
  • Having feelings of depression
  • Feeling as if you just can’t think or focus
  • Choosing avoidance and embracing an “out of sight out of mind” mentality

In these moments, we aren’t necessarily responding to an experience how we would choose to, rather we are reacting to an event, and that often feels out of our control.

In order to have more moments where we get to set the temperature in ourselves as it relates to our experiences and how we interact with others, we need to grow our window of tolerance by learning to sit with difficult emotions. The bigger our window is, the more chance that we will have room to hold and tolerate what comes up for us, and we can choose a response instead of having a reaction.

Written by: Courtney Hintermeyer