In and Out of the Window of Tolerance

I’ve started several posts over the past couple of weeks, but I haven’t been able to finish them. I run out of steam, or I get distracted, or my mood changes, I pause what I am writing, and by the time I come back to it, my head is somewhere else entirely.

I wouldn’t say I’ve been feeling lousy for the whole time since becoming triggered in a sex therapy session two weeks ago. I’ve had some good moments too: an art class with friends, an idyllic summer day at the beach with husband and dogs, the first ripe tomatoes from my garden. But a lot of the time my energy and focus have been low. I’ve spent too much time in bed.

Damn, it’s sad and pathetic how much time I spend in bed sometimes.

Today I saw Marie, the sex therapist, for the first time since that last session. We talked about my reaction afterwards, and I asked her if we could try to avoid leaving me so activated at the end of a session. It felt like a reasonable request, given that I have only had one other session with her where I left feeling triggered, and that wasn’t as bad as this more recent one.

But no, alas, she couldn’t promise me that. “I think we touched a part that is very important,” she said. “What shall we call that part?”

“I don’t know. It doesn’t have a name. We can just call it a wounded part,” I said.

“A wounded part? Not the wounded part? Not the core wound? That’s what it seemed like to me,” she observed.

“Maybe,” I said. “Though sometimes I think it’s the attachment wound which is the core wound. I don’t know. Maybe they are the same? Or interrelated?”

Since neither of us could determine that, we left it as “a wounded part,” for now. At any rate, Marie said it’s inevitable that a deeply wounded, hidden part will be triggered by the healing work. But we can be mindful about how we work. On days when I already feel depleted, we can decide not to undertake the work. When we do take it on, we can check in about how I am feeling and pause or stop if needed. We can always leave 15 minutes at the end to try to close things up as much as possible.

It’s weird. I have been working on this stuff with E since probably the fall of 2014. And here I am, five years later, doing it with Marie. True, I’m not in the same place. I’ve already learned so much from E, and I’ve really built up both a lot of resources for caring for myself and a lot of resilience about various other traumatic experiences. But this “core wound,” if that’s what it is, it’s not really shifted much at all.

I suppose that’s why I am working with Marie. This part has a lot of defenses and is deeply tied into my sexuality, and I carry a lot of shame about it that makes it hard to even approach the topic. As supportive as E has been, she hasn’t had the specific expertise that’s allowed me to bring a healing light to this wound. Sometimes that has led me to think it’s not capable of being healed. Marie doesn’t believe that. She’s sure it can heal. I’m not sure, but for now I’ll try to lean on her conviction and behave as though I believed that, too.

I do feel a little discouraged this evening, however. The idea of spending still more months grappling with painful emotions and intense body sensations tied to fragmented or imagined memories–that has literally zero appeal. Marie has said it could take a while, and that we should work slowly to reduce the destabilizing effect.

I do have the hope of one possible shortcut: Marie has wondered about the possibility of EMDR for this trauma. She doesn’t do EMDR, and neither does E, so this means bringing in yet another therapist, Elaine, someone they both know and trust. I’m supposed to talk to her on the phone tomorrow and see what I think.

Meanwhile, I have days when I get a bit of work done and days when I don’t. Thank goodness I’m only working part-time, but even so, I’m not working as much as I should. I spend too much time staring off into space or drawing or doing brainless activities, like cleaning out thousands of old emails.

Today Marie and I reviewed a diagram of the window of tolerance and what it means to be outside of it. I’ve seen it before, but not with the more detailed focus on hypo- and hyper-arousal.

graphic entitled Symptoms of Un-Discharged Traumatic Stress, showing the window of tolerance (normal range) and what it is to be hyper and hypo aroused

Over the last few years, I have spent a lot of time in that state of hypo-arousal. And then again these past couple of weeks, I seem to have settled back in there. It takes an effort sometimes not to judge myself, not to call myself lazy and unproductive when I’m like that. But I think I’ll print out this diagram and put it up where I can see it. “Look,” I can tell my critical voice, “It’s called a trauma response, and it’s a real thing. Other people have it, too. It’s not a character flaw. It’s a normal human response to abnormal experiences.”

And I may have to repeat that message a few times.


    • I agree (but sometimes fall into it anyway). I’ve also found that I need to be gentle and forgiving even with my name-calling parts, if that makes sense. E has sometimes told me to talk back to Doubt (“I’m willing to listen to what you have to say, but I won’t tolerate this bullying behavior…”) and I’ve found that doesn’t work for me. Even when Doubt says, “You are exaggerating,” or “You made it all up,” it doesn’t work for me to respond with anger or outrage. I need to be much more understanding and approach that part with understanding and acceptance: “Wow, I see how worried / agitated / passionate you are about this. What is it you need?” It seems like every part of me aches for kindness and validation–anything else, and it either spins out or collapses in despair.

      Liked by 1 person

      • What you are saying makes sense: force prompts resistance. Fight with doubt, and doubt fights back. The kindness you talk about prompts trust…I’m not a name caller, but I find the emotions happen in the absence of words. Thinking, (for example) that I’m being lazy happens so fast, I don’t see it, but I notice feeling sad about it. It helps me to be aware of my intentions. I’m not trying to make myself feel bad. I’m trying to get out of bed–or whatever it is. Maybe there are other ways of doing that. At home, I learned anger as a motivator. It’s not the only one.

        Liked by 1 person

  1. “Look,” I can tell my critical voice, “It’s called a trauma response, and it’s a real thing. Other people have it, too. It’s not a character flaw. It’s a normal human response to abnormal experiences.”

    YES. This. Learning this, to tell myself this, and to believe my therapist when he has said this—this has been a crucial element of my journey toward liberation.

    I am doing EMDR. It is incredibly challenging and painful but it is also transformative. It has changed my life. I have successfully processed one instance of sexual trauma, and I’m am currently processing (yet another) sexual trauma. I have a lot of things to say about EMDR. When I started EMDR and researched it, the accounts I found didn’t necessarily resemble my experience. I’ll refrain from unsolicited advice but I’m happy to discuss it or answer questions if you want. And if you don’t want, that’s fine too. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. FYI, this is Empress again, posting under my new account. I forgot to add my gratitude for your sharing that window of tolerance chart. I’m saving it, printing it out, and taping it to the inside of my journal.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I realize you wrote this a while ago, but I just found your new blog Q! So very courageous of you to try working with a sex therapist. I would be fearfully triggered as well – not sure how you do it. And the window of tolerance concept is a thing in my new therapy – I too get stuck in the hypo end of it for the most part.

    Also, it seems very positive that Marie believes these deep and old wounds can be healed, despite your doubts. Sometimes we need others to hold hope for us.


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