The Golden Window of Change

Change is good, but it doesn’t always feel good. Right now you might be looking to the new decade as a chance to make the changes to your life that you’ve been waiting to make – or, you might be looking back at all the changes you wanted to make in the last decade and panicking because they didn’t come to fruition. You might feel like you have to push yourself out of your comfort zone. This idea can be both helpful and hurtful without further consideration.

In Cognitive Behavioural Therapy (more commonly known as CBT) there’s an idea that every person has a ‘window of tolerance’. This is the range of emotions and physical arousal (not the sexy kind – the kind that makes us feel awake, alert, calm, or depressed) that make it easier for us to learn, plan, and act. This is, essentially, your comfort zone. It’s a way of looking at how we’re able to function when we’re feeling good and how we’re able to live good lives when feeling intense emotions.

Everybody’s window of tolerance is different, based on aspects of your life such as personality, circumstances, and physical ability. Some people may feel more at ease with their own anxiety and be able to manage it well, for example, but may struggle to function when experiencing depression.

Image description: A figure showing how a person’s window of tolerance (their ‘comfort zone’), and the emotions outside of it (including flight, fight, and freeze responses), might look. The image came from here.

Based on your personal comfort zone, you will also have a golden window of change – a range of emotions and physical arousal in which you are able to make good changes in your life.

Think of the intensity of your felt emotions on a scale of one to ten, where one is ‘I’m so numb I can’t do anything’ and ten is ‘I’m so emotional I think I’m going to have a heart attack’. Three would be ‘I’m functioning very comfortably’ and eight would be ‘I’m incredibly anxious/angry/scared/excited, but if I take some deep breaths I can steady myself a little’. If you’re very comfortable, it’s difficult to make a change because you’re already feeling chill and relaxed – there’s no ‘push’ to change. At eight, it’s difficult to make a change because you’re too physically and cognitively emotional to think things through well – you might make a mistake.

At points four to seven on your comfort scale, those are good points to make a change – you’re uncomfortable enough to want to make the change, but comfortable enough to actually do it well.

Image description: Berries on a bush in the autumn, turning from orange to red – or is that red to orange?

Some people are going to hit the seven on that scale faster than others, or take more of a push to get them to four, and that’s ok – that’s just how you function. There’s no shame in needing an extra push forwards or a few more minutes to ground yourself before you implement a change.

Some people are also going to move quickly from four to eight (for example, if they start to overthink and become angry or frightened by what’s happening) and will need to take more time to check in with themselves and take extra good care of themselves while they make changes. Even if that means things take longer, you’ll reduce the risk of burnout or fear-based procrastination.

Other people are going to quickly go from seven to three (for example, if they feel excited by the idea of the change but become bored by the practical minutiae of putting changes into practice), and are going to need to spend some time talking about the big picture with friends and maintaining their need and excitement for the change ahead.

Realistically, you’re not going to be able to make a change in your life if the change only ever feels amazing. Change is good, but it’s going to be at least slightly uncomfortable. The discomfort that comes with change is a good sign, though – it won’t last, it’s a sign of growth to come. Keep an eye on the discomfort you feel and make sure it doesn’t turn into boredom, fear, or pain – then it’s time to step away, take a deep breath, and look after yourself as part of the process.

Essentially, if you don’t push yourself out of your comfort zone a little, change is too difficult. Push yourself too far, however, and change is equally impossible. What helps is knowing yourself and treating yourself with kindness so that you can keep making the changes you want to make.

Image description: A window with gold-coloured glass lets light into a beige room.

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