Therapeutic Windows

There are certain basic inventions in the world which help us get by. One of these is the window. Windows are regulators; they help us to regulate our comfort level while inside a building. The walls of houses shelter us from the elements, but we need some of those elements to get through the wall even as others are turned away if we are to be comfortable inside. Rain and cold should be turned away; light and air need to get through. We open windows to let in sunshine and breeze, and close them when the environment gets uncomfortable. In this way, windows offer an opportunity for us to regulate the comfort level of our interior living spaces.

People have 'interiors' that need regulating just as surely as buildings do. A person's interior is formed of their private feelings, thoughts and beliefs. And just as people build windows into their homes so as to let light and air into what would otherwise be dark space, there are also 'windows' of sorts that can be built into people's private feelings, thoughts and beliefs to let in new perspectives, new knowledge and to let out pain. Knowing how such 'psychological windows' work is important for understanding how psychotherapy works.

Traditionally (and particularly in the writings of the gestalt psychotherapists of the 60s and 70s) mental health has been characterized as a state in which people can tolerate a great deal of psychological openness. The idealized mentally healthy person doesn't accumulate a whole lot of emotional 'baggage' because painful feelings are expressed and let go of (through the open psychological window) as they occur. He or she also remains open to new experiences and continually embraces opportunities to create new relationships and to work on new projects throughout his or her lifespan, even in the face of great loss and grief. You might say that the 'air' in a healthy person's psychological house never gets too stale or stuffy because there is always the possibility of a 'breeze' to blow through their open psychological windows. This is as good an ideal definition of a certain kind of mental health (e.g., freedom from neurosis) that I've come across.

It's awful hard to keep your psychological windows open though – It is a polluted world; One has to be discriminating. The world has its share of bullies and tyrants and other psychologically un-toilet-trained, damaged folk, and you have to know how to close off your windows to most of what they produce if only to avoid the foul stink from settling into your carpets. More than a few people find their emotional surroundings to be unsupportive or even unsafe. Many people simply don't feel all that safe opening up wide their psychological windows and sharing their inner thoughts, feelings and beliefs with others.

So therein lies the tension. On the one hand, we live in a world that cannot be reliably trusted to be safe. On the other hand, we start to die inside when we cannot share our inner experience with others – particularly when that inner experience is painful. Psychotherapy is, in part, about reconciling these two truths.

Therapy starts to happen when people become comfortable enough to open up their psychological windows and air out their psychological interiors. Psychotherapy is a science and an art whereby one person can help another person to accomplish this opening. There are several senses in which this is true.

Change Creates A 'Window' Of Opportunity For Window Opening

People's emotional lives get stuck shut for a variety of reasons, but major reasons boil down to anxiety and fear and/or the need to avoid toxic people. Though people start life with an open psychological window, things happen that make it dangerous to keep that window open. The optimally healthy thing to do in a dangerous situation is to shut the psychological window for a period of time and then, later, to see if it has become safe to open it up again. Most of us don't end up doing the optimal thing however. We shut our psychological windows closed in response to a toxic environment, and then we keep them in varying states of shutness, forgetting to re-test the environment to see if conditions have improved. Years and months can go by with people barricaded behind closed windows, unable or unwilling to perceive that the world is no longer really as dangerous as they believe it to be.

The process of closing down happens for other reasons as well. While people often deeply want to be recognized and heard (something that requires psychological windows to be open), they also frequently cannot tolerate painful parts of themselves or painful experiences they have had. Some more 'fundamentalist' types become unable to tolerate the possibility that the living chaos of the world they see outside their psychological windows could be more real than the belief system they've aligned themselves with and so demonize the outside world not unlike the old medieval maps that populated uncharted regions with dragons. However, it happens, people stop interacting with living changing life.

Even when their lives have become shut down to a great extent, most people simply grin and bear it. It tends to take some sort of 'overloading' event (A death in the family, loss of a job, a failing grade in an important class, a divorce or significant rejection, a spouse's ultimatum, an arrest, what-have-you) to push people to seek out help.

Big overwhelming changes can cause a general disorganization of people's defenses and a period of resulting vulnerability during which they can become again permeable to learning. Grief and regret for lost opportunities, and existential fears (such as fear of being permanently alone) can power through fears motivating people to keep their defenses up and their psychological windows sealed. You can think of this process as a 'window' of opportunity during which psychological windows can become unstuck. A lot of therapy gets initiated during such times.

Open Windows Allow For Venting And For Support

One of the basic jobs therapists have is to provide a supportive and safe environment in which clients can open psychological windows and vent out their painful emotions, thoughts and feelings. Good therapists accomplish this task by guaranteeing to keep their client's confidences safe, and by being a receptive, attentive and supportive audience. Therapist's ability to be a receptive and inviting audience for their clients is tremendously important. People need to share their interiors; they need to be recognized and accepted. It is as though people doubt the reality of their existence if they don't have someone to share it with. Society being the messed up way that it is, there are few safe outlets for people to gain this recognition of their more private and painful experiences. A therapist can be an audience for private pain, and shameful thoughts and feelings, and in so doing, provide legitimacy to feelings and thoughts that otherwise seem illegitimate.

Between Engagement and Disengagement Exists The 'Therapeutic Window'

It is not enough that one's psychological windows become open. Merely being open to experience doesn't mean you will benefit from it. Too much open too fast can leave a person feeling very vulnerable and frightened (or angry or agitated, or any of the myriad ways that people express their fear). This is a particular problem for people who have been closed off because of abuse or trauma. Such clients can be quite unable to tolerate the emotions that surround their issues. Too much exposure to issues can lead to 'flooding'.

The same patients frequently avoid bringing up painful subjects – a sort of defense mechanism. Good therapists can 'ride herd' by keeping a running note of the flow of topics their clients bring up, noting quick dodges and bends away from topics and avoidance of topics and pointing these dodges out to clients in a non-threatening way so as to keep them focused on that which they would avoid.

Therapists find themselves faced with the sensitive balancing act of needing to engage their clients in talking about their issues, but also needing to avoid letting that talk escalate into a situation that becomes overwhelming. Another way to say this is that it is necessary to regulate the degree to which people's windows are open at any given time if they are to tolerate and thus benefit from venting, recognition and learning opportunities. A good therapist attempts to herd their clients so as to help them get into and stay in a 'sweet spot' (sometimes called a 'therapeutic window') in between engagement and disengagement with the issues that bother them. Too much discussion of a painful issue may do more harm than good, while not enough may fail to benefit.

My purpose in writing this particular essay was to express these ideas. I've accomplished this goal I think, but in a bit of an abstract way and there isn't time right now to fix that situation. I'd be pleased if readers who recognized a truth or two here from their own lives would comment and help me to flesh out how the opening and closing of psychological windows works in real life – how it has played out in their own experience or the experience of people they have been close with. Peace and happiness for the coming winter holidays.

Comments
  • Mike

    This essay touched me personally because lately I have been going through some of the same situations that you talked about especially closing the "window" because of being hurt earlier. I realized that I have done this exact thing shut the window and haven't opened yet because of the fear of getting hurt again. I'm trying to find a way to solve my problems and running across this essay was helpful in the first step to solving them. Thank You please email me back if you have another essay I can read.

  • Alicia's mom

    Very well put. It's much easier to understand through visualization using the "window".

  • Dave

    Found your article very usefull, just seperated from long time partner and finding courage to open window for someone else to come into my life is hard. Many thanks

  • Steve

    Very good! I have printed off a copy to re-read at future date. Thanks!

  • Jay

    As a therapist, I've come to find that using our vast tools and techniques is actually less important than "being there" and using practically any means to move the client into "being there with me"...and only when this occurs do the tools and techniques yield results. Your analogy of the "open window" is well-taken.

  • Karrie

    I also found truth in much of what you said. It helps to be able to use the analogy of a window into ourselves....It's nice to have a concrete suggestion. Perhaps you could summarize or highlight this point

  • Beverley

    I was fascinated to read this essay, it describes my therapeutic journey extremely well. The windows theme is a great analogy. I think maybe all I need is a net curtain for mine! Then, perhaps I could stay in the "sweet spot."

  • Mikial

    Well put and I love especially the metophores used. But there are those who's pain nor point of view on life can not be changed by psycotherapy. The only thing that helps me from going back into deep depression and becoming so pesimistic is to hold everything in. Become cold and not give things a second thought, let alone worry about them. What is the treatment for a guy like me who would refuse to duscuss his issues before a psychologist because he knows once he walks out that room, he's back into the real world.

  • Anonymous-1

    I have read the document but still feel lost,depressed and want to just lie down and die.

  • Candice

    Reading this has gave me a more concrete way of looking at my frustrations instead of just a big mess-- it helps me realize there is a cause to the effects. More than ever I realize I need counseling, and most likely professional, because it seems that friends come and go too often, and especially at my age (just began college) but if you get someone via their career, they have no choice. Thank you.

  • Anonymous-2

    I came on the net to look for some help to ground me and a focus for finding answers within myself away from feelings of panic and fear relating to my need to connect with the outside, with my internal world, which is me. After years of psychotherapy and personal soul searching I still find continued connection difficult, fear of letting others know my internal. I found your essay and related to your analogy with personal recognition. It reminded me of a poem I wrote when I was 15. A verse of which is below. '.....Nosy parker - BEWARE Behind that nicotened stained netting lies your undiscovered truth, (oh dear!) The dangerous unknown Don't LOOK, Don't STARE (I'm totally sincere!). Intent fingers, can I restrain them. Too late, I can't go back, (I fear). My journey has come along way from this place, the most important help I received from others and myself is non-judgementalism, patience and just being there. The netting is now a veil of clean whiteness covered in butterflies. I hope this is of help, I apologise for the lengthyness, I don't do short comments. Peace and contentment to all.

  • Lee

    I have no idea I had an outlet to get my hurt out, I just have carried around the overload, I appreciate the knowledge (windows) I need to find someone to trust is now my issue. Then I feel I can air-out some. Thank-You!

  • CRMACK

    my WINDOWS ARE STUCK!

  • Roelf

    True but 2 superficial for me.

  • Jackie

    I wish there was a way to get the few people I have in my life to read that article. I'm so sick of everyone telling me there's nothing wrong, or get over it, and grow up. amazing.

  • Daniel

    I find your agnolodgy very truth, but how do we begin to take that first step out of that hole you been stuck in for sometime and tell yourself that life and problems are what you make of them. How do we turn back from the dead end and reasure ourselves that we are smart and strong enough to go on. Just a question out of the thousands in my head right now...

  • Wyoming

    Thank you for your insights. I am somewhat ambivalent about starting therapy, and your article helps to give it a good context.

  • TomO

    Windows need cleaning as well as being opened. My fear is that in fighting toxic people and their corrosive practices I become toxic and corrude from the inside

  • Anonymous-3

    Awareness is the first step and ideas such as this article presents are a wonderful beginning for many....

  • Byron

    Somtimes I like to open the window and turn down the shades

  • Anonymous-4

    Things crack.

  • Cal

    What kind of psychological traumas could this apply to? Could suppressed memories effect a person in the same way?

  • Todd

    The first step is to except that you've already spent X-amount of time thinking/pondering about how you are living. It sounds like you've already accept that you want to change. Now you have to decide how soon you want to start living your life and the way you want to live it. In the end know that no-one will ever know anything. We all just think we do and we all wish we knew the future but I ask you this, "If we knew how life would end or how it would be as we lived it, what would be the fun of it?"

  • Todd

    I like it. It's clear and simple. Imagining how my home would be if I kept the doors and windows shut and never threw out the trash. It would be a pretty bad place to live in. I'd probably grow to believe it was that bad outside too. The occasional time I'd leave the house (that conversation I had with a stranger - it'd be like sneaking out of the house, I'd be uncomfortable at first but feel good, kind of like your first date or pretty much your first anything.) If only we could all clean our homes so that they were as comfortable to ourselves as we'd like them to be. The definition of a home instead of a shelter.

  • Kelly

    .....that works. Your article is me. It's nice to know that what I feel has been felt before and someone is addressing it. I know I need help re-entering the "land of the living." I looked up internet addition cause that is where I am now in my "theorapy." I read an article that led me to this site and ultimately to this article. I'm tired of being dysfunctional...and if what I need is a window....give me 10!

  • Omar Salas IMD ICADC

    Admiring your therapeutic windows conceptuation, indeed as therapist we can only show them where the windows to freedom and recovery are and how to go through it at the end they have to make the decision to assume the responsibility to go, as we sceptical hope they come out.

  • Anonymous-5

    I had cancer late in high school and early in college. It takes a lot of work to decide when to open the windows and when not to. For myself, I never know when I'll cry or not. It has been six years since my last treatment, but some of my new acquaintances have a hard time listening to my experiences b/c they are not ready to cope with their own mortality. Luckily, there are people with whom my windows can be wide open. But it is difficult with new people to know how much to share and how wide to open those windows.

  • Christine

    I loved you describing my life! It took a long time (25yrs) to re-open the windows and test the world out there again...but I'm so glad I did, thanks to therapy!

  • KM

    Unfortunatley your article is alittle more than ironic.I started seeing a therapist @ 2 months ago and she has f.d me up more than anyone. Iam feeling overwhelmed with feelings - anger mainly and i cant let it out or not and its screwing me up . I am going to get a new therapist . But that is another whole endeaver. Bye Please keep writing !

  • Derrick

    I find myself being open alot to people I consider friends, letting them know what's going on inside me. But I can tell after awhile that they just don't and can't totally understand me. That's when I feel these people start either ignoring me, or trying to impose their will on me. And then I totally close up. It's become a cycle. I desire friendship, then I desire isolation from those I've befriended. And no matter how much I still come back around, I feel I've already distanced myself too much already. My distrust of these friends only turns into what I perceive to be their own distrust of me. It's realizations (or whatever you want to call this) like this where I really wish I was dead. (Don't worry, I'm not suicidal.)

  • Victoria

    Some community psychology would help here.

  • Simon

    I really feel that and needed to hear that...now!

  • Jerry (Elektron)

    Well, almost. Im still learning how to fix myself! Right now I can tackle any computer/car/mechanical/electrical problem you can dish out. The pressure/depression/chaos in my mind has had me down for the count though. Im not going to let this problem get away though...nope not that easy. I WILL figure this out and fix it! I have been cracking my windows open but on the wrong days(talking to wrong people) but I found some nice weather(good person). I can already feel my mind smelling fresher. Just a bit more airing out and I'll be unstoppable. I'll achieve the confidence that I need to advance to the next level. Thanks for your contribution and I'll see you at the top!

  • amita

    i would like 2 appreciate mr.mark,as i like the way he explained that a person should keep his emotional windows open to vent out his emotions.

  • Anonymous-6

    I was puzzled by the term 'theraputic window'.

    My therapist said it to me after some good work had occured during therapy and at the time I had had enough of heavy discussion to want to ask and listen to an explaination of what that was.

    I wondered about it over the week and was directed this site from a person on a questions and answers site. I have now found the explaination I was looking for.

    Thank you for this article. I find often during therapy I am not able to fully process the technical information about how therapy works as it is too immediate and too personal to think about non emotionally in that space. I like to gain insite to the processes, and so on, in a more detached way so it is not a mystery what is going on as I grow through councelling.

    Reading informative essays such as this one is therefore a great benefit to my 'recovery' as it is not too much and not too little. This particular artical is very useful as the imagery you use is non threatening, not complicated and yet full enough to gain a good understanding of the term. Thanks.

  • KO

    Your terminology and explanation of 'therapeutic windows' was excellent. I have been going through psychotherapy for quite some time and have had problems that I didn't understand which made me feel quite inferior. Although my psychologist explained it was normal when you have been exposed to traumatic events as a child, I had trouble accepting this. Your explanation detailed so much of what I have been experiencing. It gave me a better understanding. I guess I was thinking my therapist was just telling me things to make me feel better but after reading your article and giving it some serious thought, he really was being honest with me. I guess the issue of fully trusting people is something I really need to work on. Thanks for the article... It was very well written and has given me some hope.