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  • Christie Pearl, LMHC, LPC

From striving to succeeding: How I found my own window of tolerance with goal setting

Are you a planner? A 1-year, 5-year, 10-year goal setter? Are you one of those people who makes lists and puts things you’ve already completed on there just so you can cross them off? 😉 Not me. Don’t get me wrong – I’m a very organized person. But I have historically taken a loose approach to goal planning. For years I was under the mistaken impression that I just “wasn’t good at” setting and achieving goals. I just went along with opportunities as they presented themselves, but never actively pursued the things I wanted – or even let myself want things in the first place! Now I understand that I was repeating the Lost Child role that I learned in my family of origin. The Lost Child’s main goal is to survive by flying under the radar, going unnoticed, escaping into the scenery, never needing anything and keeping themselves occupied with their daydreams and imaginary world. Yet another way being an Adult Child of an Alcoholic impacted my career. Sometimes it seems like the layers from that onion never finish getting unpeeled! But what’s great about realizing these things is that you can DO something different. So recently I started a new approach to goal planning. Because I’m so done with being reactive instead of proactive. I’m learning how to take my imaginary world and, like a producer bringing a movie to life, I’m writing a script, building scenery, hiring a cast, and yelling “action”! I am setting annual goals, quarterly goals, and then breaking them down into monthly goals and weekly action steps. I am reverse engineering the things I want to work toward. This is a level of taking what’s in my head and making it concrete that I’ve never done before! Of course parts of me resisted this approach at first – it seemed so linear, so corporate, so restrictive and tight, so boring. Maybe that's some old addiction to excitement ACOA trait rearing its head. And then I realized this is how people get stuff done, so I got over it! LOL Whether you’re a natural goal setter, or someone like me who is growing in this area, there’s one key to setting yourself up for success: staying in the zone. The challenge zone, that is. Setting too many goals, or too big of a goal, in a short period of time is an easy trap to fall into. We often overestimate how much we can do in a year, and underestimate how much we can do in 5 or 10 years. That might be hard to hear, especially for those of us who are contending with feelings of being “behind.” But when it comes to growth, we have 3 zones: the comfort zone, the challenge zone, and overwhelm. I think of these zones in similar terms as I think about the window of tolerance in EMDR therapy. Our comfort zone is where we experience the most safety and security. In the comfort zone, we don’t have to feel uncomfortable or exert extra effort. We aren’t trying new things or confronting old, limiting ways of being. We aren’t taking emotional risks or facing fears. We all NEED our comfort zones. But if we spend too much time there, we probably aren’t taking healthy risks that allow us to grow.

The comfort zone is probably what we EMDR therapists are referring to when we talk about being in the window of tolerance. The challenge zone is where we have enough emotional safety to take healthy risks so we can try new things and challenge old beliefs and behaviors. When we’re in the challenge zone, we might feel some level of discomfort, but we are able to tolerate the discomfort by getting support, taking good care of ourselves and practicing self-compassion. There is a balance of support and challenge.

Maybe when we're in the challenge zone, we're at the edge of our window of tolerance, but still able to hold onto the ropes of the comfort zone while we venture out into new territory. If we push ourselves too much, or get into “striving”, we could end up in overwhelm. When we get into an overwhelmed state, we can no longer learn new things and grow because our brain has gone into survival mode. This is what makes, for many, hustle culture and the delusional “rise and grind” narrative such a fallacy. The human brain just doesn’t work that way.

Being in overwhelm is like being in the hyperaroused or hypoaroused states when we're too far away from the edge of our window of tolerance/challenge zone. Most of us slide into overwhelm from time to time. Learning how to get back into challenge or comfort is a skill in and of itself. Sadly, many people spend too much time in overwhelm and this is what leads to burnout. Often, after an extended period in a challenge zone, we may need to revisit our comfort zone. There is no shame in needing breaks from new learning and allowing new beliefs and behaviors the time and space to become the “new normal.” There is also no shame in rest. We can’t be in active learning mode all the time. The process of writing down all my goals, along with the action steps, helped me to evaluate whether or not I was striving. Whether or not my plans were realistic for the next quarter. Whether or not I was setting myself up for the challenge zone – or for overwhelm. I think I’m getting the hang of this goal planning thing 🙌🏻 My hope for you today is that you would find the sweet spot in your challenge zone.


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