Learn to be emotionally present to life’s challenges.
By Jennifer L. Kunst, PhD
There is a wish in all of us to be able to get around troubles in life rather than go through them. If only we could skip from the beginning to the end without having to go through the middle. If only we could skip the pain and just have the pleasure. If only we could skip the classes and just get the diploma. If only we could skip the dating and just get to the happy marriage. Or, for some of us, if only we could skip the marriage and just get to the happy!
But then there are the deeper wishes: If only we could skip the littleness and just be big. If only we could skip the needing and just be complete. If only we could skip the anxiety and just be at peace. If only we could skip the confusion and just know. If only we could skip the conflict and just be friends.
One of the great truths of psychoanalysis is that there is no way to get around troubles in life—at least no good way. An emotionally healthy life is found in being as present as we can be to our experiences, facing them as they come. A satisfying life is not found in arriving at some ideal state but in growing through all the experiences between A and Z.
Rick Steves, the ultimate travel guide, urges travelers to approach their trip, from beginning to end, as a real journey—not just a series of inconveniences that one must go through to reach some ultimate destination. The richness of travel comes in the experiences in the airport, with the person who helps you with your luggage, with the jerk who steals your cab, with the Italian who blows you a kiss, with the child who helps translate the basic German you learned through Rosetta Stone. The Grand Canyon is amazing to behold, but what really touches you is getting through the heaving lungs and aching knees while you hike it—and the cold beer in the end! You can buy a stunning photo of the Pyramids to hang on your wall, but it is infinitely better if you and your family are actually are there.
Worries about travel are difficult to manage, but they are not nearly as difficult as worries about challenges that we do not choose, in which the pain may far outweigh the pleasure and where the journey may last a long time and have an uncertain end. Perhaps you are going through an experience like this—an injury, an illness, grief, a divorce, unemployment, a death, or a new venture with an unknown future. In these more distressing experiences, we feel a great pressure to be done with it. We desperately want to know how it turns out. We want to get it over with. We want to be rid of the anxiety and pain. We want to get to the other side as quickly as possible.
It takes real strength to face life as it comes, step by step, just as it is. It takes real patience to accept that some things in life cannot be hurried along but must unfold over time. It takes real courage to be emotionally present to our experiences so that they can touch us, shape us, and enrich us. If we can, we not only get through our experiences but we get something meaningful from them.
I will always treasure the memory of one of my dearest friends, who helped herself courageously face an extended and ultimately terminal illness. She taped a note to her computer and looked at it every day, week after week, month after month, as she faced the roller-coaster ride of battling cancer. With a nod to spiritual teacher and author Ram Dass, the note said, “Be here now.”
We can try to get around life. We can try to take a shortcut around the pain. We can try to circumvent the difficulties. But we can’t actually avoid the journey. If we try to, the shortcutting itself becomes the journey. And that is what we will most regret. Through all of our days—and at the end of all of our days—we do well to be guided by my friend’s motto: Be here now.
Seven Strategies to Truly “Be Here Now”
- Turn toward reality. So often we turn away from life rather than toward it. We are masters of avoidance! But if we want to be present—to enjoy life and to be more effective in it—we must orient ourselves toward facing reality. When we are guided by the reality principle, we develop a deeper capacity to deal with life more effectively. What once was difficult is now easier. What once frightened us now feels familiar. Life becomes more manageable. And there’s something even deeper that we gain. Because we can see that we have grown stronger, we have greater confidence that we can grow even stronger still. This is the basis of feeling capable, which I think is the wellspring of a satisfying life (chapter 2).
- Embrace your life as it is rather than as you wish it to be. The Buddha taught that the secret to life is to want what you have and to not want what you don’t have. Being present means being present to the life that you have right here, right now. There is freedom in taking life as it comes to us—the good with the bad, the wonderful with the tragic, the love with the loss, and the life with the death. When we embrace it all, then we have a real chance to enjoy life, to value our experiences, and to mine the treasures that are there for the taking. When we surrender to the reality of who we are, we give ourselves a chance to do what we can do (chapter 4).
- Take your time. As the story of the tor¬toise and the hare tells us, slow and steady wins the race. By being in a hurry, we actually thwart our own success. We get ahead of ourselves. We make more mistakes. We cut corners and pay for them later. We may learn the easy way but not necessarily the best way. The old adage puts it like this: the slower you go, the sooner you get there. Slow, disciplined, incre¬mental growth is the kind of approach that leads to lasting change (chapter 5).
- Practice gratitude. It is easy to count our troubles rather than our blessings, but such an attitude undermines our ability to draw from the good that we have been given and to see our lives fundamentally as a gift. A change in perspective can make all the difference. Recognizing The Good And Receiving It With Gratitude Is A Recipe For Emotional Health And Well-Being. This attitude enlarges the possibility that we can make use of the good we have been given and even use it to cope with the difficulties that we inevitably have inherited (chapter 6).
- Stay close to your feelings, even the painful ones. Often we find our feel¬ings scary, heavy, and confusing, so we try to keep them at a distance. But we need our feelings to find satisfaction, meaning, and plea¬sure in life. Getting rid of feelings not only backfires but also drains us of the psycho¬logical energy that makes life worth living. Feelings are the gas in the engine of our personalities. They are the source of moti¬vation. They are the energy, the vitality, the juice of life. Without them, our lives wouldn’t have any personality or dimension or color. There wouldn’t be any joy or creativity or fun. There wouldn’t be you. There wouldn’t be me. Without our feelings, nothing would really matter (chapter 8).
- Accept success and failure as part of life’s journey. We are all learning. No one gets it right every time. A more compassionate attitude toward ourselves only helps us stay in the game. The dynamic process of life—trying, succeeding, failing, and trying again—is the only way to develop lasting confidence in ourselves. We learn through experience that we can both succeed and recover from failure. We also learn to be humble and so develop a view of ourselves as limited creatures that will always need the help and support of others. No matter how mature or successful we become, the child within always will need mentors and friends who’ll see us through (chapter 10).
- Tend to your loving relationships. It is easy to neglect what matters the most: our relationships with those we love. These relationships don’t just happen magically; they grow and are sustained through attentive care and hard work. Mature love—whether in marriage, family relationships, or friendships—is a dynamic, living experience. It is something you choose every day. It is something that is earned every day. It requires commitment to keep it working. It involves a daily process of overcoming the distance and honoring the separateness between us. It accepts the reality that we will hurt one another and be hurt by one another. It is the nature of being human. These pains cannot be avoided. We can only devote ourselves to do what we can do to weather them and to mend them. So then, love essentially is repair work. We tend to the hurts. We try to heal them. We express our concern. We take responsibility for our mistakes; we learn to say we’re sorry. We try to make amends. We learn to forgive; we accept the forgiveness of another. As the monks do every day, we fall down and get up, fall down and get up again (chapter 11).
In Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out (Central Recovery Press, 2014; $16.95), Jennifer L. Kunst, PhD, offers accessible, empowering insight into psychoanalysis, providing readers with practical advice toward a deeper understanding of their emotional lives. Dr. Kunst’s clear writing and examples from her clinical work offer an entry point to understanding the unconscious mind, leading the reader to better comprehend psychological dynamics and gain clarity and peace.
Jennifer L. Kunst, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and psychoanalyst in private practice in Pasadena, California. She is a senior faculty member at the Psychoanalytic Center of California in Los Angeles, where she has served as chair of the Curriculum and Continuing Education Committees. She is also an adjunct associate professor at the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, California. She writes a blog on psychologytoday.com, A Headshrinkers Guide to the Galaxy.