I thought I knew what being present meant, which boiled down to being in the here-and-now, paying full attention to whatever you are doing or whoever you are with, and doing so without judgment. Then I read an article about a man in his 30s who had had a disastrous year of medical problems. He was not happy about any of it, of course, but in this article he said he was at least able to be present for himself throughout the ordeal. Being present for himself was his primary goal that year, come what may.
This was a confusion to me. I detected something different going on here in the way he was thinking about presence, some nuance just beyond my reach. Did being present for himself in this situation mean he’d been able to avoid judgmentally labeling his experience as bad or unfair or whatever? I had a sense there was more to it than being neutral (as if neutrality was even possible in this circumstance).
Then I came across an article by a hospice nurse. Her goal everyday was to maintain as much presence as she could with her patients. She wasn’t exclusively talking about being with them in an attentive way. She also meant hanging in there with her own feelings instead of shutting them down when they got uncomfortable.
That did it. All of a sudden, I could see how it is entirely possible to be in the here-and-now while also blocking a part of the experience. When she was present for herself as equally as she was for her patients, she was not only better able to allow life to be as it was, she also wasn’t abandoning herself in the experience. While sometimes an experience is just too much to take in all at once and it is self-protective to dole it out to yourself in manageable hunks, consistently abandoning yourself by not allowing yourself to feel what you are actually feeling is a form of betrayal and doesn’t ultimately save us from bad feelings. They just express themselves in other ways (like depression, anxiety, high blood pressure, burnout).
But here’s the irony of being present for yourself in an emotionally difficult situation: this hospice nurse said that by allowing it all to be — the whole of the experience – then it actually softened in an unexpected way. There was no more fight, for one. No friction caused by shutting it out, which takes energy. But what’s more, without judgment (a crucial component of being present), feeling like you really want to run away is okay.* Of course you do. Who wouldn’t? But being present to whatever the feeling is without shutting it down gives us the opportunity to see it has a life cycle when it’s allowed to be what it is. The emotion will rise up and then settle down. It will be replaced by another feeling and then something else. But if we resist it…it’s just like the old saying, “What you resist persists.” First letting yourself feel bad can lead to feeling better.
Of course, I tried it out and found that when I most want to run away but instead manage to surrender and stay, there is a relief and peace that comes from “watching” the whole of the experience in this way, a certain compassionate detachment. No wonder the man with the year-long medical ordeal made being present for himself his goal for the year. It’s just funny how hard we can resist something that helps so much.
Being present for yourself in this way isn’t a special occasion thing reserved for full-blown crises or stressful periods. But pulling it out for the holidays along with the ornaments and garland will almost certainly add to your holiday cheer. And it might keep you from punching that annoying relative in the face!
*”Judging yourself for your emotions is like judging yourself for your body temperature. It’s not in your control,” says Tina Gilbertson, psychotherapist and author. “It’s common to believe we can choose our emotions, but if you think about it, that’s nonsense. If we could choose our feelings, why wouldn’t everyone be happy all the time?”
Therapist Abby Thompson agrees. “We’d all feel a lot better if we let them happen.”
Note on the photo: My granddaughter, Zoe, is standing in for me to fulfill the holiday presence photo requirement. I think she looks very present for herself.
Note on the article: This first appeared in Random Wellness, a component of the employee wellness program I run for a healthcare system.