How to Be Present When the Present Is Difficult

How To Be Present - Woman looking out of window

Courage doesn’t always roar. Sometimes courage is the quiet voice at the end of the day saying, ‘I will try again tomorrow. – Mary Anne Radmacher

By now you’ve probably heard it hundreds, if not thousands, of times.

It’s been expressed in many ways by self-help experts and by spiritual teachers through the ages, but at its heart the message is always the same:

The importance of living in the moment.

This is essential if you want to live a full and rich existence. If you’re mired in thoughts about the past or caught up in ideas of the future, then you’re not really there for your own life as it unfolds.

And it’s pretty easy to be mindful of the present when things are going well. A delicious meal, beautiful music, a picturesque view, time spent with good friends . . . why would you not want to be fully in the moment to savor these kinds of things?

Even when you’re not having wonderful peak experiences—when things are “just okay”—present-moment mindfulness isn’t all that tough. You have to remember to practice it, but when you do, you’re in a relatively pleasant state.

But what about when you’re in a difficult relationship? Or seriously ill? Or stuck in a job you can’t stand? Or deeply worried about a friend or family member?

How do you practice present-moment awareness when you’d really rather not be present at all?

I’m going to share five tips with you about living in the moment, the first of which is bound to sound a bit counterintuitive . . .

1. Relax into the discomfort

I know, I know. That sounds crazy. But bear with me.

No one wants to experience distress. But unfortunately, no one can escape it.

So if you can accept whatever is happening, you will be more at ease.

Now here’s the key, which is absolutely vital to understand—acceptance does NOT mean that you’re okay with whatever is going on. It simply means you’re acknowledging the undeniable fact that it’s occurring.

Strangely enough, you’ll discover a sense of relief when you stop struggling so hard to deny it. Whatever is happening is happening, and you’ll need all your strength to deal with it. Don’t lose energy for that battle by having a wrestling match on the side trying to wish the unstoppable out of existence.

The Buddha distinguished between pain and suffering. Pain is a natural part of the human condition—we all experience things that hurt us from time to time. Suffering, on the other hand, consists of the stories we tell ourselves about our pain that make us hold onto it longer and more tightly than we have to.

The flare of anger you feel in the pit of your stomach when your spouse or lover shouts at you is a pain reaction.

“What an insensitive jerk! Why can’t we ever have a normal conversation that doesn’t involve screaming?” is a story you tell yourself that only adds to your suffering. It’s normal to feel pain—being yelled at hurts. Just watch that the tale you build around it doesn’t add fuel to the fire and cause more suffering.

Finding a stash of drugs in your teenager’s desk drawer is a painful experience. Dealing with the situation will involve even more pain.

Telling yourself how idiotic and irresponsible your child is, or what a lousy parent you are, is storytelling. It doesn’t help the situation.

No, the circumstances are not okay. But if you can relax into the fact that they’re happening, you’ll have extra energy to deal with them.

2. Stop “shoulding” on yourself

I’ve just finished several months of chemotherapy. This isn’t easy for anyone, but it really knocked me flat for quite a while.

Among many other side effects of the process, I’ve had no energy. And I mean none. There were times when I simply lay there all day and stared at the wall. I didn’t even have the mental stamina to read or watch movies.

I was alone with myself and my thoughts for weeks on end. Ruminating endlessly about all the things I felt I should be doing with all that time I had at my disposal.

I eventually learned the hard way to stop fighting my own thoughts, because my body and mind simply weren’t able to do what I wanted them to.

My chemotherapy is an extreme example, but it illustrates how, whenever we’re going through difficult times, our reserves are much lower and we simply can’t handle things the way we normally can.

And you know what? That’s okay.

We live in a society that encourages us to try to be superhuman. We often try to do far too much even when we’re happy, healthy, and on top of our game.

Throw just one problem into the mix and the whole house of cards can come tumbling down.

So don’t torture yourself with what you think you “should” be doing. Honor the fact that simply dealing with your difficulty is hard work . . . even if most or all of that work is internal.

It really is okay to take off your superhero cape. The world won’t crumble to pieces, and neither will you.

3. Ask yourself how you feel in this moment

Very often, even when the overall situation is uncomfortable, the specific moment you’re in isn’t all that bad.

So ask yourself what’s okay—not great, maybe not even good, but just okay—about this moment.

Are you clean and warm and dry? Well-fed and not hungry?

Do you have the ability to take a few deep breaths and make a conscious choice about how to respond to your situation?

Do you know that, no matter what is going on, there are people who love you?

What do you have to be grateful for right now?

And even if this exact moment really is horrible, you can still do two things:
think about ways to change the situation, and understand that the moment will pass. I’m not saying that either of those things is easy to do, but they are possible.

However, chances are that right now things aren’t quite as bad as you thought.

4. Don’t hide your pain

We tend to want to conceal how bad things are so that others will see us as strong and capable.

We want to be brave, and we think of courage in terms of being tough. But there’s a different kind of courage that comes from being vulnerable.

At first it feels very uncomfortable to take off the mask and let others see how needy we feel. But that neediness isn’t bad—like pain, it’s just a part of being human. We all need love, acceptance and help.

Can you be brave enough to admit that?

Vulnerability opens you to receive warmth and concern from others. So take a deep breath and find the courage to ask for the support you need.

You may be surprised at how readily people respond.

5. Find simple ways to distract yourself

We’re talking about present-moment awareness here, but that doesn’t mean you have to be a martyr.

You don’t have to be present with what’s hard at every single moment. When you’re facing a difficult situation, it’s perfectly okay to divert your attention to other things and give your mind a break.

When I was going through chemotherapy, for example, I rediscovered jigsaw puzzles.

I couldn’t work on them for very long at a stretch, but there was something soothing about them that kept my mind off what my body was going through. Some days, those puzzles saved my sanity.

Maybe for you it will be a great book or movie, or a walk or workout. Maybe you’ll draw, paint or write poems—not to become a great artist or writer, but simply to lose yourself for a little while in a different form of self-expression.

Be in the moment with the distraction for a while instead of your troubling situation. You’ll come back fresher and better able to handle things.

How to be Present – Strength in Resiliency

There’s no doubt that maintaining presence during life’s hard times is hard to do.

But remember that you’re strong. Not in the sense of being hard, but being flexible and resilient, bending with the circumstances while staying firmly rooted in yourself.

And when the going gets tough, remember these tips:

  • Relax into the discomfort, accepting what’s happening even if you don’t like it.
  • Don’t beat yourself up about what you think you “should” be doing.
  • Look for what’s okay about this moment.
  • Ask for support when you need it.
  • Understand that you don’t need to martyr yourself to your situation—you can look for distractions.

So the next time life serves you up a slice of struggle—or if you’re going through a rough period right now—you have tools to help you deal with it.

When times are bad, living in the moment won’t be fun. It won’t be easy. But it is possible.

And you’re stronger than you know.

Hang in there.

About the author: Michelle Russell is a freelance editor who also blogs at Enoughist.com, where she writes about what it means to have, do, and be enough.

photo courtesy of Pixabay

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{ 26 Comments }

  1. Mike McDade says:

    Having just finished Angela Duckworth’s new book, I find your approach dovetailing perfectly with the notion of “Grit”.

    growth mindset → optimistic self-talk
    → perseverence over adversity

    • Hi Mike,

      I may need to add that book to my ever-growing list! But yes, it sounds like a similar approach to life. The only thing I’ve found is that you have to believe your optimistic self-talk–if it’s “just words,” you won’t get much from it, but if you can really feel that what you’re saying to yourself is true, that’s when you will benefit.

  2. CJ says:

    Life generally sucks.
    Those who were born with good looks,or into a wealthy family may feel different.
    The rest of the world suffers from pain 24/7.
    And nobody cares.
    I am 72, I know.

  3. Mark Tong says:

    Hi Michelle

    Really wonderful angle on a popular subject. It’s so easy to only think about when things are going well. It’s when they’re not that you really need to dig deep and your positive approach is amazing.

    • Thanks, Mark! Yes, I’ve found the need to dig deep lately, but it’s taught me a lot. I think there’s a lot of “feel good” advice out there that doesn’t do justice to how tough life can be sometimes . . . but that doesn’t mean it isn’t worth living. 🙂

  4. Michelle, this is such an inspiring post – real advice with real solutions. I will share this to the furthest corners as it has so much value for us all. You know, I’m going to keep this as my go-to post when things go wobbly in life. Thank you for sharing this with us all.

    • Thanks, Laura, for the incredibly kind comment . . . glad the post resonated with you so much!

    • William says:

      Laura, You are right, this should be saved as a go-to article for when things get rough. I struggle with staying in the moment, I often get caught up in the “should of’s” and spend time worrying about the future. As someone in recovery from an addiction, it is good for me to stay in the moment. These tips definitely help!

  5. Thank you for your wise and positive words, Michelle. I’m so glad you’ve gained enough energy to write and share your experience with us. I supported my husband through many months of chemo recently. His experience was similar to yours and it was difficult for me to watch him go through that. I didn’t have mental or emotional energy for much else during that time. It’s true — being fully present and accepting everything that happened brought way more peace than resisting.
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    • Linda, thanks for your comment, and good for you for being such a great support for your husband. I’m sorry he had such a hard time with his chemo, but I can certainly relate. Still, I’m glad you found out how presence and acceptance actually do bring peace!

  6. Thanks Michelle
    Inspiring strength in your words and I think right now written just for me 🙂

  7. Ann says:

    Michelle,

    I wish you quick healing and good health!

    you have great advice on enjoying the moment rather than trying to hide in the feel good notion that doesn’t yield any fulfillment in life. We cannot escape the “bad” as long as we are breathing.

  8. Great post, Michelle.

    First off, so glad you are feeling better and are back to writing again! 🙂

    I’m a big one for living in the moment and acceptance. It’s helped me so much through the years. Most recently I’ve had to work at accepting some things I don’t like much at all – and it hit me last week that I don’t have to be okay with these things. That really helped to lift a big weight off.

    • Leanne, thanks! And you’ve got the idea…NOT being okay with things and still accepting them is possible. “I accept that this situation is awful and it’s happening anyway”–and presto! You’ve just freed up extra energy to deal with it all. I’m sorry you’re in that position, but it sounds like you’re well equipped emotionally to handle it. Hugs to you!

  9. E says:

    I needed to read this, I often find myself thinking too much.

  10. Cristina says:

    I wish you great health Michelle! This post is so inspiring. I like your 4th tip. Hiding your pain will only get worse and eat you inside.

  11. rt says:

    Hello Michelle such an inspirational blog and what an inspirational woman you are. I am currently going through a separation(at 55yo) on my own and am really trying hard to rebuild my life and feel happiness again. But the struggle of where I’m at in my life and doing it on my own, really hurts me. But I am learning to just let my pain be and acknowledge what I’m feeling is okay. I’ve noticed this helps loosen the grip it can have over me at times.
    I am trying to help myself accept what is and cope as well as I can until things change and better things come along for me. And I really do believe and feel they eventually will.
    All the best with your journey and thank you for the knowledge you have given me to help me stay strong and be strong along my journey. xo

  12. Jamie Wyatt says:

    Relaxing into the pain is something I discovered to be really helpful. When we are in pain, we unconsciously tense up. When I consciously helped my body relax, I found it lessened my pain. Hope you are well on the road to recovery!

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  14. Hi Michelle ,

    Living in the present moment during unfavorable situations is really difficult.
    During those unfavorable moments ,our energy becomes resistant in nature by not accepting the situation.I like the fact that you mention and acknowledge the situation, which helps in accepting the situation to find out the solution.

    Thanks for giving us these tools to work on being in the present moment during rough periods of our life through this post .
    Jagriti Aanand´s last blog post ..Why do some windows reflect more light?

  15. Keaton says:

    Inspired writing and full of life giving advice. Thankful for Michelle Russell Today.

  16. Tash Thomas says:

    Thank You for this brilliant post, I share many of your thoughts and feelings and have a friend who will definitely benefit from reading this.

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