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Mental & Emotional Health

How to Be Emotionally Present to Life's Challenges

by Jennifer Kunst, Ph.D.

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’s 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 actually are there!

Worries about travel are difficult to manage, but not nearly as difficult as worries about challenges that we do not choose in which the pain far outweighs the pleasure, where the journey lasts a long time and has an uncertain ending. Perhaps you are going through an experience like this—an injury, illness, grief, divorce, unemployment, 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, then 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 to 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 rollercoaster ride of battling cancer. With a nod to psychologist Ram Dass, the note said, “Be here now.”

We can try to get around life. We can try to take a short-cut around the pain. We can try to circumvent the difficulties. But we can’t actually avoid the journey. If we try to do so, then the short-cutting 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.

Dr. Jennifer Kunst is a licensed clinical psychologist and certified psychoanalyst in private practice in Pasadena, CA. She is a senior faculty member at the Psychoanalytic Center of California in Los Angeles, where she is Chair of the Continuing Education Committee, past chair of the Curriculum Committee, and teaches courses on the work of Melanie Klein. In addition, she is an adjunct associate professor at the Graduate School of Psychology at Fuller Theological Seminary in Pasadena, where she has taught doctoral level courses in psychoanalysis and psychological testing for fifteen years. For more about her work, click here. Her book, Wisdom from the Couch: Knowing and Growing Yourself from the Inside Out, can be purchased from www.amazon.com,  www.barnesandnoble.com  and through all major booksellers.