Focus on today. Be in the moment. Be present. All are meaningful concepts that you’ve heard me talk about before. But it’s important to note that I speak of a focus on today from a balanced perspective. Taken to an extreme a focus on today can be a way to avoid thinking about the past and never look ahead to the future. That’s not what I’m talking about.
Today as a recovery tool
In Twelve Step fellowships you’ll often hear phrases like ‘one day at a time’ or ‘just for today’. These are helpful phrases in recovery because the healing process can feel overwhelming at times. Thinking about how much work you have left to do on your childhood trauma or thinking about your childhood at all can feel overwhelming. Not being able to see how things will ever get better or trying to figure out how it’s possible that you’ll still be sober a few months from now – that can feel overwhelming. Your mind swarming with “What ifs?” – that can feel overwhelming.
At those times, it can be helpful to try to stay in the day that you’re currently experiencing. There’s no one way to do that but here are some ideas:
- Use the slogan one day at a time as a kind of mantra throughout your day
- Gently bring your thoughts back to whatever it is that you happen to be doing in that moment
- Set an alert on your phone to remind yourself to take some deep breaths
- Pause and make a list of things for which you’re grateful in the moment
What I want to be clear about is that I’m not saying that living with a focus on today is the way to live all the time every day. Staying in the present day can be a grounding recovery tool. Learning to be in the moment is powerful and an important part of healthy living. But a mindset of only focusing on the moment, focusing only on today all the time can get in the way of healing.
Today in the extreme
Most things (maybe all?) taken to an extreme can be unhealthy. Being in today is no exception. Taken too far either way will get in the way of healing and of a healthy, balanced way of being in the world.
Being focused on today and the present moment to avoid the past only allows your unhealed trauma more room to wreak havoc on your life. As I’ve mentioned before, the healing work around our childhood trauma is what leads to lasting change. We can’t do that if we’re always focused on today. I’ve had clients tell me that they’ve been advised by caring, well-meaning therapists that they don’t need to think about the past but to stay in the present moment. That saddens me because they’re missing out on healing that will change their life.
Sometimes we focus on today to avoid thinking about the future. Maybe it’s because the future feels scary or we’re uncomfortable with unknowns. Or it could be that we lack hope so it’s easier to stay in today. Truthfully, this also is about avoiding dealing with the past. Because it’s the unfinished business from childhood that drives fear of and doubt about the future.
Today balanced with past and future
For many trauma survivors a focus on the here-and-now was a powerful and needed survival mechanism. But as you heal, you start to move out of hyper-vigilant survival mode, and you no longer need to avoid the past or future.
Maybe a way to think about this is that being able to be present in today allows you to work through past trauma and be open to what’s ahead of you on the path. Being in today can ground you in your current reality (something that wasn’t safe for you as a child) which provides a foundation from which you can explore and be curious about your past and your future.
This idea of holding space for today while staying open to the past and the future is different from the black and white way of thinking that most of us developed as we navigated difficult childhoods. But as with anything else in recovery, we develop new muscles that allow us to think differently and experience life in new ways.
Peace on the journey,
P.S. I came across this great song by India Arie called Just for Today that fits with the focus this week. Enjoy!