A man staying in the present moment as he watches the sun beat down on a lake and mountains.

Are you worried about the future? Do you know how to stay in the present moment?

One self-sabotaging behavior is being unable to stay in the present. Instead, you’re trapped in the past or overwhelmed with worries about the future.

Find out how to stay in the present so you’re free of stress.

Being Unable to Stay in the Present

In his book Your Erroneous Zones, Wayne W. Dyer argues that it’s hard to learn how to stay in the present moment when you trap yourself in the past. You do this by holding onto self-limiting beliefs and memories that don’t serve you. You may have self-imposed labels (for example, you’re scatterbrained) or believe you are bad at doing some things (like math or art) because these were the messages you heard as a child. Dyer says these labels end up being self-fulfilling prophecies that prevent growth and present-moment happiness—they keep you from new experiences and opportunities that can help you overcome those labels.

(Shortform note: Along with the beliefs that you’re aware of, you may also have limiting beliefs you developed unknowingly. In Everything Is Figureoutable, Marie Forleo writes that your beliefs stem from five sources: your surroundings, proof, your models, your history, and your dreams. Once you’ve reflected on and identified self-limiting beliefs, you can overcome them by adding a new belief: that you can figure out anything you set your mind to. This enables you to combat the negative effects of self-limiting beliefs.)

Aside from holding onto self-limiting beliefs, you may be locked in the past because you carry guilt, says Dyer. You may feel like you must do penance for things you’ve done. But Dyer asserts that guilt is useless because no amount of it can change what’s already happened. While he says self-reflection and learning from the past are important, wallowing in guilt is destructive because you allow your past to dictate your present, derailing your fulfillment and happiness.

(Shortform note: In The Art of Happiness, the Dalai Lama and psychiatrist Howard C. Cutler describe guilt as a denial of suffering, which hinders your happiness. They contend that to be happy, you must accept suffering—in the case of guilt, that means accepting that you, like all humans, make mistakes that cause other people to suffer. Instead of punishing yourself and stoking unconstructive feelings of guilt, they advise approaching mistakes as learning experiences.)

While guilt leaves you stuck in the past, writes Dyer, worry casts your gaze forward, paralyzing you with fear about the future. Although Dyer says that planning for the future is a constructive and practical use of the present, thinking too much about it can make you overly anxious about events that may never happen. He points out that most worries revolve around things that are out of your control, leading to unnecessary stress, wasting your emotional and mental energy, and robbing you of the opportunity to find joy in what’s happening right now.

(Shortform note: In How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Dale Carnegie agrees with Dyer that not worrying about the future doesn’t mean you shouldn’t prepare for it. He writes that it’s necessary to save for your retirement, plan your schedule, and so on—but trying to prepare for the future by predicting what will happen is a waste of time. Additionally, worry doesn’t just rob you of the present by making you more focused on things that haven’t (and may not) happen rather than on what’s actually happening—it may also affect your health. Carnegie writes that worry can manifest in ulcers, headaches, insomnia, cardiac issues, diabetes, and rashes, among other issues.) 

How to Stay in the Present

To stay firmly rooted in the present instead of being preoccupied with the past and the future, Dyer recommends that you:

1) Accept that the past is unchangeable. Stop dwelling on it, except to reflect on how you can deal with a similar situation in the future so that you won’t feel regret. (Shortform note: In The Power of Now, Eckhart Tolle writes that the past only exists in your mind: The past was Now when it happened, but in this moment, the past consists only of memories. The more we live in the past, the more we carry pain from past moments with us into the present, which creates resentment, sadness, bitterness, and unforgiveness on top of guilt and regret.)

2) Deliberately do something guilt-inducing. This helps you develop your tolerance for guilt until you learn not to be controlled by it. For example, say no to extra work or spend money on getting your nails done.

(Shortform note: Aside from deliberately doing something guilt-inducing, you can develop your tolerance for guilt by managing your response to guilt trips. A guilt trip is when another person manipulates you to feel bad about your decision. For example, they might make passive-aggressive comments, or they might bring up their sacrifices for you or your past mistakes even if they’re irrelevant. To deal with guilt trips, experts advise being clear about your boundaries and trying to understand why the other person is guilt-tripping you.)  

3) Reflect on your past worries. What were some things you worried about in the past? Did these worries come to pass? Examining your worries in this way can help you see the times when worrying was unhelpful and can encourage you to put your anxieties to rest.

4) Allow yourself to worry for a fixed time. Tell yourself that you’ll only worry about something for the next 10 minutes, shortening the time period each time a new worry crops up. 

5) Prepare for the worst-case scenario. Dyer says the best way to ease your worries is to prepare for them, so think about the chances that what you’re worried about will happen, then if chances are high, make a plan for dealing with it. (Shortform note: In How to Stop Worrying and Start Living, Carnegie gives more tips for letting go of worry: 1) Focus on one day at a time, 2) analyze your worries by gathering objective information, sorting through the information, and taking action to calm your worry, 3) cultivate a positive attitude by reframing your thoughts when it comes to irritations and concerns and adopting new habits like being too busy to worry, and 4) manage three common worry triggers: criticism, work, and finances.)

How to Stay in the Present Moment: 5 Ways to Let Go of the Past

Katie Doll

Somehow, Katie was able to pull off her childhood dream of creating a career around books after graduating with a degree in English and a concentration in Creative Writing. Her preferred genre of books has changed drastically over the years, from fantasy/dystopian young-adult to moving novels and non-fiction books on the human experience. Katie especially enjoys reading and writing about all things television, good and bad.

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