“Live in the now.” “Stay present.” It’s one of the big pieces of advice we get when we want to feel better about our lives. Many of my clients express great frustration with their inability to do just that, though. So, for me, just trying to be present isn’t enough. We have to go to the heart of the matter—why we aren’t just staying present automatically?

People say that not living in the now is a result of our focus on either the past or the future, instead of the present moment. That’s a good start, but I still ask why we would feel the need to do that. The core answer is that we feel that there is something wrong with us. So, we either look back and lament. . .I wasn’t good enough, I didn’t get their approval, I didn’t fit in, I didn’t win, and on, and on. Or, we plan or worry about how we can do things in the future. . .how to be more perfect, how to win others’ approval, how to plan things carefully enough, how to make good things happen, and so on. (And if you’re like me, you’ve done a lot of both!)

You might be someone who is pretty good at refocusing yourself to the present. Or, you might be like my clients who either have never been able to do that (no matter how hard they tried) or whose ability to do that has fallen apart. If you’re in one of the two latter categories, it might be time to address the core of the issue, the feeling that there’s something wrong with you.

Even when you know that this negative feeling is the root of your inability to stay present, it isn’t as simple as just letting go of it. (I wish it were!) That’s because this feeling that something is wrong with you has been with you from early in your life. From conception until the age of 2 1/2, you absorb this negative feeling, which I call Learned Distress, from your parents, siblings and others around you. Learned Distress gets embedded in your sense of self, which becomes the generating force behind every moment of your life. Learned Distress is also largely how you learned to survive and fit well with your early surroundings. So, your brain doesn’t easily let go of this negative feeling, even when you begin to realize how counterproductive it is to feel this way.

But, when people are able to access their sense of self and permanently peel away layers of Learned Distress, not only does the brain let go of the negative feeling, but it also starts to generate moments from natural well-being. When your situations are generated automatically from well-being, you just feel good now. The need to refocus is gone and instead of using lots of energy to try and be present, you get to just enjoy wherever you are and who you are at that moment.

My clients who have been able to refocus themselves (despite it being difficult) are amazed at how much more energy they have to just enjoy their lives when they don’t have to work so hard. They say it’s like getting to sit back and enjoy the scenery for the first time, instead of just having to focus on driving and staying on the road.

For my clients who have felt unable to stay present, the outcomes are even more dramatic. Just a couple of days ago, a new client described how incredibly different he felt about the day he had just been through. He started the day with a teaching presentation that he gives often. Despite the fact that he has always gotten high praise and excellent feedback on it, he is usually thrown way off balance both before and after it by worry that it won’t be/wasn’t good enough, unable to communicate well with his family in the morning or handle anything well after it. But he said that this day just felt more normal. Instead of the day running together in one anxious blur, he presented and felt good about it, then moved on to a list of diverse tasks he rattled off to me, saying that he just ticked each off his list and felt complete and unhurried at the end of the day. He said he just felt more capable, without having put any extra work or planning towards that goal.

Does any of this ring a bell for you? Have you struggled with trying to stay present? The feeling that something is wrong with us so often gets in our way, but really getting rid of it clears the path for us to enjoy each moment as it comes.

Sara Avery helps people get unstuck in their relationships, health, career, and self-expression. Learn how she can help you tackle your biggest challenges.