How being present protects you at work

lotus flower emerging from water

May 6, 2020

We don’t leave ourselves behind when we go to work, we take our whole selves in. Some days it is easy to keep ourselves separate. But when we are tired, have a special connection to a client or patient, have difficulties of our own, or are touched by the moment, it is not always possible, or appropriate, to maintain a separation. We feel their joy and we feel their pain. And sometimes it touches ours.

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With the fast pace of our modern lives, we have become increasingly disconnected from our feelings, bodies, relationships and the natural world. We only need to look at the increased statistics in chronic illness, youth mental illness, loneliness and the poor state of the environment for confirmation.

Inherent in this disconnection is our diminished capacity to be present – within ourselves and in relation to others. We avoid discomfort, painful feelings and memories, thereby hiding from ourselves and others, often without even realising it.

What does ‘being present’ mean and why is it important for the helping professions?

Presence: through the eyes of a 3 year old

When my daughter was 3 years old we lived near a big old river, flanked by beautiful eucalypts, and surrounded by the sound of magpies singing and the changing sounds of the running water.

Following heavy rain, one of our joys was to pack up the car with a raincoat, gumboots, scarves, beanies, and an entire change of clothes. One section of the river grew an enormous puddle that stretched for well over five metres. We would drive down, jump out of the car and she would don her gumboots, scarf and beanie.

Our sole purpose was for her to run through the gigantic puddle.

With great anticipation and single-minded focus, she would stand at the edge of the puddle, waiting to take off: “ready, steady… go!”.

photo: victoria bodinova

Off she went! Up and down through the middle of that puddle over and over, until she was soaked through with muddy water. Squealing. Laughing. Wet. Muddy. Exuberant.

I felt such joy in watching her. It was a combination of her joy and my joy. Joy squared.

We would then return to the car for a change of clothes, and head back to the warmth and cosiness of the fireplace at home.

What does presence have to do with working in the helping professions?

Just as we become dirty and wet when running through muddy puddles, we also are impacted by our work with people. We don’t leave ourselves behind when we go to work, we take our whole selves in. Some days it is easy to keep ourselves separate. But when we are tired, have a special connection to a client or patient, have difficulties of our own, or are touched by the moment, it is not always possible, or appropriate, to maintain a separation. We feel their joy and we feel their pain. And sometimes it touches ours.

You cannot wipe the tears off another’s face without getting your own hands wet

Zulu proverb

Being present to our experience helps us become aware of when and how we are being impacted by others and our environment. The muddy puddle reminds us of children’s innate ability to be in the present moment. As adults we find ourselves busy, and being present becomes harder to achieve.

What does being present mean?

Being present is synonymous with being mindful. Mindfulness, as defined by Jon Kabat-Zinn, founder of Mindfulness-Based Stress Reduction, involves an “awareness that arises through paying attention, on purpose, in the present moment, non-judgementally ... sometimes in the service of self-understanding and wisdom.”

The team at Relational Change in the UK describe presence as being “energetically available and fluidly responsive” to the self, other/s and the situation. This parallels Dr Dan Siegel's definition of the mind as “a relational and embodied process”, which holds the integration of the body, feelings, thoughts and interaction with others at its core.

Looking at these descriptions, we can understand presence to involve

  • having an awareness of ourselves on purpose
  • being connected to our experience (thoughts, feelings, physical sensations)
  • interacting with and responding to others and the environments around us in a reciprocal exchange

The pain of presence

It is a pleasure having this awareness when we are feeling relaxed, having fun or experiencing joy. However, it can be a challenge when faced with the awareness of our own physical or emotional pain, or that of others.

When we add in a huge workload, inadequate support at work and managing traumatic relationships or events as part of the job, the burden of meeting others’ pain becomes hard to bear.  Over time we can turn off and numb ourselves to the discomfort.

Self numbing is an understandable survival strategy, but it’s problematic because we:

  • become numb to both negative AND positive feelings and experiences
  • disconnect from our bodies
  • lose our ability to connect with our patients / clients
  • can become absent in our work, or lose concentration


Ultimately this level of disconnection can mean we fail to support ourselves adequately, and it becomes harder to know how we are being affected by people and situations. This is risky for our clients and for us. It is a recipe for depression, anxiety, compassion fatigue, burnout, and  vicarious trauma. It also increases the likelihood of making poor decisions, which can lead to danger in some situations.

Tips for becoming more present at work and home

Start with a simple practice

Whilst there are organisational responsibilities to support staff, there are lots of things that you can do to develop presence. Keeping the definitions above in mind, as long as you are paying attention on purpose and practicing noticing your responses to your sensations or to others, anything is possible. It is often easier to start practicing this with a regular time or place. Find what suits you.

Here are some ideas:

  • when you have a cup of tea notice the sensation of the warm cup in your hands
  • notice the expansion and contraction of your lungs as you breathe in and out
  • notice the colours around you as you go about your day: the sky, clothes people are wearing, the room you are in
  • pay attention to the sensation of stroking your cat or dog
  • be aware of the sights and sounds as you go for a walk, or
  • take in the full experience of the sunrise or sunset wherever you are

There are so many more ideas! What works for you?

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photo: tim hart


Related Resources

Header image: Carlos de Miguel