In my work with clients-both individuals and couples, I feel that it's important to spend some time exploring childhood experiences that may have an impact on how we navigate the world and our relationships. Much of how we navigate things can be a result of how our parents and caregivers responded or didn't respond to us growing up. When we begin this exploration, many clients say to me "But my parents were always there, they came to everything. They were always at my games, shows etc." It definitely is a great thing to have the physical presence of our loved ones regularly and at important events in our lives. But sometimes, a key component is missing, and that is having their emotional presence.
We all know the experience of being with another person who just doesn't really feel "there." There can be many reasons for this and this can exist in varying degrees in different moments. But often what we all need and what we especially need as children is someone who is present with us both physically and emotionally. What I mean by emotional presence is someone who is engaged in any given situation or interaction and can connect in a meaningful way. This could look something like: A parent attending a child's sporting event and afterwards saying something like "I noticed you got frustrated/nervous/excited when xyz event happened. Is that right? How did that feel?” This is very different from “Oh good game!” or “Too bad your team lost!”
Often it is not about the quantity of time that we show up for the important people in our lives (even though this is important) but about the quality of that time. Do we show up with our hearts and the desire to connect and understand? Or are we somewhere else entirely even when our physical self is right there? The ability to try to really see the people that we care about, become more deeply curious, and name our own complex emotional experience is an important component that contributes to lasting and fulfilling connection.
-- Liz Hayman, MFT, is a relationship and individual therapist in San Francisco, CA.