The Power of Presence in Relationships

Presence vs. Independence. Independence gone bad is selfishness. So we try to be selfless. Selflessness gone bad is enmeshment. So we try to be Independent. @DanielTSTephens

Independence gone bad is selfishness. So we try to be selfless. Selflessness gone bad is enmeshment. So we try to be Independent. Do you feel cornered yet?


Amie Patrick has written about this as Self Care vs. Self Denial.

This is a tricky issue to balance. If you go wrong on the side of selfishness, you feel guilty (and rightly so). People in your life can also lay on the guilt when you set good boundaries.

If you go wrong on the side of selflessness, you get worn out. Few people in your life will push back against your selflessness.

The irony is that you’re no help to anyone when you are so tired that you look like the walking dead. You need to be more than just physically present. You also need to be mentally and emotionally present with the people you care about if you are going to be any good to them.

To stop wearing yourself out endlessly, and still live meaningfully with the people you care about, you need to set boundaries.

Physical Presence

The power of physical presence is that sometimes it is all that is needed to bring massive encouragement to someone.

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The problem with physical presence is that you can only be in one place at a time. If you have trouble meeting your commitments and being where you say you’ll be, the problem is boundaries around who or what you spend time on.

You might have more people demanding your time than you actually have time to meet. Prioritize the people who are most important to you, and who you need to set better boundaries with. This will help you be more than just physically present with the people most important to you.

Mental Presence

The power of mental presence is that it empowers communication. You cannot communicate when you have no mental energy.

The problem with mental presence is that it is only slightly less limited than physical presence. You may be able to “multitask,” but you are not at your best when you’re multitasking. You can only be at your best when you are focused. If you struggle to stay focused, the problem is boundaries around what you think and talk about.

Sometimes juggling work and life is required; but when you try to juggle more balls than you can focus on, you’ll drop at least one ball, if not more.

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You need mental energy in order to slow down the pace of a conversation enough to keep it a constructive conversation. If you have no mental energy because you’ve had no boundaries, you’re actually holding your best self back from the people you love.

You can’t think if you are too tired. If you can’t think, you can’t communicate. If you can’t communicate, you can’t have much of a relationship.

Emotional Presence

Just as mental presence is necessary for communication, emotional presence is necessary for two super important things:

  • Remembering times you have felt good
  • Resolving conflict in relationships

The power of emotional presence is that it drives empathy. The more emotionally present you are, the greater capacity you have for empathy.

The problem of emotional presence is that it is the first to go when we get tired and worn out. If you can’t even feel your own emotions, one problem is low emotional awareness, the other is lack of boundaries around what you will spend your emotional energy on.

Being emotionally present is more than just feeling your own emotions and being able to slow down a conversation. If you are emotionally present, you can feel your emotions, and you can think you feel the other person’s emotions. At a higher level, it might even allow you to feel another person’s emotions.

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When you think you feel another person’s emotions, that is empathy. When you actually feel another person’s emotions, that is sympathy. You need emotional presence for both. You need to have a capacity for both empathy and sympathy to survive bad times and thrive in good times.

Empathy will allow you to resolve conflicts. Sympathy with positive and uplifting emotions will help you to solidify happy memories, like graduating from school, getting married, or having children.

“Top Down” Presence

Physical presence is the lowest level of being in another person’s company. Emotional presence is the highest. As we get tired, emotional presence goes first, and physical presence goes last.

I can’t help you have more energy, but I can help you to set better priorities and boundaries.

To help you set better priorities and boundaries, I’ve created a simple two page worksheet that you can download for free by clicking the red button below.

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By Dan

Founder, Executive Director, Mental Health Counselor at Restored Life Counseling