A couple weeks back I shared a quote on Facebook that really spoke to me:
“A child is going to remember who was there, not what you spent on them. Kids outgrow toys and outfits, but they never outgrow time and love.”
I love this quote because it puts things in perspective, and it’s true not only for kids but for all of us. Sure, shiny things are nice and appreciated, but what we all really want is love, and time with the people who mean most to us.
For those of us who are fortunate, the holidays are all about connecting with family—whether that means the family we were born into, the one we married (or chose not to marry) into, or the one we pieced together with a ragtag group of misfits just like us.
But being with the people we love isn’t the same as being present with the people we love. Especially if we see these people all the time, it’s easy to be there but not.
I know, because I’ve fallen into this trap myself. I’ve listened to my boyfriend talk while wondering about completely random, inconsequential things, like when This Is Us will start up again or whether I should cut my bangs.
Or, on my worst days, I’ve held a full conversation with someone while rehashing painful memories in my head or worrying about the many things I can’t control.
It’s human nature to sometimes do these things, but there’s no denying it can make a huge difference for the people we love when we’re fully present with them, and that presence is the best gift we can give. How can we do that? Read on…
1. Take care of your own needs.
This may seem like an odd start to this list, since the point is to be present with other people. But it’s much more difficult to be present when we’re exhausted, overwhelmed, or deprived of the things we need to function at our best.
I know this from recent experience. For a number of personal reasons, I haven’t been sleeping well lately, and I haven’t been getting as much exercise as usual because I’ve felt so drained.
As a result, every time I talk to someone I have to consciously repeat what they said in my head, because my tired brain often interprets their words as something sounding like the teacher from Peanuts. I also have to resist the urge to be short with them, which, I’m embarrassed to admit, I sometimes do when I feel tired and sluggish.
Especially if you have kids, it might be tough to get a good night’s sleep, tonight in particular. But do what you can to take care of your needs. Eat a healthy breakfast. Get out for a solo walk to clear your head. Set boundaries with people who drain you. As the saying goes, “You can’t give from an empty cup.”
2. Fully listen—even if it’s a story you heard a million times before.
Everyone wants to feel important, seen, and heard. Give your full attention instead of just waiting to talk, even if it’s a story you could repeat verbatim because you’ve heard it many times before.
We often retell the stories that bring us the most joy—or alternatively, rehash the situations that have brought us the most pain.
You don’t have to be an all-day sounding board for repetitive complaints (boundaries, remember?), but it could make a huge difference to lend your ear, your compassion, and your support, even if just for a while.
3. Drop the judgmental story and accept people for exactly how they are in the moment.
I shared a Winnie the Pooh-related meme on Facebook the other day that really resonated with me. The quote reads:
“One awesome thing about Eeyore is that even though he’s basically clinically depressed, he still gets invited to participate in adventures and shenanigans with all his friends. And they never expect him to pretend to feel happy, they just love him anyway, and they never leave him behind or ask him to change.”
Accept the people you love who are depressed. Accept the people you love who struggle with anxiety. Accept the people who can’t seem to get into the holiday spirit, maybe because they’re grieving or coping with a pain they never discuss.
I don’t know about you, but I’ve been all of these people before. And I appreciated the people who didn’t expect anything more than I could be and give.
It’s such a massive weight off our shoulders to know we can simply show up as we are, without pretending or having to justify why we feel how we feel.
4. Talk first, tech later.
These days we’re all essentially living double lives—the one where our feet take us from place to place and the one we’re our hands swipe from dopamine hit to dopamine hit. (For those who are unfamiliar, dopamine is essentially the “feel good” chemical that gets activated when we experience some type of reward—i.e.: social praise.)
I know how seductive tech connection and social media can be, but try to be fully available to the person right in front of you—even if you’re tempted to text other people “Happy holidays!” during a real-life conversation, or post your ugly Christmas sweater pic on Instagram.
As I’ve said before, your texts will be there later, but the person in front of you will not.
5. Don’t be the Ghost of Christmas Past.
If you’re reliving happy Christmas memories, then sure, go for it. But if you’re comparing this year to years past unfavorably, try to let it all go. Especially if you’re feeling bad about what you did last year versus what you did this year.
So what if you gave more expensive gifts last year? No one reflects with a calculator in hand; they remember the love and thoughtfulness. So what if more people showed up last Christmas? Time with anyone you love is precious, whether it’s one, ten, or more.
This is something I’ve had to work on this year. I’ve only missed one Christmas with my family in my entire life, but for personal reasons, I’m not able to fly back this year.
Given that this is my favorite annual tradition, I’ve resisted, at times, that I won’t get to join “the ginzo convention,” as our gatherings have been called. (My apologies to any Italians who are offended; we actually find this more endearing than derogatory.)
But this year I’ll be with my boyfriend and his parents. And it will be different but no less wonderful. There will be other Christmases with my family, but this is the only opportunity to appreciate and enjoy this year’s plan.
6. Notice the little things.
When we’re caught up in our heads, dwelling on the past or anticipating the future, or otherwise distracting ourselves from the moment, we miss the details.
You can only compliment your sister’s taste in holiday décor if you look up, look around, and take it all in.
You can only notice your grandmother’s new broach (or is it only mine who had an impressive gaudy Christmas pin collection?) if you’re not just looking at her but really seeing her too.
We all love compliments, and the best ones come from people who pay enough attention to notice the little things.
7. Let people know their presence matters.
Okay, so this one isn’t really about giving presence but rather appreciating someone else’s. Because really, that’s what this all comes down to—showing people they’re important to us.
As I mentioned, I didn’t go home this year, and my family knows this has weighed on me. So each of them sent me Christmas cards with gift cards inside. My brother sent his with a Disney gift card, because he knows my boyfriend and I are annual pass holders. But that’s not what touched me most.
Inside the card, he wrote, “Not home, but not forgotten.” Cue the waterworks.
Not that I didn’t already know this, but this reinforced that I’m an important part of my family. My presence matters. I matter. I can’t think of a better gift than that.
8. Sing a song, play a game, watch a home video, or do something that becomes a tradition.
I don’t know about you, but I look forward to certain holiday traditions every year, and because these are things that only happen once a year, it’s instinctive to be fully present.
For example, my brother and I watch A Very Brady Christmas—an incredibly cheesy movie that we enjoy nonetheless. And, though this one isn’t an annual tradition, my family and I regularly re-watch one specific home video from my grandmother’s house, from when I was about five.
My sister, cousins, and I all sang songs (mine being Wudolph the Wed-nosed Weindeer—I was five, remember), and my grandmother had us reenact the story of Jesus’ birth, which she narrated.
Though I no longer hold the same religious beliefs, it still touches me to watch this, especially since my grandmother’s now gone.
If you don’t have a holiday tradition, start one now—something everyone will love and forward to, or love to mock but fully show up for nonetheless.
9. Get people talking about their passions.
While it’s a beautiful thing to give people the gift of your presence, it can be equally beneficial to give them the gift of their presence—and most people find it much easier to be in the moment when they’re talking about something they love.
When someone’s passionate about something, it’s like everything else falls away, kind of like in the movies when the spotlight turns on, the background noise fades, and it’s just the star, the light in their eyes, and they story they can’t not tell.
One of my cousins is really into theater, as I once was, and she’s in her early twenties, so she’s just coming into her own and figuring out who she wants to be. Whenever she talks about plays or auditions or the many impressive things she’s doing to give this a go, her enthusiasm is magnetic.
And not only does this get her excited, it reminds me to keep pursuing what sets my heart on fire—to keep dreaming, keep trying, and keep filling my life with possibilities. So really, this is a gift we give and a gift we get.
10. If you have trouble being present, just be present with yourself.
Sometimes, despite our best intentions, we struggle to do all the ‘right’ things. I’ve often been hard on myself when I struggle because I want to do everything perfectly. I want to be perfectly considerate. Perfectly open-minded. Perfectly compassionate. Perfectly present.
But we’re only human. Sometimes all these great practices are just plain hard to apply. Sometimes we’re tired, or sick, or overwhelmed, or anxious. Sometimes we can’t let go of the pain someone once caused, or can’t stop thinking about pain that might come.
And I’ve decided that’s okay. It’s okay to not be perfect. It’s okay to briefly be present and then get lost in our head for a bit. It’s okay to accept someone in front of us then judge someone else—so long as we eventually recognize what we’re doing.
All we can really do in these human moments is be aware, accept ourselves as we are, and give ourselves permission to be perfectly imperfect. The best way to get present again is to accept that we sometimes won’t be, let go when we struggle, and then try again.