Attention-Seeking Is Not A Bad Word & Why We Need To Talk About It

Attention-seeking is not a well-received behaviour in our society. This attitude towards attention-seeking is understandable as there are often very problematic ways people go about seeking attention: it can be manipulative, passive aggressive, and potentially emotionally-abusive. These are not appropriate or healthy behaviours, but if we pause for a moment and put aside our judgments, we have the opportunity to look within attention-seeking behaviours and develop a better understanding of the individual using these behaviours as well as what it reflects about our society. It is important to note that understanding attention-seeking behaviours does not necessarily mean they should be encouraged or that they are entirely excusable. But understanding and the empathy that can follow, are key as they often are for various things in life.

Attention-seeking is a normal behaviour in children and generally considered much more forgivable in that age group because children have a limited view of the world beyond themselves and their needs in any given moment. Awareness of others is something that develops with time and experience. Attention-seeking behaviours in adults are less well-tolerated because at that point in someone's life we are expected to have a much better sense of 1. addressing our own needs, 2. the fact that other people around us have needs as well and these needs may contrast with our own, and 3. life is tough so "suck it up buttercup."

At its core, attention-seeking is about meeting un-met needs. Every human being on the planet has needs and strives to address them. Having needs is not the issue, it's just human nature. How we go about meeting those needs and why we feel we can only go about meeting our needs in certain ways are where things become problematic.

The How & The Why:

Often when people think of attention-seeking behaviour they think of self-injurious behaviour (cutting and other forms of self-harm) or the threat of such behaviour (sometimes even suicidal statements). Other forms of attention-seeking behaviour "can take the form of behaving in a loud, dramatic, or inappropriate manner, exhibitionism, exaggerating behaviors and emotions, sexual provocation or promiscuity, and engaging in blatant self-destructive acts like substance abuse..." (Kvarnstrom, 2015). I would also argue that eating disorder behaviours (or the eating disorder itself) can also be indirect ways of seeking attention and care.

These types of behaviours can be both problematic for the person doing them as well as for others the behaviours are directed towards and again, exploring the reasons for these behaviours is not an excuse for them. For example, threatening suicide as a form of manipulation, is emotional abuse. It may not be the intention of the person threatening to be emotionally abusive, but regardless, that is the outcome of such threats. The purpose of developing understanding about attention-seeking behaviours is not to excuse them, rather to uncover where they come from and thus how to better address the person's underlying needs. Shaming people does little to actually address the underlying issues.

While attention-seeking is not a mental health issue in and of itself it is certainly associated with various mental health conditions, in particular, borderline personality disorder (BPD). I do want to include BPD and stigma in this discussion, but I also want to recognize that I do not have a diagnosis of BPD so I do not have that lived experience from which to speak. I can certainly relate to aspects of the disorder in terms of my own mental health issues and I have close friends who do live with this condition, but my experiences are limited compared to someone who lives the reality of BPD day in and day out. 

BPD sufferers endure an incredible amount of stigma largely because of impulsive and frequent self-harming behaviours that can be attention-seeking in nature. The disorder has a number of features, including difficulty with emotional regulation, a high degree of reactivity to environmental and social stimuli, unstable self-image (often negative), chronic feelings of emptiness, rapid shifts in the perception of others (called "splitting" where the individual may shift from idealization to disillusionment of others), and dissociative symptoms.

Research has shown significant negative judgments towards the condition even among health professionals in positions of providing support to individuals with BPD. The patients are seen has having more control over their behaviour than patients with other mental health conditions. Again, control and choice are interesting subjects in mental health discussions, I certainly don't want to remove personal responsibility from an individual regardless of whether they have a mental health condition or not, but it's a complicated topic.

A friend once described BPD to me as having no skin, being completely raw all the time, nerve endings exposed and firing at the slightest hint of touch (a breeze even). As a self-described, overly sensitive person, I can understand (at least some degree of) feeling thin-skinned. It can be excruciating and frightening to the point where it becomes easier to pretend one feels nothing because one in fact, feels everything. Such intense feelings make self-reflection and rational thinking incredibly difficult in emotional moments. It is the most human thing in the world to react to deeply wounding feelings of hurt and vulnerability. Perhaps not always the most useful or healthy, but certainly human.

Attention-seeking then becomes a cry for help, a voice for pain, a means of speaking the things we have learned we are not allowed to say.

In the final chapter of her book, the Empathy Exams, Leslie Jamison explores the cultural "disdain for pain that is understood as performed rather than legitimately felt." Called a "wound dweller" by an ex-boyfriend, Jamison was struck by the term and the dialogue behind it. In her essay, she explores the question of how we talk about pain (because pain does happen, wounds are created and felt and lived) without romanticizing it.

"What’s fertile in a wound? Why dwell in one? Wounds promise authenticity and profundity, beauty and singularity, desirability. They summon sympathy. They bleed enough light to write by. They yield scars full of stories and slights that become rallying cries. They break upon the fuming fruits of damaged engines and dust these engines with color. And yet—beyond and beneath their fruits—they still hurt. The boons of a wound never get rid of it; they just bloom from it. It’s perilous to think of them as chosen. Perhaps a better phrase to use is wound appeal, which is to say: the ways a wound can seduce, how it promises what it rarely gives. My friend Harriet put it like this: “Pain that gets performed is still pain.”

So after all this, how can I tell you about my scars?"

Scars. If you've "earned" them our culture might look at them as something honourable. A physical injury or event you've survived. But what if you've given those scars to yourself? Jamison describes online chat boards that entirely center around hating "cutters" (or those who self-harm by cutting themselves.) "They're just doing it for attention" is the remark. But as Jamison says, "a cry for attention is positioned as a crime, as if attention were inherently a selfish thing to want. But isn’t wanting attention one of the most fundamental traits of being human—and isn’t granting it one of the most important gifts we can ever give?"

People cry out because they hurt. They may have also learned that they should not cry out in very apparent ways because this will be dismissed so they cry out in subtler ways, needing desperately to express it, but also hoping someone will notice their pain and help them heal it.

 Echoing Jamison's statements, "I wish we lived in a world where no one wanted to cut. But I also wish that instead of disdaining cutting or the people who do it—shrugging it off, just youthful angst—we might direct our attention to the unmet needs beneath its appeal. Cutting is an attempt to speak and an attempt to learn. Blood comes before the scar; hunger before the apple. I hurt myself to feel is the cutter’s cliché, but it’s also true. Bleeding is experiment and demonstration, excavation, interior turned out—and the scar remains as residue, pain turned to proof. I don’t think cutting offers any useful articulation of pain, but I do think it manifests yearning, and it makes me wonder if we could come to a place where proof wasn’t necessary at all.

A 2001 study called “The Girl Who Cried Pain” tries to make sense of the fact that men are more likely than women to be given medication when they report pain to their doctors. Women are more likely to be given sedatives. The study makes visible a disturbing set of assumptions: It’s not just that women are prone to hurting— pain that never goes away—but also that they’re prone to making it up. The report finds that despite evidence that “women are biologically more sensitive to pain than men … [their] pain reports are taken less seriously.” Less seriously meaning, more specifically, “they are more likely to have their pain reports discounted as ‘emotional’ or ‘psychogenic’ and, therefore, ‘not real.’ ” 

But pain, be it mental or physical, is an entirely subjective experience. No one can say what another person's experience of pain is, but we certainly have a great many ideas about what pain is "real" or not. Sometimes it's hard not to have those judgments about when we feel a person is exaggerating or just needs to "toughen up." These are deeply ingrained cultural attitudes.

Sometimes attention-seeking as self-destruction takes alternate forms. In her essay Jamison goes on to describe how eating disorders can function as attention-seeking behaviours. The passage in her book can be a bit triggering, but it describes something I have felt in my own experience rather acutely (though it took a long time to become self-aware in this regard.) 

"In a book about her anorexia, Caroline Knapp describes standing in a kitchen and taking off her shirt, on the pretext of changing outfits, so her mother could see her bones more clearly:

I wanted her to see how the bones in my chest and shoulders stuck out, and how skeletal my arms were, and I wanted the sight of this to tell her something I couldn’t have begun to communicate myself: something about pain … an amalgam of buried wishes and unspoken fears.

Whenever I read accounts of the anorexic body as a semiotic system (as Knapp says, “describing in flesh a pain I could not communicate in words”) or an aesthetic creation (“the inner life … as a sculpture in bone”), I feel an old wariness. Not just at the familiarity of these metaphors—one as hieroglyph, clavicle as cry—but at the way they risk performing the same valorization they claim to refute: ascribing eloquence to the starving body, a kind of lyric grace. I feel like I’ve heard it before: The author is still nostalgic for the belief that starving could render angst articulate. I used to write lyrically about my own eating disorder in this way, taking recourse in bone-as--art-language, documenting the gradual dumb show of my emergent parts—knobs and spurs and ribs. 

But underneath this wariness—must we stylize?— remember that starvation is pain, beyond and beneath any stylized expression: There is an ache at its root and an obsession attending every moment of its realization. The desire to speak about that obsession can be symptom as much as cure; everything ultimately points back to pain—even and especially these clutches at nostalgia or abstraction.

What I appreciate about Knapp’s kitchen bone show, in the end, is that it doesn’t work. Her mom doesn’t remark on the skeleton in her camisole. The subject only comes up later, at the dinner table, when Knapp drinks too much wine and tells her parents she has a problem. The soulful silent cry of bones in kitchen sunlight—that elegiac, faintly mythic anorexia—is trumped by Merlot and messy confession. 

If using your body to speak betrays a fraught relationship to pain—hurting yourself but also keeping quiet about the hurt, implying it without saying it—then having it “work” (mother noticing the bones) would somehow corroborate the logic: Let your body say it for you. But here it doesn’t. We want our wounds to speak for themselves, Knapp seems to be saying, but usually we end up having to speak for them." 

I too wanted to speak through my body though I sometimes wasn't sure what I wanted to say because there were many things and it was never loud enough to feel satisfying. In the end, there was nothing satisfying about screaming silently. I thought I just wanted to be thin, to be perfect, to be in control, but what I wanted was to allow myself to be cared for and to feel loved. Worry was equated with love in my mind and yet I hated worrying others, but it was also a way for me to see that I mattered to them. I didn't realize this for years and even while I know better now, it's still a deeply rooted belief in my mind that worry is love (and the only way to feel loved). I don't know how this was the message I carried forward from childhood, but it's taken years of work to try and even approach undoing it. My eating disorder had many other facets to it (many other things I've tried to say), but this one has really stuck out to me. I didn't know that I wanted to feel close to others or craved feeling safe or longed to feel loved partly because the world often says that asking for these kinds of things is weak when in fact it's just fundamentally human. 

As Jamison writes, "we don't want to be wounds (we don't want to live in our wounds), but we should be allowed to have them and to speak about having them." We should be able to say it hurts and I need some help and be heard with compassion even if people don't know how to help. Even if something seems like it is "just for attention" the question should then become "well why is it that this person seeks attention this way and what is it they are actually seeking and how can we help them find it?" It might not be something we can even help them find and that's not necessarily what they need from us anyhow. People often don't need us to try and "fix" them, they simply need to be listened to and taken seriously. Pain that is not acknowledged still exists for the person experiencing it and loneliness can intensify it.

Life is hard for all of us in various ways, but we often don't talk about how hard it is because that kind of open sharing and vulnerability is often still viewed as weakness and god forbid we ever appear weak or express vulnerability of any kind! So we don't talk about pain or hardship or needing to feel loved or connected to others directly, but we still need these things and when we aren't getting those needs met, we find other ways to speak.

Of course none of this is to say that when you're on the other end of attention-seeking behaviour that feels manipulative or is potentially emotionally-abusive, that it's on you to simply accept this type of behaviour from others. Certainly not. One never deserves to be another person's punching bag, but I do think understanding can be helpful. It doesn't necessarily change the need for firm boundaries, but it can be helpful to both parties. What's challenging is that the person who is using potentially problematic behaviours to seek attention may not be very insightful or aware in those moments and it's not necessarily anyone else's duty to help them reach self-awareness. Rather I think empathy is an incredibly important tool because it can allow one to see why another person does something, it can allow for exploration of the various intentions that may result in the same outcome. I personally think there's a very big difference between someone who is intentionally seeking to manipulate another versus someone who isn't entirely aware that that's what they're necessarily doing, even if that is the result.

The take home message I want to encourage is that attention is a basic human need and shaming people for seeking it doesn't really address why they go about seeking it in sometimes unhealthy ways. Empathy and self-awareness are important as are firm boundaries and refusing to tolerate emotionally-abusive behaviour. We live in a culture that encourages "going it alone" and "toughing it out," but understanding our needs and being able to clearly articulate them is a much better way of addressing them. Ignoring them doesn't mean they go away. Just as it's important to learn to articulate our needs (e.g. I am hurting), it's important to be able to articulate when we are not able to necessarily help another person who articulates these things to us. This is the root of healthy and open communication.

 -S. Ritchey