Picture yourself at a party. What do you do? Do you scan the room looking for someone to flirt with? If no one flirts with you, do you feel less desirable? Do you feel best when flirting with a person whom you know is attached to someone else in the room?
As humans, once our basic needs are met, much of our conscious and unconscious behaviors are meant to make us feel loved and valued. But this love and value can come from external or internal sources. Internally, the source of love and value is self-esteem. And externally, this love and value tends to take one of two forms – either the long-term reinforcement of the self that comes from good friends, family or a committed relationship, or the short-term benefits of narcissistic behaviors in which we seek attention, admiration or adoration. One is a band aid, the other is a cure.
If enough of your external validation comes from attention, it can become an addiction – a dependence on the affirmations of others in order to feel a sense of worth. For example, I have a beautiful, 31-year-old patient who spent her last session talking about how ugly she must be because when she went out for a drink with her girlfriends, no one flirted with her. Unless others saw her beauty, she was incapable of seeing it herself — she needed the very literal “fix” of attention to bring her self-worth back to baseline.
And believe it or not, you can even see this attention addiction online. In 2011, researchers from the University of Kentucky published this article describing how narcissists and non-narcissists represent themselves in internet profiles and communications. Of course, narcissists displayed intentionally sexy or self-promoting photos on their Facebook profile pages, but they were especially likely to use sexy photos when they had promoted themselves less in the rest of their profile. If they didn’t cry for attention with their words, they were even more likely to cry for attention with their pictures!
Further research shows the effects of this narcissistic, attention-seeking form of band-aiding the self in comparison with the internal experience of self-esteem. Basically, narcissists felt as if they alone were awesome, whereas people with high self-esteem felt like both they and their romantic partners were awesome. Self-esteem builds community, whereas narcissistic attention-seeking rips it down.
What it comes down to is this: only through the internal experience of self-esteem can you ensure that your external validation takes the form of a constructive relationship instead of serial attention-seeking.
This new blog, Inside Out, starts with a six-post series on attention-seeking behaviors. We’ll explore unconscious attention-seeking strategies, where the need for attention comes from, and the idea I hear so often from women in my practice that others’ attention may take away from their own. Please contribute your voice! I’d love to hear from you either in these comments or at the social media links below. How do you or your partner seek and experience attention? How does it affect your relationship? Let me know and I’ll work to answer your questions as we dig deep into this difficult topic.