Just because you’re in a room with someone who gets attention, does that mean you get less? In other words, is there a limited pool of attention that you have to compete for with other people?
In my practice, I see so many people who struggle with this question – or, not with the question itself but with their unconscious answer. “Yes!” their unconscious screams, “if she is getting attention and approval and adoration, then I am not!” When someone else gets attention, it makes these patients feel threatened.
This is what psychologists call a social trap. In the short-term, I might fight for attention and win (while you lose!), but trying to siphon this attention into my own container lets water leak from the overall pool. Eventually, there’s not as much for either of us to win. When two people fight for attention, both end up losing in the long run. It’s like a drug: short term pleasure leads to long term pain.
That’s because this competition comes from a place of emotional deprivation – the person who fights for attention isn’t trying to get more of a good thing, but trying desperately to get enough attention to fill a missing part of him or herself. If this person’s self-esteem were already brimming, it wouldn’t be worth tearing down someone else for their personal gain. But because it feels like they can’t survive the night without the boost of personal reinforcement through attention, they’re willing to fight and claw for this emotional need.
But, the need is not weird. We all have such a need.
In some cases, however, maybe there is a missing part of yourself, speaking loosely and metaphorically. This feeling of incompleteness can come from many places: trauma or neglect or emotionally hurtful early relationships are common ones. And so this person who fights for attention – or you! – aren’t just experiencing a bitchy “want,” but are instead experiencing a deep and painful emotional need. This person doesn’t deserve hatred or even pity. This person deserves empathy and compassion.
Maybe her dress is too short and he boasts too much, too loudly. Maybe she’s flipping her hair and he carries a gold cash clip (to offer a couple of terribly stereotypical examples). But at the heart of these attention-seeking behaviors is emotional necessity.
Only this empathy and compassion – for yourself or for this other person who fights for attention – can you plug that leaking hole in the container and eventually allow the water to settle to a level that no longer requires this competition. Give yourself a break. Give him or her a helping hand. And eventually you can stop this attention competition that leaves everyone a loser.
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 addiction to attention, among other ideas. 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.