Have you ever been called an attention seeker? Have you used the phrase “attention seeker” to describe someone else? Recent discussion around attention-seeking points us to a truth that has always been the case: attention-seeking isn’t necessarily bad.
The fact is that we all need attention. Attention from others is a natural human need. Social support has proven health benefits, and it’s vital to care for the people in our communities. So, the people brave enough to ask for attention might be onto something.
What if attention seeking isn’t the problem we tend to think it is? In this article, we will discuss why it’s so important not to write people off as attention seekers.
Then, we will discuss potential reasons behind attention-seeking behavior, and finally, how it can be leveraged for good.
There are times when mental health concerns are written off as “attention-seeking behaviors.” Before we get into anything else, it’s vital to address this and dispel the myths around it.
All of the following “attention-seeking behaviors” are serious struggles in which the person truly needs the support of others:
First, many people who endure these concerns hide more than others realize. “Attention seekers” may ask for help the same proportion of the time that you do. They might just experience more situations that could benefit from help and support.
Second, it’s common for people who battle mental health struggles like eating disorders, self-harm, and suicidal ideation to feel deep shame (even self-hatred). In fact, these “attention seekers” may accuse themselves of “faking it” or wanting attention–even if they experience many symptoms or negative thoughts without other people around.
Third, calling someone an attention seeker can cause immense damage, by leading someone to internalize what they’re going through even more. After hearing this insult, they may stop asking for help or taking their problems seriously enough to get help.
Perhaps most importantly, how is it fair for any of us to decide when others are allowed to ask for attention and support? Even if someone’s behavior really is a “cry for help,” why shouldn’t we listen to those cries?
Many so-called attention seeking behaviors stem from involuntary causes. For example, excessive crying, laughing, and other symptoms of mental or even physical health conditions are often out of a person’s control. Anxious attachment style can also cause attention seeking behavior, accidentally.
Perhaps, you have a classmate or colleague who has reactions that seem disproportionate to everyday stressors, fears, or even specific topics that you don’t think are a big deal. Maybe, you have a friend or family member who talks about their mental health battles often.
Talking about mental health is shown to be positive for overall well-being, so a person who opens up in an appropriate way isn’t wrong to do so just because they are breaking the mold.
This is one of many reasons why it’s crucial to break the stigma around mental health!
Most of the conscious and subconscious motivations for attention seeking are healthy and even helpful. When is attention seeking healthy, and when does it become the actual problem many think it is?
The need to be seen is a common reason people seek attention, and it’s certainly not a bad one. You deserve to feel and be seen.
It could be that you feel misunderstood or that other people can’t see the level of emotional pain you’re in. You might feel lonely and unheard. In that case, it makes sense that you may act in a way that gets you more attention so that you are seen and heard.
It’s similar to how people might yell if that’s the only way other people will listen, and in fact, this is a great example. Maybe, when you were a child, your household was chaotic and emotional. Perhaps, everyone yelled, or you were only heard when you screamed, cried, or otherwise acted out. As an adult, you likely get to decide who you’re around more often you did as a child. It’s possible to find people who will see you and listen to you even if you don’t raise your voice.
If you need to feel seen, reach out to people who do see you, or seek them out through peer support options like Supportiv, support groups, and loved ones such as friends.
Codependency, not to be confused with interdependence, can be unhealthy.
If the fear of being alone manifests in behaviors that harm your relationships (e.g., harming yourself or threatening to do so in order to get affection, love, and attention or angry outbursts), it is time for a change. However, the fear of being alone is valid, and you deserve to feel secure.
In a healthy relationship of any kind, there are ways to connect and increase feelings of security. It can help to work on attachment, seek out people who want secure, stable bonds, too, and to ask for more. For example, you may ask for family-style dinners with friends, date nights with a partner, or healthy reassurance from a loved one.
Attention seeking can look like a drive to be overly helpful. When it veers from wanting to be helpful to wanting to be seen as helpful – or overstepping, nitpicking, and trying to change other people who did not ask to be changed – it becomes a problem. Problematic attention seeking here might look like inserting yourself into situations or even calling attention to parts of others’ lives that they don’t see as problems.
Everyone’s different, and you can’t make choices for the majority of other people in your life. Radical acceptance can help you accept this fact. Accept that you can’t change others and can only control yourself – and, take it as an opportunity to focus on yourself more.
Maybe, you have a need that you find it tough to express – or, you have expressed it, and no one seems to listen. This is a reasonable source of frustration, but can drive unhelpful forms of attention seeking.
If you use specific behaviors, such as acting or speaking in a passive-aggressive fashion, slamming doors, or yelling, in an attempt to get your needs met, it likely indicates that it’s time for a change. But, that doesn’t mean that the root of your behavior is wrong.
Often, if people do this specifically with the goal of getting attention or an accommodation of some kind from another person (that’s not always the case; with it in mind that self-harm and other behaviors can be for other reasons, too, and sometimes do not have anything to do attention seeking, be mindful that this is something you can identify in yourself but should not accuse others of, as it can lead to secrecy and perhaps even worsening behavior that no one knows about) it means that they’re hesitant to say what they actually need.
For example, maybe you want someone to know that you’re upset. That your trauma affects you. That you’re upset because they didn’t take out the trash when they said they would. Or something else.
The fact is that we need to communicate what our needs are to get them met – it can be hard to speak up, but you don’t deserve to hurt yourself. Furthermore, harming yourself, angry outbursts, and acting in a passive-aggressive manner are not actually as effective as they might feel in most circumstances. Regardless, it isn’t the best option.
The caveat is that you can’t change the people around you. If someone can’t meet your need, it doesn’t mean that the need is invalid. Instead, it might be that it’s time to look for others who can meet that specific need, find a way to give yourself what you need, change your expectations, or something else that suits the unique situation.
It takes time to shift this pattern, but it’s possible.
It’s time to re-frame your battles, as well as other people’s. The chances are that if you have an unhealthy coping mechanism, it played an important role in your life at some point. Similarly, if you use attention-seeking behavior, there’s very likely an identifiable need underneath it.
There are times when, even with concerns that require more care and can’t be boiled down to the thought “I want attention” on its own, if you reflect, you can discover what you’re actually looking for. Think of the Billie Eilish lyric, “I’ll try not to starve myself just because you’re mad at me…”
If that’s in any way similar to a thought you have or have had, there’s likely a goal there.
The goal could be to feel better, to show your pain on the outside/by hurting yourself because it is hard for you to communicate something that you need to say through words, or something else. You might be someone who shuts down or gets overwhelmed when they need to speak, leading to silence, anger, nervousness, or self-destructive behavior.
When you identify the reason behind your behavior – and it may take work, especially if it’s a long-standing pattern or if you have a condition that requires professional attention – you can find a healthier way to fulfill the goal. That might mean that you communicate your wants or needs to a romantic partner or family member, use self-care, are vulnerable enough to open up and discuss what’s going on in your life with a peer, ask for more attention or time with someone directly, start spending time with people who readily give you the attention and time you need, or something else.
Just know that you’re strong and that support is out there. Rarely do people act the way they do without a marked reason, and you aren’t broken. Next time you notice attention-seeking behavior in yourself or someone else, try to look at it differently. It doesn’t matter if others like it or understand it. At the end of the day, human beings need attention, and it’s brave to ask for it.
So, give yourself a pat on the back, and look at what’s going on deep down. You might be surprised by what you find!
This article mentions self-harm and eating disorders. If you or someone you know needs help, consider one of the following resources:
National Eating Disorders Association: Call or text 1-800-931-2237
Crisis Text Line: Text “HOME” to 741741
Suicide & Crisis Lifeline: 988