Yesterday I got lost on the way to a meeting. I get lost most days. I have no sense of direction. A man who was busy digging up the road asked me if I was lost and I told him I was looking for Church Street. His response was to tell me how to get to Church Street. This was a rational response. An irrational response would have been to say “well you’re only looking lost because you’re trying to find Church Street, so I’m going to make sure you don’t find it.”
It’s the same in any other area of life. If someone wants food, we might offer them food. If they want the heating on, we put the heating on. If they want a favour, we might offer them that favour. But we don’t accuse them of food seeking or heating seeking or favour seeking. And we certainly don’t respond by going out of our way to ensure they don’t get food or heating or whatever.
So why is that if someone is attention seeking, we think the best response is to ignore them? Perhaps we think they don’t have the right to attention. But who are we to decide that? Attention is a basic human need. Did you know that if someone is given absolutely no human interaction as an infant, they will permanently lose the ability to learn to talk fluently, their intelligence will suffer, their physical growth will be slower and there is even a part of their brain that won’t develop properly? Not to mention the obvious severe psychological trauma that will be with them long after their situation has changed. There cannot be many things in life that are so essential that a lack of them can bring that much physical, intellectual, psychological and social damage. These examples come from severe cases of neglect, but I use them to demonstrate the point that attention is one of the most fundamental human needs. Even in much less extreme cases; cases where someone gets a lot of attention, but not quite enough; attention is still a basic human need. If people don’t get enough of it, they will seek it. Don't they have the right to?
And yes some people go to extraordinary lengths to get attention. But it doesn’t take a genius to work out that if someone is going to great lengths to get something, then they must be really desperate for it. Surely that is even more reason to give them it? If someone is starving and they steal food, most of us (if we are not the antagonist in Les Mis) will forgive them pretty easily. Many of us wouldn’t think they had done anything wrong at all: they were simply trying to fill a basic human need.
“They need to learn”
I know that sometimes we ignore “attention seekers” because we think it is the best thing for them. We want to teach them that there are better ways to get attention. And that’s a nice sentiment. I agree that there are certain situations where it is our job to teach someone that they are not looking for attention in the right way. If a child has learnt that the best way to get attention is to be naughty, their teacher may need to teach them otherwise, for their own sake, by ignoring their naughty behaviour and giving them attention for good behaviour instead. This may teach them that good behaviour will get them attention. Ignoring them altogether will not.
What I don’t understand, is why this principle is being applied to every relationship. It is part of a teacher’s job to teach a child how to behave. But is it everyone’s job to teach everyone else how to behave? Because if not, then why are we ignoring attention seekers to try and “teach them” better ways of seeking attention? We may think we’re doing it for their own good, but is this what we would do in other areas of life? If you have a friend who is constantly eating unhealthy food, do you try to teach them to eat healthily? Do you teach your friends to drink less or give up smoking or treat their children better? Because if not, then why do you think it is your job to teach them to stop seeking attention?
Or maybe you do try and teach your friends these things. Maybe you feel that because you care about them, it is your place to teach them. Fair enough. I have no problem with this. It’s great that you want to help the people you care about. But then my question for you is: how do you usually go about doing this? Is it usually by trying to subtly discourage their unhealthy behaviour by making sure they don’t get anything good out of it? For example, if you think your friend drinks too much ‘cause she’s trying to have fun, do you make sure that every time she drinks she doesn’t have any fun? Or do you talk to her about it, or help her find other ways of having fun, or give her chances to talk about what it is that makes it so hard for her to have fun without drinking? Cause if so, then why not do the same for your attention seeking friends, rather than trying to teach them that attention seeking is destructive by ensuring they don’t get attention whenever they seek it?
"But they don’t have bad parents!"
I had a conversation about this with someone once and her response was “but I’ve met his parents and they’re nice. He gets plenty of attention at home so I don’t see what the problem is.” Ok, so even if it were possible to know from one meeting how someone’s parents treat them behind closed doors, this is not the point.What gives us the right to decide who should or should not get attention? Perhaps they had the best parents in the world, or perhaps they had the worst parents, or perhaps they had no parents at all. Perhaps they had parents who really tried but didn’t have the opportunity to give them much attention. Perhaps it was so long ago that they hardly remember. But does it make any difference? There are so many aspects to our lives, not just our childhood home life. There are 1,000 reasons why someone might not get as much attention as they would like. I update my Facebook status more than most people. That’s probably because I want attention. And that’s not because anyone in my life has neglected me, it’s because I spend all day shut in my room writing essays, and I miss interacting with other humans. Maybe I’m attention seeking. Maybe I’m just company seeking or interaction seeking or people seeking. Is there a difference? Does it mean I’m doing anything wrong? And other people have other reasons. Perhaps some people feel lonely more easily than others or some people just need that bit more attention than others. And that doesn’t make them selfish or bad. It’s just the way it is. Perhaps you think they should stop worrying about themselves and do something for somebody else. You might be right. But you can’t change what they do. You can only change what you do. Perhaps they will do certain things to seek attention or seek companionship or seek friendship or seek a sign that someone cares. What they do is not your choice. The only thing that is your choice is this: will you give them what they’re seeking, or not?
So how should you deal with attention seeking friends?
Here's a radical idea: why not give them some attention?