Dealing with Attention-Seeking Behavior in Borderline Personality Disorder

One of the things that have sooner or later always led to problems for me is that I am an attention-seeker. A chronic and terrible attention-seeker who can’t stop herself.

I have only vague memories of school, but I recall that before my mother gave me hell for attracting the attention of the teachers and making them wonder what the heck was wrong with me, I used to do anything and everything to receive my teachers’ attention. Draw on my arms, fall on the playground, cry, making mistakes on purpose . . .

Later, after I was removed from home and lived in and out of hospitals and group homes etc. I was just as bad about seeking the attention of staff. Doctors, nurses, social workers, therapists, random people, other residents’ relatives, fix-it people, the janitor, everyone. I have used about every ploy in the world to receive attention. Cute behavior, silly behavior, sucking up to people, provoking them, challenging them, backtalk, flirting, threats, crying, suicide attempts, dramatic behavior, making a scene, hurting myself . . .

Now I am living with my family, with my mom home with me all the time – and I’m still the same. The only difference is that she is now the lucky one who gets to deal with ALL my attention-seeking behavior, and I don’t care so much about random people’s attention any longer. I guess that’s an improvement, of sorts. Even so, I often feel bad about being such an obnoxious attention-seeker and I’m afraid of getting rejected for it. But when I’m afraid, I seek more reassurance and yet more attention. See the problem here?

But I must say I’m really, really happy with the way my mom deals with it, so I thought I’d explore what her reactions consist of a little, splitting her way of dealing with my attention-seeking behavior up into its components.

1. She allows attention-seeking behavior and appreciates its communicative value

Go figure, she actually calls it a “skill”. A very basic and unsophisticated skill, but a skill nonetheless. She says it’s similar to a baby crying when it’s unwell. It’s a way to alert a caretaker to discomfort and unmet needs. She admits that it can be exhausting, but then, so is a relentlessly crying baby, and hey, you can’t reason with a baby, but you can reason with me. At least most of the time. 😉

 2. She understands the necessity to meet my unmet needs

Even when I hate admitting to it and even hate having needs in the first place: I have loads of unmet needs. One of them is being special to someone, receiving someone’s undivided positive attention, being the most important person in the world to someone. It’s what babies need to experience in order to develop in a healthy way. For some time they ideally are the center of their mom’s universe. It’s where their feelings of security and trust come from, which eventually enable them to tolerate not having every need met immediately, because they trust that even if they have to wait a little, they will not be forgotten. I don’t really have that kind of trust in me. My logical thinking tells me mom will probably not forget, but my feelings command I make sure she gets reminded and can’t ignore me. Which ends in attention-seeking behavior.

3. She answers the need behind my attention-seeking behavior

She gives me the attention. I don’t know how often my previous therapist has suggested to her that she should ignore my inappropriate behavior, so I learn that it leads me nowhere, but even so she never stopped answering it. I’ve asked her why she never stopped and her answer was simply to ask back if I would have stopped or rather moved on to behavior she CAN not ignore if she wants to keep me safe. True enough. I tend to move on to dangerous behavior if I don’t get the attention.

4. She helps me become aware of what motivates my attention-seeking behavior and reassures me

While she answers my annoying behavior with attention, she says things like “honey, I see you. It’s alright. I’m here. Do you feel like I’m not taking enough notice of you? What is bothering you? Can you tell me?” I don’t usually admit to feeling like she doesn’t take enough notice, but most of the time that’s exactly how I feel, at least below the surface. That she points it out helps me be aware of it, and also of what bothers me.

5. She points out alternatives and encourages me to use them

Sometimes it’s really simple things, like “honey, when you feel like I’m not seeing you enough, it’s okay to just come and tell me, instead of getting up to silly things” and sometimes it’s harder things like finding ways that help me wait a little for her attention, instead of provoking it right away.

Putting those five things together to illustrate them with an example:

Let’s say I start to kick mom’s leg under the table during dinner. I used to do that a lot. Halfway through dinner I’d start nudging her with my foot. Harder if she ignored it. Usually because she was talking with dad, who told her about his day and stuff like that, and I felt like all she cared about was him all of a sudden and wanted to bring myself back to her attention. So what did she do? She never expelled me from the table for it and didn’t get angry (#1 – allowing attention-seeking behavior). Instead she paused her conversation to deal with me (#2 & 3 – understanding and meeting unmet needs). She asked me what’s up and why do I nudge her? Am I annoyed she’s not talking with me? Am I afraid she doesn’t see me anymore? Am I jealous dad is getting her attention? Tells me I don’t need to be afraid, she still very much knows I’m here and need her, too. (#4 – awareness of motives and reassurance) Asks how about I move my chair next to hers and I get her free hand while she finishes dinner and hearing about dad’s day? How about instead of nudging her, I wait for a good moment and a pause in the conversation to ask her if I can move my chair and all that? (#5 – encouraging alternatives)

That’s how attention-seeking behavior gets dealt with at home, and I like it. Okay, the part about pointing motives out and admitting to them not so much, but I guess it’s part of overcoming the unhealthy ways. For us it’s working.

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19 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. prideinmadness
    Nov 07, 2012 @ 18:53:27

    I think my attention seeking is something I will battle with for a long time.

  2. Sparrow
    Nov 08, 2012 @ 11:43:31

    I’m glad you brought up the need to be the most important person in the world to someone, because this is one of my biggest needs (that goes unmet), and I didn’t realise where it stemmed from. My dad was the attention seeker (I’m convinced he was also BPD), and so I missed out on being the centre of my mum’s world as a baby. Now I have to figure out how to resolve the fallout from this. But knowing the reason, I’m a step closer, so thank you 🙂

    • Lola
      Nov 09, 2012 @ 11:35:16

      I’m happy you found a little insight what I wrote, Sparrow. 🙂 It’s really hard to have missed out on those things that babies need to develop in a healthy way. Knowing what’s up is always quite helpful. What helped me a lot was learning about how healthy, secure attachment forms in babies.

  3. Antigone
    Nov 08, 2012 @ 18:29:37

    This is such common behavior for those of us raised by narcissists and traumatized as young children. We need reparenting, all the way back to infancy. You are so lucky to have a mother who is able to recognize and do this for you. Most of us develop this attachment and therapeutic alliance in therapy to help us through these attention-seeking behaviors.

    • Lola
      Nov 09, 2012 @ 11:57:24

      You are right, reparenting is exactly what it is. And not just a little, but a whole lot of it. I really am lucky to have my mom, who knows how to put up with a little kid in a big body and I looking back the day I entered family care is the day that changed everything for me. I totally wish everyone who is struggling a good and skilled therapist who can help them deal with those behaviors and who knows how to answer them in a healthy way, as especially attention-seeking behaviors are not really endearing to others, so not a cool thing to be stuck with.

  4. Karl
    Apr 24, 2013 @ 07:09:26

    Hey! I came to your page because I wanted to know more about attention seeking behaviour, but not as a scientifical/medical-dehumanizing concept (which it’s what abounds online) and I’m very happy I found your blog, because this give me a new perspective, your perspective, because you’re living it in your own skin, and well I must accept that I wanted to know more about this, because of someone I’m really interested (in a nice way), and I want to clear something up, if someone really cares about you, it will even see your “so-called-defects” as a nice thing, when you said you’re afraid of “getting rejected for it” or “being obnoxious” I want to tell you something, I’ve been a “hidden-signals-blind” all my life, so for me, it’s great when a person says clearly (or maybe not that clearly, but when I can “really” and with no doubt notice something it’s happening), for me even “obnoxious” is great, it keeps me busy, all my senses become alert, I can be protective (and not being seen as obnoxious myself), and yes! there’s someone who actually wants my attention, so I can pay all the attention I have, for me is a win-win situation, because I can know something is happening; so my point is: if there’s someone worthy of being your friend/partner/whatever, this person won’t use it against you, it would talk to you, it would pay you attention, it would care.

    I also want to say there’s nothing wrong with you, we all have difficulties/problems/challenges (inside of ourselves or in our enviroment) in so many different ways, so you’re not wrong, keep that in mind, and thanks for your post (it help me to wrap my mind around it). And how your mom deals it: that’s cool! she’s a cool mom. You’re lucky, and she’s lucky to have you.

  5. Laura
    May 30, 2013 @ 20:56:18

    As someone who is not borderline, I have to say that this sounds utterly exhausting. At what point does personal responsibility come into play for you? It sounds as if your mother is enabling your obnoxious behavior. Instead of that, you should be taking the initiative yourself to learn how to deal with your urges and your thoughts that you aren’t the most important person in the world to your own mother.

    • Lola
      May 31, 2013 @ 05:30:53

      It doesn’t just sound exhausting, it IS exhausting. For my mom and for me, too, it is stress. Because I know I shouldn’t be doing it, because I know my mother deserves better, because I know it’s not mature and because it damages my feeling of self-esteem.

      The problem with the attention-seeking is that it is there for a reason. Kind of like if you walked with a small, sharp stone in your shoe and but wore shoes you couldn’t untie, you’d get on people’s nerves eventually to do it for you, please, please, PLEASE because it hurts! Just saying “learn to deal with that urge” doesn’t help. Just saying “well, untie your shoe” doesn’t help either, if you have no idea how, because to you it looks like it’s tied with an iron shackle to which you have no key. So what my mother does is not to enable obnoxious behavior as such. Instead what she does is that she does not disallow the behavior per se, but helps me become aware of what’s up instead, helps me see alternatives and teaches me how to use them. Kind of like if you wore the shackled on shoe with the stone in it, instead of getting mad at you for being obnoxious about wanting the stone removed, she would appreciate you told her because she wants you to be well, and then she’d help you find out how you can get the shoe unshackled in a less obnoxious way.

      The thing is, the psyche is quite a bit more complicated than a shoe, even when it’s a shackled close one, so it’s taking more time to learn. Trust me, I am trying to learn all those things. But it’s a game of approximation. I don’t make it to the end goal on all days and in all instances. If I have a bad day, I still am obnoxious, because everything is harder on a bad day (just like if your hands were ice cold you might not be able to open the shackle because your fingers are clumsy with cold, but the stone doesn’t take heed of that and cuts into your flesh anyway, so you might get obnoxious again about having it removed). But my mom and I, we’re both aware of it and we’re trying together. That’s not such a bad thing, to my mind. And it’s helping more than if she shamed or scolded me for being obnoxious.

      • Laura
        Jun 02, 2013 @ 13:44:18

        That is a good metaphor to use. I understand a little better, but one thing I am a bit puzzled over is, why does someone else have to take the rock outof your shoe for you? Why can’t you do it yourself? I am just curious.

        • Lola
          Jun 20, 2013 @ 17:22:18

          I’m glad the metaphor helps. 🙂 The reason why I can’t take the rock out of my shoe myself is that when I get overwhelmed with an emotion, my capacity to deal with it drastically decreases. It’s kind of like when you are really stressed you find it much harder to do things that require self-control. For example you might be on a diet and KNOW you shouldn’t have that cookie, so you should be perfectly capable of just not eating it, but you will eat it anyway if you are so stressed that eating that cookie feels like it might get you at least some temporary relief and comfort. Similarly I can not control myself enough to get the stone out of my shoe myself when I feel overwhelmed. Which is why then my mom helps me do it, because it ain’t going to get better if that emotional “stone” remains in my shoe.

    • Karl
      Jun 09, 2013 @ 00:39:50

      I think she’s responsible, and even when -in my perspective- she can defends on her own, I have to say something, I’m not borderline nor an attention seeker, but I care about a people who is this way, I have defects, plenty of them, and I think everybody have issues, but it does no good being judgemental, and telling people to deal with their urges doesn’t helps either, because instead of dealing them, they would try to hide them, because of this shame put on them!

      Things that are easy for some people, aren’t easy for others, I think it’s more about being caring and respectful, instead of saying people how to behave or how to be.

      • Lola
        Jun 20, 2013 @ 17:16:16

        Thank you, Karl. I think it can be a bit challenging for people at first to understand that taking someone’s difficulties into account and considering their needs is a different thing than indulging thoughtlessly to someone’s every whim. I’m happy to talk about that, if it helps open people’s minds to looking at things without jumping to quick conclusions.

  6. Lola
    Jul 18, 2013 @ 12:42:54

    Wow. It’s fantastic to know that I’m not the only person like this. When I was younger I would punch brick walls just to gain sympathy. I’d hold my breath and starve myself so I’d faint, just for attention. I was incredibly clingy towards my father and I would constantly feel as if I was second best. I also get that “I want to be someone’s most important person” feeling. My attention seeking behavior has wrecked so many of my relationships because I’d leave my friends because I felt I was never good enough for them. There was always someone else that they liked better. Another massive issue with my attention seeking behavior is that I have crippling anxiety in social situations. I need attention, but I push it away once I receive it. Lets just say I have an ambivalent relationship with attention.
    I’m glad you got the help you deserved, and grew up with a loving, understanding mother.

    Thanks for this article!

    P.S

    Nice name ;D

    • Lola
      Jul 31, 2013 @ 07:33:38

      Haha, yes, nice name! 😀 Thanks for sharing your experience. It’s hard to want attention so bad that you do extreme things to get it, isn’t it? I’m doing a bit better these days, but often it’s a conscious decision for me to refrain from attention-seeking behavior and it can be hard to make the right choice at times. I’m anxious in most social situations, too.

      • bleep
        Oct 10, 2013 @ 12:31:07

        Your mom sounds great:) so if your home life is good, how did you acquire bpd? Was it simply genetic or was there trauma at home at some point?

        • Lola
          Oct 10, 2013 @ 16:52:43

          My mom is the best I could ask for. Thing is that I wasn’t born to her. My birth family was one messed up place to grow up in and yeah, pretty traumatic stuff happened there. That’s where the BPD comes from. I’m lucky I found my family now. There’s a ‘family’ page up there where you can read more, if you’re interested. 🙂

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