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.