Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Seeking Attention

The need for attention is important to everyone. We're social beings, after all. When it's done in a healthy way, what's wrong with seeking attention, other than the fact that we don't want to admit we're doing it?

I'm going to step out on a limb and say that seeking attention seems to be the top social priority for many, if not all, people who have the luxury of doing so. Even while taking care of the basic needs like food and shelter, we choose to satisfy those needs in ways that attract the kind of attention we want. Why do you think people buy Priuses?

Now, you might be skeptical of this claim. Surely, you might say, there are people out there who are not interested in attention, but are interested first and foremost with something else, like wealth, power, good deeds, hatred, criticism, saving the world, sex, wine, or video games. And what about shy people or hermits? What about the fear of public speaking?

Well, let's look at the progress of the attention-seeker through life, and see if this story resonates with your own experience and perhaps explains any or all of those behaviors listed above:

During infancy, a person has to be cared for in order to survive, so they are showered with attention, and it feels pretty great. Growing up, though, they lose that attention to other siblings, to classmates, to strangers. Bad parents neglect their kids and good parents instinctively withdraw attention in order to prepare the child for independence. What is the reaction to either? Tantrums. Later, when that doesn't work, kids become more sophisticated. They might find new ways to rebel, or they might try to impress people.

Whether the action is constructive or destructive doesn't actually matter to a child.  Ask a teacher, or read a blog for teachers, and you'll find out that children will seek any attention, good or bad. This suggests that our fundamental social need is not approval; it's just raw attention.

How does that translate into adult behaviors? Although the need for attention is pure, it becomes shaped by experience. A particular child will find that some attention-seeking behaviors are more successful than others, depending on how their family, friends, teachers, and classmates are conditioned to react to their appearance, status, and personality. What kids then do--instinctively, not through a deliberate decision-making process--is they adjust their behavior in ways that get them more attention, and they avoid behaviors that lead to ostracism. If a kid tells jokes to get attention and their classmates laugh, then you can be sure the kid will tell more jokes. If, instead, the classmates ignore the kid, then you can be sure the kid will try something else to get their attention.

If the kid is most successful at getting attention through high grades and good behavior, that kid is going to perpetuate that cycle and eventually become something like an educated professional. If the kid is most successful at getting attention through rebellion and confrontation, then that kid is going to perpetuate that cycle and eventually wind up in a gang or worse.

The reason we don't see this clearly in ourselves is that we're not honest about our own relationship to attention, and the reason for this is that at some point, the taboo against overt attention-seeking kicks in. Maybe a parent or friend scolds us for it. Maybe it happens naturally: we learn early that everyone hates a show-off. We have feelings of jealousy and hatred for people who hog the spotlight. At some point we hear the phrase, "they're just seeking attention," and we become self-conscious of our own attempts to do the same. Nevertheless, we still crave attention, so we find ways to seek attention without being too obvious. We get sneaky. We come up with socially-acceptable stories to legitimize our attention-seeking actions, and eventually we tell these stories so much that we almost believe them ourselves and have serious trouble seeing the truth that they are hiding.

At this stage in our development, our minds also become more future-oriented, so we begin acting in ways that we hope will bring us future attention, and this becomes a very crafty way of hiding the underlying motive. Instead of acting out in class to get the teacher's attention right in the moment, we begin working toward a future position at the center of attention: we see the president addressing thousands of people on TV and (without even recognizing the motive) politics becomes our goal; we hear our teachers praise Einstein and we want to be scientists; we see our parents watching medical dramas and we resolve ourselves to become doctors, as if we were competing with the TV for our parents' attention. The fantasy of "saving the world," a common childhood ambition, is really just a well-behaved child's code for "occupying the center of attention." What could bring more attention than saving the world?

In parallel to the way future-thinking leads to abstract ambitions to occupy the center of attention, our social identities are constructed to attract the attention of abstract groups of people. In other words, instead of trying to get a reaction from the kid next to you on the playground, you begin to dress and act in a way that will generically attract the attention of "goths," or "chicks," or some other group. If you look carefully at these experiences in childhood, you'll see that the group you were trying to impress must have given you attention in the past, either positive or negative, and you were trying to get more attention from them because it was a familiar avenue. In adolescence, it probably didn't matter whether you crafted an identity that made people like you or hate you so long as it brought attention.

As we get older, the layers of intention become very complex. We see that certain types of people attract more attention, so we try to associate with them or become like them. We see that attracting one kind of attention attracts other kinds of attention, so we create an intricate web of ambitions to attract all that attention. For example, a man might seek the attention of his community in order to get the attention of his emotionally distant parents, and he might seek a prestigious job in order to attract the attention of his community, and he might seek the attention of his male peers in order to get the prestigious job, and he might seek the attention of beautiful women in order to gain the attention of his male peers, and he might spend hours at the gym every week to get the attention of the beautiful women. The dysfunction here is that he could just call his parents and get their attention directly if that's all he really cares about. If he didn't care about the attention of his male peers, the community, and the beautiful women, then this would be a miserable, phony life. On the other hand, if he did enjoy all those other forms of attention, then he could be pretty happy. The important thing is to be honest about one's actual needs and not seek any type of attention for any purpose other than its direct enjoyment.

In trying to associate with people who attract attention, we develop a habit of watching and following them. I wonder whether this becomes the root cause of the widespread fixation on celebrities. People spend a lot of time watching electronic images of famous people and get no practical benefit from it, so maybe this behavior is tied to the impulse to suck up to popular people in order to glean some of that popular attention for oneself.

More subtle behaviors and gestures emerge without any thought at all, but the quest for attention is still underneath. For example, I've wondered why some people inflect their speech so that their voices are annoying. Perhaps the reason is that they've had success generating attention by annoying people into confrontation. This isn't necessarily a consciously planned mannerism; it can be a habit that gets settled into gradually without noticing. With just as little thought, people become haters and critics when they discover that people pay attention to their insults. Other dysfunctional behaviors emerge when people feign illness to attract attention, or they have careless sex in order to get attention, or they binge drink and play videogames through their 20s to make their friends and parents worry about them.

So, this idea of attention-seeking may seem to fit with a lot of overt, assertive behaviors that obviously attract attention in some way. But what about the introverted, shy, anti-social behaviors that don't obviously draw attention?

On one hand, there's the possibility that some people are content with their lives, and they get all the attention they need from their job, friends, and family, and so they don't do anything extra to seek attention. Therefore, when you see them in a public place, they may look quite reserved. This is pretty healthy. 

On the other hand, there are dysfunctional reasons for shyness. At some point in the process of growing up, we discover our limitations as human beings. This throws a wrench in our plans to save the world, become a movie star, or be the first person on Mars (or all three). Traditionally, we view these experiences as blows to our self-esteem. But what is our self-esteem, really? We've already seen that some people thrive off of negative attention, which should theoretically be bad for self-esteem, but that doesn't change the behavior. Self-esteem must not be important. I'll posit that self-esteem is really just a person's estimate of the attention they expect to get from others. If you feel worthless to others, then you'll suffer from the fear that you won't get the attention you crave. This is what we actually feel when our "self-esteem" is low. When you feel valuable to others, you get happy in your expectation that people will pay attention to you. This is what we feel when "self-esteem" is high. In the pursuit of negative attention, being ignored feels like low self esteem, while getting into a confrontation feels pretty good, like high self esteem, even though you are actually disgracing yourself.

The real impact of discovering one's limitations, then, has to do with attention. As we get older we realize that there are a lot of people in the world, and a lot of them are better than us at the things that we traditionally did to get the attention of our peers or elders. Our immature plans to secretly become the center of attention fail. Adolescence and early adulthood becomes a time of restructuring, never naming the goal explicitly, but always seeking it through more clever pathways. For many people, the task becomes so hopeless that they shift to a defensive strategy, avoiding conflict, becoming more polite, trying to cut their losses to avoid becoming completely ignored. Shyness sets in at various ages as people carefully try to hold onto the attention that's available around them. The fear of public speaking and public humiliation arises from a person's fear that they will commit some action that will alienate them from everyone.

It's therefore possible for people to attach different values to different kinds of attention. Some attention is sought because it is believed to be conducive to attracting more attention, while other kinds of short term attention are avoided for fear of alienating people and therefore reducing possible attention in the long term. This may sound convoluted and theoretical, so take a moment to consider your actual feelings in times of shyness. When you shy away from a potentially embarrassing situation, are you really worried that people's judgments will harm you, or are you worried that if you embarrass yourself people will want to avoid you? If it's the latter, as I suspect it is for everyone, then it supports this idea that social anxiety and shyness are fundamentally motivated by the need for attention.

As we get older and begin finding our place in the world, this anxiety motivates us to find acceptable ways of seeking attention. The ideas of being good, moral, nice, and polite appeal to this type of thinking because we can blame the ideas if anyone calls us out on what we're really doing. We turn to institutions and traditions that provide a pretense for being noticed, but we do our best to convince ourselves that we're not seeking attention, that we're devoted to something bigger than ourselves. Maybe we go to a good college and then climb up the corporate ladder. Maybe we reject society and become spiritual teachers. In either case, though, the person is still seeking attention, just through some kind of surrogate. The shy inventor toiling in obscurity for a big corporation is hoping that their products will be noticed. The insecure teacher spreading the ancient wisdom is hoping that those ideas will be noticed. These are indirect ways of getting attention, but the mind is capable of identifying itself with the products of its actions, and that's good enough for some people.

For people with serious problems attracting a healthy amount of attention, including people with an unrealistic sense of self or with mental illnesses, social interaction can become very stressful, as each conversation where something inappropriate is said feels like one more step toward total ostracism. Rather than facing the underlying truths--that they've been seeking attention and doing it the wrong way for their personality--they might beat themselves up emotionally and get depressed, or they might comfort themselves with fantasies that they will someday, somehow attract a lot of attention, or they'll swing back and forth between these extremes (this was my personal experience). The attention is never an explicit goal; it's always disguised in the form of an idealistic dream or cause. I can only imagine that a lot of political extremism and religious fanaticism stems from this situation. When all else fails, politics and religion can be distorted and used to prop up a personal delusion of grandeur.

And now that we're looking at painful manifestations of the craving for attention, we'd might as well descend all the way into the private hell of fully antisocial behavior. Besides the mental health factors that complicate it, I suspect that when a person's pain and alienation have become unbearable, when they've failed to seek the right kind of attention for their personality, and when they've found no comfort in idealistic plans and delusions, the need for attention explodes outward in the form of violent atrocities which--not coincidentally--earn a lot of temporary attention.

So that's a pretty wide, and admittedly vague, survey of different behaviors and their possible relation to the underlying quest for attention. I don't know whether this idea explains every behavior, but in the last couple of weeks I've used it to interpret various situations and my reactions, and it's led to some productive insight.

How is this useful? First off, we waste a lot of energy trying to act like we're not seeking attention when we really are. Just being honest with ourselves takes a huge load off our backs. That frees up a lot of brainpower, which leads to clarity and good decisions. It also simplifies our emotional situation, leading to a feeling of relief and comfort with oneself. It also helps us understand why people act out, and it helps us choose the most effective way to respond to them. Most importantly, it helps us interpret our own feelings about people and situations so that we're not reacting blindly out of fear and ignorance.

Recognizing that attention is a simple and honest need that is neither right nor wrong, we can make use of that fact. You can use the desire for attention as a motivator for yourself and others. If you're smart about it, you can turn attention-seeking into a constructive, joyful process that actually makes other people happy, which in turn leads to lasting happiness for yourself.

The trick to making this work lies in the understanding that you only get what you give. You are actually in possession of that thing everyone wants: you have the power to pay attention to other people! Instead of working desperately to draw attention to yourself, see what happens when you simply open yourself up to other people and pay attention to them. You'll open up a two-way street of attention: you pay attention to each other. This is the essence of friendship, but it need not be confined to your interactions with friends. You can extend this two-way attention network to coworkers, acquaintances, and even passing strangers. In this way, you help satisfy other people's need for attention while satisfying your own need as well. It's mutually beneficial.

At first, you'll probably encounter a lot of internal resistance to it because we've made a habit of seeking attention from people who don't need our attention while ignoring everyone else. It may feel weird at first to listen to people we've trained ourselves to ignore--people we compete with, people we don't know, or people we look down on. Nevertheless, this is the way we begin to expand our network of two-way attention. What's really cool about this is that you can control this network to be as large or small as you want, depending on your needs. You can also make use of your particular talents and interests to inform the type of attention you bring to people. In other words, I'm not suggesting that you just walk around staring at people; I'm suggesting that you make use of your existing career and relationships to tune into other people.

Instead of being dependent on someone else to dole out a ration of the attention you crave, you can become the person in charge of the attention. You just have to make the leap of faith that you'll get the attention you need by paying attention to others. This will happen as long as you make an effort to communicate and work with people directly, where two-way attention is possible. This is not possible through TV, novels, or other one-way media (and usually not blogs either, I have to admit), but it is possible through everyday, face-to-face interactions. This clarifies the idea of "seeking the right kind of attention for your personality." Everyone has different abilities and modes of communication, so you want to shape your life in such a way that you use your strengths to connect with people. For example, if you're mechanically inclined, you might be happier using that talent in a service industry where you meet people and help fix their cars than if you worked in isolation in your garage trying to invent the next great gizmo.

While I've emphasized that there's nothing inherently wrong with the need for attention, that doesn't mean that any type of attention-seeking will be constructive and mutually beneficial. You have to use your judgment as you explore what kind of simple actions lead to a satisfying experience of two-way attention. In other words, where intentional effort is concerned, I'm suggesting that you focus on constructive attention-seeking behavior that is mutually satisfying. Nevertheless, when you inadvertently attract some negative attention, there's no need to feel bad about it, and in fact it's natural to enjoy it. I think it's actually a good idea to throw away some of the stupid defense mechanisms we've built up and just get back in touch with the simple enjoyment of attention. Therefore, if it happens to arise, you should also feel free to enjoy the attention that comes from embarrassing yourself or accidentally annoying someone, even though, and this is a subtle point, you should not willfully seek out this attention.

That may seem like a contradiction, to have a very high standard for your intentional attention-seeking behavior but to enjoy any and all attention received without preference, but it's a simple way to feel free and powerful in your mental and social experience.

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