Monday, October 29, 2007

Attention: Too Much of a Good Thing?

All humans need attention, and those who don't are certainly suffering from a psychological disorder. From our first screams as a newborn, we require attention, at first for food, clothing, and shelter; as we grow and mature we desire acknowledgment of our accomplishments. This validation helps us continue to set and achieve goals and, on a large scale, makes society a better place. We must encourage our fellow humans in their lives and vocations and appreciate the positive contributions to our lives of those around us. Some people, however, need more than the average amount of attention; they seem to constantly crave, even require, the spotlight. Have you ever known someone who walks into a crowded room and yells, "Look at me! I'm special!"? Perhaps in not so many words, but he can say it in his actions and by the basic way he presents himself. Such tactics usually lead to discomfort in the people around him as well as a general reticence to give in to the attention-seeker's emotional demands. Most of us don't expect special acknowledgment unless we've actually achieved something of worth, and we especially don't want to see anyone else get anything unearned, be it a good grade in a challenging course or merely verbal praise for doing nothing more than simply existing. In the worst of circumstances, this leads the attention-seeker to resort to negative actions to achieve his goal. He may pick a fight and become a bully or make dramatic displays of emotion. What he will never do is admit that attention, and attention alone, is the only motivation for such actions.

When I encounter the attention-seeker (or anyone who really annoys me, for that matter), I usually immediately turn the spotlight on myself to see if either I do the same thing without realizing it or I in some way instigated that behavior. I might mull it over for a while and do my best to decide whether the person deserves my disapproval. If the person in question is one I don't know and am unlikely to ever meet again, I can drop it pretty easily. However, I find it much more difficult to reconcile my emotional responses when the perpetrator is within my circle of friends or, even worse, a family member. One cannot choose one's family and therefore does not have the option to sever communication. An annoying co-worker can easily be avoided over the holidays, for example, when one most wishes to be at peace and cheerful. But holidays, while relaxing, are also a time to spend time with family, and these times are often more stressful than intended.

The attention-seeker is most difficult to deal with in a family setting for a variety of reasons. He may seek validation and praise from his parents in a veiled competition with his siblings. The particularly narcissistic attention-seeker will make long speeches and expect rapt attention to his narratives of his many and various activities and will make obvious attempts to deflect attention away from other family members. A happy, healthy family finds difficulty in accommodating this attention-seeker, wishing to give equal time and attention to all members, about whom it cares equally. This point is where I have the most trouble dealing with situations like I've described: family members cannot be chosen, but they are to be loved unconditionally, and above all, their needs should be attended to. But what if their needs involve selfishly requiring undue attention? Quite the quandary.

Allow me to digress into a discussion on nutrition. I believe I have a slight intolerance to dairy and refined carbohydrates. Logically, I want to stay away from those foods, right? No--I find that when I eat too much cheese or ice cream and bread (and candies and cookies and salty crunchy delicious corn chips), I crave them even more when I've gone a few hours without them. Instead of avoiding foods my body cannot use, I believe I want more. Only when I purposefully change my habits and eat more fruits, vegetables, and proteins do I find I didn't need all those carbs in the first place. I can't explain my body's desire for that which is unhealthful beyond the obvious state of humanity's sinful nature. The fact remains that I cannot fill a specific void with the wrong material.

And that is how I make sense of petty attention-seeking behaviors. Due to a lack of self-esteem and a low feeling of self-worth, the attention-seeker believes he needs approval from others. As most acknowledgment has to be asked for in the first place, it does not satisfy. His situation worsens as he tries newer tactics to win the esteem he cannot supply for himself. Until the attention-seeker learns to gain satisfaction from himself and, perhaps more importantly, begins to appreciate others' contributions to his success, his void will never be filled. I realize, upon reflection, that I cannot reconcile my mixed feelings toward the attention-seeking type. I must simply be grateful that I find satisfaction in my own work and life; I have a wonderful husband, family, church family members, and many more people in my life who acknowledge my accomplishments without solicitation. I am blessed that the Lord has equipped me with the ability to fill in the self-esteem void on my own, though it can be difficult at times. I choose not to feel guilty for my reticence to give undue attention to others just as I do not feel guilty for avoiding that plate of nachos when all I really need is a carrot.


Susan K said...

Yay, commenting on my own blog. Just wanted to give a shout to Anne, Jed, Tim, Erin, and Dave, who are all super-awesome. I love you!

Cheryl said...

Tag, you're "it." (Just thought you could use a little attention.)

Susan K said...