There is a fairly common trope that is directed towards people (primarily young, female, white people, often those who self-harm, attempt suicide, or have an eating disorder) who engage in unhealthy behaviors that they are only doing it for attention. You’ve heard it before. “She only hurts herself for attention, it’s no big deal,”. I’ve had this trope directed at me before, and absolutely seen it directed towards my friends. I don’t like it.
At first glance it seems fairly insightful, and provides a reason to not give the individual the attention they want: don’t want to reward bad behavior do we? Nobody likes an attention whore, and we absolutely don’t want to feed in to their need for attention. None of us particularly want to deal with negative, difficult situations, and if you can avoid them while telling yourself that your actions are positive, then all the better. But despite the first blush appearance of good advice, this kind of attitude relies on some extremely negative premises and is actually incredibly unhelpful to the individual struggling.
First and foremost, this trope rests on the idea that it’s not ok to want attention, or that you’re bad if you do something strictly because you want attention. It suggests that wanting attention is an inappropriate motive, and that it undermines the entirety of an act. This is straight up wrong. Pretty much every human being in the world wants attention. It’s part of what makes us social creatures. We want others to listen to us, to hear our troubles, to help us out, to be with us, to tell us stories. This is part of what confirms to us that others care. Mutual attention is how we form relationships. Wanting relationships is good right? So wanting attention is good.
Interestingly enough, when someone engages in what’s viewed as a positive behavior in order to gain attention, we often praise them and give them the attention they want. Imagine the star football player in high school: if someone were to become the quarterback because they liked the popularity, we wouldn’t think twice about it. Those individuals still get the support and attention of the school and their peers. We understand in many circumstances that trying to get attention is good. So why do we use it to undermine certain behaviors?
The second element of this trope that kicks into play even if we do accept that wanting attention is acceptable is the idea that we shouldn’t reward someone for negative behavior. We know from little kids that if you react to someone throwing a temper tantrum, they’re getting what they want and they continue to engage in that behavior. If you don’t want someone to hurt themselves, then you shouldn’t give them what they want when they hurt themselves, right?
There are two elements that can be important to remember here. The first is that even if someone is being ineffective or unhealthy in their behavior, that does not mean that their motivation is inappropriate or wrong. This is something we forget a lot about all sorts of emotions. Let’s take anger for example. Oftentimes when someone gets angry and yells or breaks something we tell them that they shouldn’t be angry. However there may actually be a perfectly good reason the individual is angry. What is not appropriate is the action they undertook with the anger. So while you may recognize that someone is doing something unhealthy or inappropriate with their need for attention, you can still recognize a very real need and true emotion that needs to be addressed.
In addition, you can address someone’s needs without promoting or validating what you view as a negative or unhealthy behavior. For example if someone is cutting and you believe it’s because they really want and need attention, the way to deal with it may not be by getting extremely upset with them or by focusing on the cutting. You can give them attention without connecting it to the negative action right away. Asking them how they’re doing, what’s going on in their life, or simply asking them to hang out are all good ways to give them the attention they might be seeking without indicating to them that you’re doing it just to get them to stop cutting. Of course at some point down the road you may want to bring up the self-harm, but only giving attention to stop the symptom is not a good way to go.
If someone is desperate enough to hurt themselves, to attempt suicide, to restrict food, to purge, to do drugs, to drink excessively etc. just to get someone to pay attention to them, then this is a fairly good sign that they really do need more attention than they’re getting or that something bad is happening in their life that they need help with. Many times these techniques may be the only way they can get someone to pay attention, and that indicates that they really do need something from those around them. If someone wants attention that badly, they truly do have a problem. When we blow off people’s negative actions by saying “she just wants attention”, we seem to be saying that the problems are not real if they were motivated by the desire for attention. We are telling individuals that those desires for attention invalidate all of the very real struggles that they might be going through. We tell them that their problems are fake, made up, or not worth our time and energy. It gives us an excuse not to do anything and it invalidates all of their feelings.
The motivation of attention does not make something trite or unimportant. It doesn’t turn a problem into a joke. In fact it’s a good indication that the problem is real and severe and requires attention. Let’s stop blowing off the very serious problems of people we just don’t want to deal with by casting aspersions on their motivations and step up to the plate to find a healthy way to give them the attention they clearly need.