“Attention-Seeking” Behaviour: Because I can’t get attention the regular way

Image: A cartoon person wearing a reflector vest and earphones and holding a glowing marshalling wand in each hand. Text says, “Look!! At!! Me!!”

I’m currently going through training to become a DBT counsellor. We were going through an example client to demonstrate how to use chain analysis in an individual counselling session. This client had been experiencing loneliness which was amplified by her boyfriend not coming straight home after his business trip and going to a wedding without her. The client ended up self-harming and going to the hospital where they called her boyfriend and he came to pick her up. The facilitator asked if the example client’s behaviour was successful. The answer is yes. She wanted her boyfriend’s attention and through self-harm she got his attention. The facilitator went on to say that some people have learned that the only form of communication others will listen to are when they hurt themselves or, in some cases, dying.

Behaviours exhibited by the example client are known to many as “attention-seeking”. I was labelled as an “attention-seeker” in high school because of my cutting. I then, as I do now, believed that the negative association we have with attention-seeking behaviours is wrong but not necessarily because of the individual exhibiting the behaviours. Something is wrong with the person’s environment that drives them to hurt themselves or threaten to hurt themselves in order to receive the attention that they feel they need. At some point, I believe that everyone who uses “attention-seeking” behaviours has tried to communicate using their words. “I am in pain, can you please help me?” or “I really need you right now.” Somewhere along the way one too many people or the same important person too many times said, “no.” Still needing help, these individuals think of other ways to show others that they have an unmet need: cutting, suicide attempts, substance use, threats to harm others etc. It is unfortunate that many of these behaviours are reinforced as people rush to help the individual in need.

On my journey to emotional wellness, I find myself learning to communicate in ways that are new. These ways involve describing how I feel, identifying my emotions, empathising with others and soothing myself. I struggle with telling myself that yelling does not mean I am being heard or that harming myself brings me the understanding that I need. It is especially difficult when I use my words, a calm tone, and understanding of others and where they are at and I still do not get what I have asked for. I know I cannot always get my way but it is very stressful to tell someone you care about that you need their help and they say no.

I think the important point to take away is that we all need to listen. It can be difficult for some to express when they need help so when they do, having a listening ear can make a difference. “Attention-seeking” behaviour means something, it matters and decreasing it can only be done when we have learned other ways to communicate and that others will care enough to hear it.

Image: “The most basic of all human needs is the need to understand and be understood. The best to understand people is to listen to them.” Dr. Ralph Nichols


9 thoughts on ““Attention-Seeking” Behaviour: Because I can’t get attention the regular way

  1. I’ve stopped even trying to get help from people, maybe I am just an exception, but over the years I have largely learned most people don’t want to help, and unless medication works even the professionals in the medical profession don’t help. But suppose if medication isn’t working to make me happy and not feel this, not much else doctors can do.

    • I learned that in my last relationship. I would self-harm and not say anything because I knew what I said or did wouldn’t matter, things would stay the same. Self-harm was my secret way of regaining emotional and probably physical control of myself. I guess some of our potential helpers wish it was easier and maybe they sometimes feel bad that they can’t do more so it’s easier to back off. Some people are just not nice people and wouldn’t help anyone.

      Thanks for your comment 🙂

    • Someone found my blog because of your tweet!!! THANK YOU!!! I thought some of you would be able to relate to what I was saying. Mental illness and addiction is filled with victim-blaming and I think many need to rethink how they approach individuals with these issues.

  2. Thank you so much for this post. Although I’m not prone to self harm for attention, on some level I do have a hard time getting my words out and usually I’m too scared to be a burden to really ask for help. It’s amazing how well you tackled this sensitive subject without condoning harmful behavior.

    • Thank you 🙂 I have thought a lot about why I have engaged in certain behaviours and, for me, it really came down with trying to say something. Self-harm behaviours are complex and serve many purposes as I’m sure you have seen in your own life.

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