2012-01-16

Some thoughts about attention


Letter to Y

I used to think a lot about attention. As a teenager I had the self loathing diary entry down to an art form. I constantly "exposed" my true motivation as "just attention." I took some kind of sick pleasure in repeating this truth; I wasn't truly in love because my feelings had nothing to do with the other person, all I felt was a need to be seen by someone. A word I used a lot was "validation." I could not do this for myself, I needed someone else to validate me, and everything I did was to accomplish that. While in general the teenaged me leaves me cold, in this respect I can feel some empathy with myself, not just because I was so very, very insecure (I’ve taken off at least a very by now!) but also because I thought it was so very, very bad, so pathetic, to want attention.

I am better able now to look at that need and deconstruct why it's so "bad." We're not supposed to need stuff. Needing exposes you to other people's judgement and their possible rejection. Just Wanting Attention is the stuff of teenaged girls, who go on to act out in a more or less predetermined ways: cutting themselves, drinking, being sexually promiscuous, enacting half-hearted suicide attempts, etc. Nothing is quite as sad as being common in this sense. I was haunted by the fact that the expression of my pain wasn’t unique or extreme enough, in fact I still have mental illness performance anxiety.

A co-worker once called me an attention whore, but by that time I'd had come to terms with my need for attention so what really pissed me off was his claim that this was somehow a neutral, connotation free phrase. Without ever admitting any wrong he amended his statement to "attention seeker," but it doesn't matter, it's still an obviously negatively loaded phrase and to pretend otherwise is to deny the culture we live in, which exalts famous people in the same time as it loathes those who want to be famous.

It was my therapist that convinced that wanting attention in and of itself isn’t bad or even a symptom of some sickness, it's just a basic human need. Most everything we do is for attention, at least to some extent. One of the first "profound truths" we learn is that no act is truly selfless, because at the very least the actor has the satisfaction of being good. This idea tainted my 14 year old world-view, because I was already obsessed with the way self consciousness/awareness could transform something good into something bad.

I used to have night terrors when I was in elementary school, in addition I was convinced I had cancer and I was always looking for lumps. I was scared shitless to go to sleep, so I'd lie in bed thinking about cancer and lumps and nightmares, terrorizing myself into a frenzy. I'd cry and call for my dad, but my mum decided I Just Wanted Attention, so there was no comfort to be had. In order to get attention from my parents I had to devise more and more sophisticated manipulations. So, I got used to acting things out in an exaggerated way, but the killer was being aware of what I was doing. I knew I was acting and manipulating and that the end goal, attention, was utterly despicable.

When my therapist challenged this idea: why is it wrong for a child to want attention from his or her parents? I was hard pressed to explain why, except that that self awareness, the intentional deception and manipulation somehow changed a normal need into something dirty. Looking at my own behaviour now I realize that I was adapting my behavior to get my needs met.

No act is truly selfless; it must have occurred to you that no one writes 800+ word messages simply to make someone else feel better? There is also a need to be heard, to connect, to feel one has done good...

I don’t think your need for attention stands in the way of you truly mastering something.  If anything perhaps that need is not strong enough? If your need for attention was strong enough you’d do what it takes to get it. About a year ago I was spending $150/month on google adwords to drive traffic to my blog. Arguably, that effort would have been better spent writing stuff that people actually might be interested in reading, but I learned a) that you can sink endless amounts of money and time into adwords, and b) that I didn’t want it bad enough to prioritize quality over quantity. The source of the motivation is not the issue, it’s mustering enough of it and then to maintain it. It’s very hard for me to imagine that the pay-off will be worth the effort, so I kind of just fake it, and am inevitable disappointed in the results.

God, I wish I was driven by a pure need for knowledge and self-betterment, but sometimes I just wish I was driven at all.

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