Seeking Attention vs. Paying Attention

Attentive coupleAttention is just attention, right? No! There’s a huge difference between seeking attention and paying attention. Think about the kid in school who will do anything for attention—singing during the lesson, interrupting the teacher or other students, grabbing another student’s ponytail, calling someone a “poopyhead.”  Now think about the kid who is a little sponge in school, paying attention to the teacher, listening to other students’, picking up on what’s going on with his or her fellow students. The first one wants attention at any cost, including negative attention. Me, me, me, I, I, I. The second one is thinking about other people and is trying to learn.

seeking attention

“I need attention–NOW!”

I need attention!

In relationships, you may be like the first kid, trying to get your partner to pay attention, so you can feel okay, because you don’t know how to feel good on your own. This makes for problems in the relationship and in life in general, because you’re looking for someone else to make you feel good, and that’s impossible! If you don’t know how to feel good on your own, your partner’s not going to be able to please you, and neither will anyone else, because that’s an internal problem. You may be looking for your partner to hang on your every word, as you wanted Mommy to do in childhood, which is clearly an infantile expectation. And you will not have a fun time in the relationship, if you’re trying to cast your partner—male or female—in the Mommy role. You may feel that if your partner really loved you, he or she would know what you want, without your having to ask. Again, this is infantile. You have language for a reason: use it!

You’ll be much better off in a relationship if you communicate what you want clearly, without expecting your partner to read your mind, and making sure to ask, not demand. You’ll have much more satisfaction in a relationship if you pay attention to what’s happening and how your partner is doing, rather than pushing your agenda of getting him or her to pay attention to you.

Relate to others and pay attention to your thoughts

In the therapeutic relationship, many people come in to treatment just talking up a storm and wanting the therapist to pay attention to them in ways the parents probably didn’t. But putting the therapist in the Mommy role—to hang on your every word—is not going to help you improve your thinking and functioning in life. What helps is paying attention to what the therapist says, paying attention to your thoughts and motivations, and paying attention to other people, instead of making life all about you and what you’re getting or not getting. In other words, it helps to relate and to pay attention, rather than to seek attention. This is something that many people haven’t learned before treatment, and this can get in the way of their satisfaction and reasonable adult functioning in life.

Pay attention to logic

Aside from how you handle yourself in relationships, paying attention means thinking things through and weighing consequences.

Paying attention

Paying attention; thinking things through

In other words, you’ll have a much better quality of life if you pay attention to the rules of logic—if I do this, this is likely to happen, and that’s a great result, or that’s something I want to avoid, so I won’t do the thing I was considering doing—instead of bouncing from impulse to impulse trying to get people to pay attention to you. Seeking attention is what kids do; paying attention is what reasonable adults do. If reading this makes you realize that you’re on the side of seeking attention, rather than paying attention, therapy can help you shift to a more adult and satisfying way of functioning.


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