A recent article on attention seeking by Leo Benedictus in The Guardian caught my eye.
It is a spin-off from his new book, ‘Consent’. He makes a lot of good points but I feel that some of them need to be nuanced a bit.
He is right that the human need for attention is hugely important. We all need attention from other people. However, as I see it, the kind of attention people look for varies from one person to another. In many people the key need is to get positive attention from people you know well. But I suspect there are some people who prefer positive but fairly superficial contact, with a wide circle of contacts rather than close relationships.
Benedictus thinks the need for attention is universal and says that “if there were ever humans who didn’t need it, they are now extinct”. But there are some people who develop their inner life to the point where they choose to be hermits. What has happened to the need for attention there? I think hermits still have relationships of a certain kind, but they have internalised those relationships so well that they don’t need the person to be physically present, or they may have a deep relationship with a spiritual presence they have never seen.
When people get desperate for human contact they can resort to rather unproductive ways of seeking contact, and it can lead to extremes, such as stalking. People can also get difficult and uncooperative when deprived of the human contact they need. Though such behaviour can be troublesome, I would not want to condemn it, just try to understand the unmet needs from which it arises.
As Benedictus says, it is tricky to find ways to get the kind of attention you want. It calls for quite some skill. If you are too obvious, it puts people off. But some people go to the other extreme and don’t seek the human contact they need at all. I think this happens particularly when people get depressed. They too easily assume that no one wants anything to do with them.
One important thing Benedictus doesn’t mention is ‘social skills training’. It developed in the 1970s within the behaviour therapy umbrella, and seems to have really useful effects. There is a limit to what you can do to provide human contact for people who have not found it for themselves. But if you can help them to be more skilful at making social contact, then it can transform their lives for the better.