Growing up, I learned that wearing revealing clothes, being loud, wearing makeup, flirting, having sex or even having big emotions was attention-seeking.
"[Saying someone is] attention-seeking is used as a weapon nowadays," says Dr Lexx Brown-James, licensed therapist, sexologist and media consultant. "It's a sword used to defend folks when they feel annoyed and often do not want to meet the needs of another person. To say [someone’s behaviour] is attention-seeking somehow gives them permission to ignore whatever the need being stated is at the time."
Attention-seeking behaviour has ultimately gotten a bad reputation due to its connection with mental illness, and not all attention-seeking is pathological.
Dr Lexx Brown-James
Over and over again in secondary school, even college, I heard friends use phrases like "attention whore" or "they just want attention" when a classmate broke down crying, had sex with multiple people or even just had a loud voice and big personality. I felt like I had to avoid being the "pick me" girl who was "too much" at a party, whether it was because her clothes were "too revealing" or she was "too loud" and "taking up too much space".
"How many times as a femme have I been called intense?" says Lucie Fielding, licensed mental health counsellor associate from the Washington State Department of Health, therapist, educator and author of Trans Sex. "I’m called 'too much' or 'too intense' and that allows people to dismiss me and dismiss what I have to say because it’s delivered in an emotional way."
I internalised the idea that having big emotions, being feminine and even being sexual was asking for attention, and that asking for attention made me shallow, annoying and self-centred. So I suppressed my need for it, which took a toll on my relationships.
In relationships I’d pick a fight, act angry and wait for my partner to ask what was wrong, get jealous or withdraw because I wanted attention so badly but I didn’t know how to ask for it.
When you suppress your desire for attention, "you learn that your needs and your desires are not important or that they’re too much, and that can breed resentment, and it can breed a sense in your partner that there is something you want but you’re withholding [it]," says Fielding.
Mackenzie, 26, told me she struggled to ask her partner for attention when they were newly living together at the beginning of COVID lockdown. "We had one of those hard talks about how I clearly wanted attention but was tiptoeing around it, which actually made it worse," she says. "He was like, 'I love you but I just don’t know how to respond in a way that’s validating for you/gives you attention, and also respects where I am.'" She continues: "Tiptoeing around was a habit because I wasn’t accustomed to making requests from people, but it was actually wearing on me more than I realised."
Similarly, Sarah, 30, explains: "When I was younger, the loudness of my voice and personality were called 'attention-seeking'." She adds: "Growing up as a girl in a religious household, the value of modesty was drilled in hard. I was taught that my body, my voice and my personality shouldn’t be too much.
"Now, I understand that it’s perfectly human to want attention. This helps me ask for attention when I want it instead of sneakily trying to get it and getting mad at people when they don’t understand my roundabout attempts at communication. I wish I had learned that it’s okay to want attention much younger and that someone actually taught me how to directly ask for it."
While attention-seeking has a bad rap, there’s nothing to be ashamed of in wanting attention. In fact, attention-seeking "is about advocating for needs," says Fielding. "People seek attention in order to seek connection." Dr Lexx agrees: "Being seen, heard, understood and validated is part of how humans thrive."
Even though attention is an essential part of creating meaning and connection in our lives, many of us still feel shame about our desire for attention and struggle to ask for it. Dr Lexx explains: "Attention-seeking behaviour has ultimately gotten a bad reputation due to its connection with mental illness, and not all attention-seeking is pathological." The idea that wearing revealing clothes, flirting and expressing emotions is attention-seeking is also misogynistic, Fielding and Dr Lexx explain, and is used to dismiss women and femmes by labelling them "too much".
Clearly, there are lots of reasons why we learn to suppress our need for attention. I’m still working on it but I’m so damn proud of myself when I recognise I want attention and straight-up say: "Hey, I need attention right now, can you give that to me?" Seriously, I come right out and ask for it (and trust me, it works much better than picking a fight or withdrawing).
Now, says Mackenzie: "We literally poke our heads into each other’s offices and just say 'I need attention' and have also established that it’s okay if we don’t know how to respond or what kind of attention we need."
When we ask someone for attention, we also have to be prepared for them to respond: "No, not right now." Attention-seeking can become harmful when the person seeking attention doesn’t respect your boundaries. For example, if they come to you and say: "You need to do this now, you need to be the person to do it, and I’m bothered by your assertion of a boundary or your no." In this case, they aren’t respecting your limits, and this sort of bid for attention can become manipulative, says Fielding.
Everyone has different attention needs, which are often shaped by past experiences. Some people may have high attention needs and others may feel very uncomfortable receiving attention or certain kinds of attention. Dr Lexx says to be upfront about what your attention needs are. If you need attention, trust me when I say that asking for it directly works better than some other roundabout tactic.