‘Acting Up’ – or Just a Desperate Cry for Attention?

Clients often ask me if the children (or adults) in their lives are just looking for attention when they “act up” or become emotionally distraught. This is often true, but the goal isn’t attention as much as what I call “visibility.”

People have a reasonable need to feel that their lives are important and that they are visible to others. Visibility is the end result of achievement or success, and it cannot be faked in order to make visibility an end in itself. An author achieves visibility when she convinces readers that she has something valuable to say. A sports hero achieves visibility when he demonstrates talent on the playing field. A businessperson achieves visibility because he makes a profit by creating and selling a product or service of value to many.

So you can’t seek attention or visibility without first focusing on the means that make it possible. And that, not the visibility, has to be the end in itself. In the absence of actually earning it, the failure to get visibility can often lead to anxiety, which in extreme cases can lead to desperation. When people develop emotional disorders or maladies as a bid for attention, it doesn’t mean they’re deliberately faking it. While this may sometimes be true, what may actually be happening is that the person has become anxious and desperate because he or she has failed to understand that visibility can only come from a continuous policy of achievement over time.

There are also achievements in character or personality as well. You don’t obtain visibility in personal relationships primarily through career achievement. Somebody becomes good friends with you or marries you more for your personal traits and qualities (hopefully) than anything else. If you haven’t nurtured these qualities over time in a rational, principled and thoughtful way, you won’t obtain the desired visibility from somebody who reflects the ideals you already practice daily. You might end up with friends or a spouse in name only, but you will still not be satisfied, because you never satisfied yourself.

Some mental health professionals encourage people to get caught up in their childhood. “You didn’t get what you needed as a child,” they intone. “You must now work through that as an adult.” “Work through” is never concretely defined, and hundreds of psychotherapy sessions will give you no better understanding of that (though it might put a nice pool in the therapist’s back yard). This is because “working through” generally does not correct the most basic error: Failing to tend to the self and to develop it in a way that brings pleasure and genuine satisfaction.

To make matters worse, ethicists and moralists throughout history have emphasized what they consider to be the “virtue” of selflessness. So we end up with millions of conscientious, thoughtful people – the ones with the greatest potential for earned visibility – trying to become the opposite of what they require. They’re taught that the ideal is to tend to others, and never to themselves. And then they wonder why they suffer from depression, anxiety and other manifestations of low self-esteem.

If we want to feel good every day, it’s necessary to pursue the only course that can make that possible: self-interest, self-nurturing and recognition of the same in others. And better yet, when we find others we value or care about, it makes us better people to encourage the same in them. It’s mentally healthy for us and those we care about to seek our own happiness first. Selflessness cannot be the ideal if it is practiced with no regard for our own well-being.

Nobody can experience genuine happiness without a strong sense of self. It’s time to embrace the tools and the ideals that can make that possible.

Michael J. Hurd

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