Are You Hurting for Attention?

 “Turn your wounds into wisdom.” – Oprah Winfrey

What if you looked at bad behavior as an insight into someone’s emotional state? It’s easier to demonize people and assume that they are bad. It’s easier to feel guilty about our own bad behavior. But, what if that bad behavior is merely covering up something that is brewing deeper below the surface, such as pain and insecurity.

Last night, I watched an episode of “Community“, where one of the main characters was going to meet his absentee father for the first time in a long time. The show is a comedy, but I always think that there is a great deal of truth in comedy. The character, Jeff, has a good heart, but hides it with sarcasm and aloofness. He found that he and his father had a lot in common until his father tried to take credit for Jeff’s self-reliance by telling Jeff that it was, most likely, his absence that made Jeff so strong.

What I want to talk to you about was Jeff’s response? He explained to his father that he’s not well-adjusted. He’s trying to hide how broken he feels from his friends. Jeff delivered a story telling his father about how, in 7th grade, he went to school and told everyone that he had an appendicitis. He wanted someone to worry about him. One of his friend’s asked to see the scar. He didn’t have one, so he went home and used his mother’s scissors to create a scar. He said, “it hurt like hell, but it was worth it. I got 17 cards and I still keep them in a box underneath my bed 22 years later because it proves that someone, at some point, cared about me.”

Of course, this is a scripted show, but this story is showing up in many of our lives in many ways. In conversations with other people about the state of the world, they always say, “things are so bad. I don’t know what’s wrong with people?” What’s wrong with people is that everyone is trying to find a way to connect in a world that is perfecting disconnection. I’ve watched teenagers text each other while sitting next to each other rather than talk. It’s a superficial interaction that doesn’t take the place of intimacy.

We all want to know that someone cares. Many times, people make the mistake of thinking that being there is enough. But, it is very possible to be physically there while being emotionally disconnected. You can be in the same home with someone, but everyone is doing their own thing. We all want connection. We all want to see someone’s eyes light up because of our presence. We all want to be known, understood and appreciated for our unique value and view of life.

It’s easy to look at what Jeff did as a child and judge it as drastic or strange. But, many people sabotaging and harming their lives to gain the attention of the people they love to find out if they care. It may be through cheating, lying or creating constant  drama. It can be through violence or criminal activity. For others, who turn it inward, it might be through drug abuse, alcohol abuse or cutting. And then there are the overachiever, the people who will work themselves into an early grave. They learn that achievement is the key to adoration and attention. You may be showing up for their award ceremony or their bail hearing, but it’s a moment where you show that you really care about them. Some people develop a sympathy addiction, so they keep creating situations in their life to gain the sympathy of others because it has become their source of  perceived love.

The key to changing this behavior is to be aware of it and recognize it for what it is. There are hurt people in this world and they respond to being hurt in ways that can be harmful to themselves and others.  Sometimes, you can view the bad behavior of others or even your own, as a cry for love. Before you make a bad decision, check in with yourself and see if what you really desire is for someone to notice and prove they care. If that is how you feel, instead of doing that,  find someone who cares and talk about your feelings.

If you have no one to tell, tell me:

“Forgiveness requires a sense that bad behavior is a sign of suffering rather than malice.” ― Alain de Botton