As a young man, I was always an attention-seeker. Attention-seeking is usually considered to be a negative trait. However, there can be positive traits associated with attention-seeking. I am very
bold socially. And I am a good entertainer.
During my late 20s and my 30s I dedicated most of my spare time to studying psychology literature. The more I read about emotional wellbeing, the more I began to become convinced that my socially ‘bold’ behaviour was in fact a mask for deep feelings of inadequacy.
I think that if someone is truly self-confident, they do not need to draw attention to themselves. A self-confident person can enter social situations, and answer questions about themselves without feeling the need to boast or engage in attention-seeking behaviour.
- However, if our self-esteem is week, and we long for approval from others, then we may become boastful and engage in attention-seeking behaviour.
I wanted to improve my personal sense of self-worth. However, before I was able to see an improvement in self-esteem, I had to begin to accept that I had a low self-image. If we recognise how we are really feeling, then it becomes easier to manage our emotions.
Attention-seeking behaviour doesn’t do much to improve our self-esteem
I do not believe that engaging in attetion-seeking behaviour is the best way to improve our self-esteem. There are fundamentally better ways to improve our sense of self-worth.
At Live Life Satisfied
we believe that our needs for attention are best met within strong, mutually supportive relationships. This is one of our central values.
Excessive attention seeking behaviour undermines our capacity to build mutually supportive relationships. This was the central theme of my article 7 Ways to make a Lasting Impression
In this article I will explain:
Are you a bit of an Attention-Seeker?
- Why I belive it is so important to recognise when our attention-seeking behaviour is masking underlying feelings of inadequacy,
- How learning to face difficult feelings of inadequacy is key to improving our self-esteem,
- How to improve our self-esteem by learning to fulfil our needs for attention within mutually supportive relationships
Try our Attention-Seeking
quiz to see how Attention-Seeking you are compared to other people: CLICK HERE
3 Things Successful People Do
In my article, 3 Things That Successful People Do
, I discussed the work of Raymond Cattell. Cattell developed a questionnaire, which measured a trait that he called ‘Ego-Strength’. People who obtained a high score on Ego-Strength were,
- Emotionally calm,
- Realistic about problems,
- Mature in manner,
- Able to recover from upsets quickly.
On the other hand, people who obtained a low Ego-Strength
- Unable to tolerate frustration,
- Emotionally impulsive,
- Easily annoyed,
- Easily upset,
- Highly reactive in response to life stresses,
- Prone to struggle when dealing with disappointment.
Cattell named this trait ‘Ego-Strength’ because he felt it appeared to reflect what psychoanalysts call ‘ego’.
How we respond to pain reflects our emotional maturity
Psychoanalysis was the counselling model developed by Sigmund Freud and his followers. I am aware that Freud’s work is extremely controversial. I certainly do not agree with everything Freud said. However, I have found some of his insights concerning emotional wellbeing to be extremely helpful.
The concept of ‘ego’ was an early psychoanalytic concept.
- ‘Ego’ represents certain functions of the mind. Amongst other things, Ego represents the part of the mind that controls conscious thought.
If you are unfamiliar with psychoanalytic ideas, it is probably best to substitute the word ‘ego’ for ‘mind’ in the following quotes.
Take a look at the above list of traits associated with Ego-Strength
. Each of these descriptions appears to be concerned with a person’s capacity to deal with difficult, painful or stressful situations or emotions. Otto Fenichel was one of the most important early psychoanalysts. He says the following about people who have a weak ‘ego’.
The ego’s reaction to new painful experiences depends on its strength and development. A very weak ego may be passively overwhelmed, the unexpected painful experience producing a traumatic effect.
Notice how this corresponds to the descriptions of those who score low on Ego Strength
. The low scorer is unable to deal with painful experiences. She is overwhelmed by them.
However, Fenichel says the following about people whom he describes as having a ‘mature’ ego,
…In contrast, a mature ego, …is able to acknowledge the existence of painful experiences. By means of such recognition it can thereafter either avoid similar experiences or respond adequately to them, rendering unavoidable pain as harmless or even as useful as possible.
Notice how this description appears to correspond with people who score high on Ego Strength
. High scorers were ‘even tempered’
and ‘able to recover from upsets quickly’
People with strong ‘ego’ appear to be able to face pain. Facing pain and actively thinking about painful experiences, also helps them to learn from these experiences.
People who are able to face pain and think about painful experiences can consider what may have caused negative situations. This helps them to improve their life decisions in order to avoid situations that stimulate further pain. People who actively think about what causes bad experiences can learn not to repeat behaviours that result in painful outcomes.
Avoiding facing pain is very damaging
Fenichel explains what happens to people who are unable to cope with painful experiences (people with 'weak egos'). In the case of people with weak Ego,
…the ego learns to defend itself against painful experiences, either by simple denial or by other mechanisms of defense, following the pattern of the primal judgment: everything painful must be “spit out”.
- Those who find painful experiences overwhelming respond to pain by attempting to push negative feelings out of conscious awareness. This was the central idea found in Freud’s early work.
I believe this concept to be of great importance. And I believe that understanding this principle is crucial for those who wish to gain a strong grasp of the key issues associated with emotional wellbeing. If we are to become emotionally strong, we must learn to face pain and come to terms with it.
Psychoanalysis teaches that if we cannot learn to face our pain, then our mind generates maladaptive responses. These responses are designed to distract us from experiencing pain. However, the underlying pain continues to linger. And its effects are expressed through negative ‘symptoms’.
Unfortunately, if we simply try to distract ourselves from negative feelings, we often continue to experience pain. At times, distraction can be useful. Often when someone dies, people report experiencing a temporary 'numbing' of their emotions. This numbing enables them to cope for a time, and deal with practical issues such as funeral arrangements. However, individuals who continue to avoid facing pain indefinitely are reported to experience long-term negative consequences.
Distracting ourselves so that we avoid facing pain removes the pain from conscious awareness. In the short term, this may be less painful than thinking about the painful experience. However, the feelings can linger on, slightly out of conscious awareness.
Psychoanalysis proposes that the combined long-term effect of avoiding coming to terms with many painful experiences creates ‘neurosis’: or mental illness.
Attention-seeking behaviour can be a mask for low self-esteem
After studying psychoanalysis for some time, I came to believe that my constant boasting and attention-seeking behaviour were attempts to mask painful feelings of inadequacy. And I realised that if I was going to improve my self-esteem, I would have to begin to face the reality of the pain I was experiencing.
So here is what I decided to do. I decided that whenever I felt the urge to behave in an attention seeking manner I would respond in the following way.
- I would try to recognise which event had triggered this response. Had someone criticised me? Had I walked into a conversation where I felt somewhat inferior to the other people talking? Was I feeling particularly inadequate at that moment?
- When I began to feel a pinch of terrible low self-esteem in social gatherings, I decided that I would refrain from using ‘defensive’ behaviour to try to cover up my negative feelings. Instead, I would try to sit with the pain, and allow myself to feel my deep sense of insecurity.
- Often, in the past, when I had felt that someone was trying to oppose what I was saying, I would typically become extremely argumentative. Now, I decided that I would respond differently if I felt that someone was disagreeing with me. Instead of arguing, I would try to bite my tongue.
Facing my feelings of inadequacy was EXTREMELY painful
Trying to apply these new principles was a very painful experience. It also resulted in some practical problems. When I tried to face my feelings of low self-esteem, I discovered that I experienced an immense sense of inadequacy. As a result, I would feel the urge to leave social situations and run away. In fact, initially, I did run away from at least one social situation.
So here’s what I did. My best friend loves social situations. In if I called him right now to tell him that there is a party happening tonight, he would probably drop what he is doing and head over to the party to meet me.
I decided that I would make sure I took this friend with me whenever I entered a social situation for the foreseeable future. And his support saved me during that immensely painful period of transition. I felt confident when he was there beside me.
Working through this process was one of the most crucial steps I have made towards improving my emotional well-being.
- I believe that acting in a defensive, attention-seeking manner undermines our ability to enter into mutually open and supportive relationships.
Facing my feelings of inadequacy enabled me to learn to move away from situations that threatened my self-esteem. It also enabled me to learn which situations and relationships nurtured my emotional wellbeing and improved my sense of self-worth.
Supportive relationships are crucial to self-esteem
During the early 20th century, psychoanalysis began to be introduced in the United States. Sigmund Freud was the founder of psychoanalysis. However, as Psychoanalysis started to expand in the States, a number of thinkers started to develop ideas that differed from Freud’s.
One such thinker was Harry Stack Sullivan. Sullivan became one of the most important thinkers in the development of psychoanalysis in America. His work was particularly influential in relation to the management of psychiatric homes. These institutions were set up to house people who were suffering from mental illness. Such patients were temporarily or permanently unable to live in mainstream society.
Sullivan ran a psychiatric home. He attempted to create a warm nurturing environment for his patients.
Sullivan proposes that a patient’s chance of recovery was significantly improved if she experienced warm nurturing relationships with the staff with whom she came into contact. By applying this principle, Sullivan experienced significant success with his patients.
Sullivan's work has shaped the development of psychiatric units to this day.
- Sullivan's ideas, along with those of others continuing his tradition, has given birth to what is now known as Interpersonal Therapy. I have been profoundly influenced by the work of Sullivan.
Sullivan’s key ideas
Sullivan proposed that our emotional wellbeing is largely determined by the manner in which we are able to manage two, often conflicting, needs. These are
- Our own personal needs and desires.
- An inborn longing for the approval of others.
Our need for the approval and support of those around us is very strong. Unfortunately, the things that we desire to do in life often differ from the things that others want us to do.
- If we try to do things that other people don’t like, then they typically dissaprove. According to Sullivan, when others show disapproval towards us, this undermines our self-esteem.
Therefore, if we wish to do something others disapprove of, we have 2 options.
- We follow our own desires. However, this risks stirring up disapproval from others.
- We submit to the will of others. However, this means ignoring our own needs.
With this in mind, I propose that 2 situations will bring about significant distress.
- For those of us who are born with a particularly strong desire to follow our own path, great conflict is generated. The situation is worsened if we typically desire to follow a path that is strongly opposed to social norms and expectations.
- This situations is worsened if we possess a particularly strong inner need for approval from others.
Learning to manage the conflicts that exist between our own needs and the expectations of others is one of the central themes of Live Life Satisfied
Our emotional well-being is dependent on warm encouraging relationships
I believe that our life satisfaction is tied to the relationships we have with others. In order to be happy humans require loving, supportive, attentive relationships. I would not have been able to manage the emotional tensions of the journey I chose to follow (outlined above) if I had not had the support of my best friend. He stood by me, and provided me with strength when I was weak.
Many self-help programmes propose that we learn to believe in our own inner strength. I propose we learn to build supportive relationships. Support from others provides me with the strength that I need.
- In fact I believe that people who experience low-self esteem typically lack warm, mutually supportive, attentive relationships. At Live Life Satisfied we believe that relationships are central to our emotional wellbeing. Many of the articles we publish will aimed at improving our understanding of how to build supportive attentive relationships.
I publish around 2 articles a month in which I share lessons I have learned that have significantly improved my relationships and life outcomes. Why not have my e-mail updates sent directly to your inbox? SIGN UP FOR MY EMAIL UPDATES
to have my articles sent directly to you! (Alternatively click the orange 'Subscribe to Email Updates' button below.)
Please Give Feedback: Did you find this article helpful? I love to receive feedback from people: it's what makes writing these articles worthwhile. If you found this article useful, or if you have any questions or comments please let me know. Click here to e-mail me, or leave a COMMENT BELOW. Your feedback means a great deal to me.
Photo: Ian Sane