Tuesday, May 12, 2015

The Need for Attention

Mummy, She Thinks I'm Real
The underestimated craving for attention. 
By Pat Williams (1976)

Have you ever craved attention and then felt guilty about needing it? The answer is probably yes, because for some strange reason the need for attention is something we hate to admit.

Yet the need is as basic as hunger. Without it we starve in a psychic desert. And all over the country there are people starving in this way.

Extreme cases end up in the courts or on psychiatrist’s couches. Many more are quietly dying of psychic neglect among the endless acres of middle class suburban houses – housewives locked into their isolated rocket-ships, making lonely journeys with everything to sustain life on a material level but suffering from attention starvation and wondering what is wrong.


One of the saddest cases recently was that of a a 19 year old housewife who cut herself with a razor , slashed off her hair, and pounded herself with a hammer, inflicting injuries which required hospital treatment. She wasted nearly three hundred hours of police time claiming a man and a woman had assaulted her.

She was put on probation and if she sees her probation officer more than once a week (which in some areas they are now trying to do) then she may have achieved exactly what she needed. Someone will be paying her attention.

For one of the most chilling and revealing stories I ever heard was of a little girl in a restaurant with her mother. The waitress gave the child a menu and asked her what she wanted to eat. The child’s eyes widened, she tugged her mother’s sleeve and said. Did you hear that Mummy ? She thinks I’m real.

The child’s response provides the clue. If we don’t get attention we begin to feel invisible .So we make bids, initially small ones ,to become validated by someone else.

A housewife who feels her husband is ignoring her may buy a sexy nightie or cook him an astonishingly good meal. If her attempts to get him to notice her are still ignored the dinner may land on the husband’s face and the nightie be tried out on a new man.

Attention need knows no age. . We’ve surely all been that child walking a step behind our mother feigning a limp. As adults we’ve all loved being the centre of attention at a party. And a G.P. tells me that elderly patients turn up so often that it’s more than chance saying..It’s such a nice day Doctor that I thought I’d come and take a look at you.

if these attempts are ignored they can change gear and become bids for a wider limelight, entering the t dangerous realm of fantasy acted out. 


The housewife suffering from chronic attention hunger, who feels that he husband and family NEVER see her for herself may become the shoplifter, the one who cries rape or makes a fake suicide attempt. The man who feels himself a ‘nobody’ may confess to a crime he didn’t commit.

Without this label (which we need as a matter of FACT not judgement) we indulge in all kinds of bizarre subterfuges to conceal our need from ourselves. Sometimes we weld it on to something different and confuse it with love or an interest in politcs, or concern for the welfare of others.


Without the label too, you get the kind of confusing situations described by probation officer Jean Barrett. In one case a man grabbed a whole rail of dresses in Marks and Spencer and charged into the street with it shouting Arrest me! Arrest me!

In another, a girl in her twenties who had cut herself off from her family and was living in London without friends ran up thousands of pounds of credit card debts staying in fancy hotels and buying clothes. She was buying attention in fact, from hotel staff and the admiration of strangers; she got attention of another kind form the welfare officers and the courts.

Idries Shah who has pointed out the importance of attention to our culture in his books, says that although the principle of attention is little –understood here in the West ‘there are so many jokes about it in the east that I’m almost surprised it’s so unknown here, relatively unknown.’

He says: ‘Many of the people who write to me are asking, at least partly, for attention- even if they think they are asking for something else.’

‘If a letter isn’t answered a person may often try another tack, and write asking for different information. it ‘s very easy to illustrate attention desire if one is doesn’t feel flattered by the attention of the other person.

SIMILARLY ONE CAN EXPERIMENT ONESELF; If you feel something is wrong ,ask yourself if it’s attention you need. If you think it is, there are several things you can do.

First you can BUY it. For attention is actually a substance: the more you pay the more you get. Notice how the rich are treated in expensive shops and hotels.

Second you can COMMAND it—by making yourself so interesting so pretty so unusual or so famous that you simply find it coming towards you. Fame, it has been said is stored attention.


And third you can GIVE it... thereby probably getting it back again. Generating attention towards others seems to mean that the substance has been put in the air, and some of it will surely come back to you.

Aware of our need, we survive. Unaware we can be destroyed by our invisibility, though surrounded by millions of people. A precept in one of Shah’s books says it all:

'MAN: Kick him- he’ll forgive you. Flatter him – he may or may not see through you. But ignore him and he’ll hate you even if he conceals it until the day he dies.'

--from The Daily Mail, July, 1976.

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