Attention Seeking Behaviors –What is the Real Issue?

Attention seeking......Have you ever noticed that some people are so extreme and so dramatic about what happens to them?  Sometimes, I wonder what is the real point of the drama, or what is the real issue causing this behavior? In fact some people just explain away the behavior away dismissing the drama, while excusing extreme responses as extroversion or just a little bit of eccentric behavior. At other times, people tend to rationalize behavior they do not understand describing the person as someone who is a very emotional, erratic person and dismiss what is taking place while minimizing the effect of what is taking place.  On the other hand, there are times when extreme behaviors certainly should not be ignored because behavior can be a measure of a deeper problem not readily observed. 

Obviously, there is an important connection between excessive drama and the underlying causes affecting a person who acts out in response to unregulated emotion in order to gain others attention. Indeed, behavior can be an indicator of  a person who feels  neglected, abandoned emotionally, or extremely frustrated and is trying to resolve an internal feeling of crisis. Therefore, a factor that needs to be understood is that that there is a an  unrecognized and deeply held felt need within the individual contributing to pathological attention seeking behaviors. As a result, the person who is behaving in way’s that draws attention to their self  is sending out the clear message that they want you to pay particular attention to them. The question remains unanswered in the moment about what that really means.  Consequently, the behavior that you are witnessing  is the unspoken cue, acted out in order to elicit a response through behaving in a peculiar or dramatic way.

An important question to ask about behavior before dismissing the person is what is motivating or driving the attention seeking behavior? Obviously, not all attention seeking behavior is related to a pathology connected to mental illness, it can simply be that someone is tired, sick, or not well.  This type of behavior may simply indicate relationship issues, which need to be addressed or social systems functionality in how people relate attached to a particular problem.  With that said, what also must be considered is that attention seeking behavior is at the core of many mental health disorders and may indicate a need for further diagnosis to be performed by a professional therapist when behavior suggest that the actions of the attentions seeker are beyond the bounds of normal expectations.

In the field of study about mental disorders this type of behavior is commonly associated with diagnosis’ such as, Borderline Personality, Narcissistic Personality, Munchhausen’s Syndrome, and other mental illnesses listed in the DSM IV. Therefore, there are times when attention seeking behavior is extreme enough to merit further consideration as an indicator of a personality disorder associated with mental illness.

What can be made of attention seeking behavior and when is it extreme?

When attention seekers exploit the suffering of others to gain attention for themselves, or they will exploit their own suffering, or alleged suffering in extreme forms, a diagnosis such as in Munchausen Syndrome by Proxy describes the attention-seeker as an individual who will deliberately cause suffering to others as a means of gaining attention by playing the a part of one suffering, like an actor in a drama.

What can be made of attention seeking behavior and when is it extreme?

The sufferer: This performance might include feigning or exaggerating illness, playing on an injury, or perhaps causing or inviting injury, in extreme cases going as far as losing a limb. Severe cases may meet the diagnostic criteria for Munchhausen’s Syndrome (also known as Factitious Disorder). The illness or injury becomes a vehicle for gaining sympathy and thus attention. The attention-seeker excels at manipulating people through pinging their emotions, especially through the use of guilt. For most people, it is very difficult not to feel sorry for someone who relates a plausible tale of suffering in a sob story or “poor me” drama.

The savior: In attention-seeking personality disorders like Munchhausen Syndrome by Proxy (MSBP, also known as Factitious Disorder by Proxy) the person, usually female, creates opportunities to be center of attention by intentionally causing harm to others and then being their savior or by saving their life. The goal is to present themselves as being such a caring and compassionate person. Consequently, few people realize the injury was deliberate and are fooled by the dramatic presentation of the savior. The MSBP mother or nurse may kill several babies before suspicions are aroused by onlookers. Another important observation is that when the MSBP is not in savior mode, they may be resentful, perhaps even contemptuous of the person or persons being saved.

The rescuer: This is particularly common in family situations. This person is the one who will dash in and “rescue” people whenever the moment is opportune for the benefit of the rescuer to act out by rescuing others. In fact, the rescuer gains primary gratification from basking in the glory of humanitarian actions performed. A characteristic of this individual is the tendency to prey on any person suffering misfortune, infirmity, illness, injury, or anyone who has a vulnerability. As a result, the act of rescue and the opportunities for gaining attention can be enhanced if others are excluded from the act of rescue. This strategy helps the rescuer to create a dependency relationship between the rescuer and rescued, which can be exploited for further acts of rescue (and attention) later. Consequently, when not in rescue mode, the rescuer may be resentful and perhaps even contemptuous of the person being rescued.

The organizer: He/she may present through behavior suggesting that they are the one in charge. A particular trait is that they are the one organizing everything, i.e., the one who is reliable and dependable, or the one people can always turn to in a crisis to make things happen. However for this person, the objective is not to help people (this is only a means to an end), but to always be the center of attention.

The manipulator: He/she may exploit family relationships by manipulating others with guilt and distorting perceptions by spinning others reality to match theirs. Although they may not harm people physically, this individual causes everyone to suffer emotional injury. Vulnerable family members are favorite targets. A common attention-seeking ploy is to claim they are being persecuted, victimized, excluded, isolated or ignored by another family member or group, perhaps insisting they are the target of a campaign of exclusion or harassment.

The mind-poisoner: He/she is adept at poisoning peoples’ minds by manipulating their perceptions of others, especially against the current target of their anger.  The method is spinning and creating an altered perception of reality through innuendo and planting seeds of doubt, but never being direct in order to cover any trail of evidence that can be traced back to them.

The drama queen: Every single incident or opportunity, no matter how insignificant, is exploited, exaggerated, and if necessary; distorted to become an event of dramatic magnitude to draw attention to their plight in life in order to gain sympathy and support needed to affirm the diminished ego, as well as, an absence of a appropriate sense of self.  Everything and every experience is elevated to crisis proportions and played out as the greatest tragedy. Histrionics (deliberate display of emotion for effect) may be present where the person feels he/she is not the center of attention, but should be. With the opposite sex, inappropriate flirtatious behavior may also be present to draw attention and support to her cause of the moment.

The busy bee: This individual is the busiest person in the world, if their constant retelling of her life is to be believed. Every day events, which are regarded as normal, by most people take on epic proportions. This behavior is acted out in a way that invites everyone to simultaneously admire and commiserate with this oh-so-busy person who never has a spare moment because they are so busy. This person, according to them, never has time to sit down, etc. However, while being so very busy, they are never too busy to tell you how busy they are or remind you what a sacrifice has been made –this person is a self-proclaimed suffering saint.

The feigner: When this person is called to account or outwitted, the person instinctively uses the denial –counterattack by feigning victimization, as a strategy to manipulate everyone present. The performance is especially targeted toward bystanders and those in authority to demonstrate innocence in portraying sainthood while at the same time projecting their bad behavior upon the person who outwitted her. One apparent behavior believed to create results for this type of person is by feigning victimization. Then to burst into tears because most people are instinctively moved to feel sorry for them, to put their arm round them or offer them a tissue. This person is a professional because they know there is nothing more effective than real tears. Indeed as actors know, it is possible to turn these on at will in a performance to create effect. As a result, feigners are adept at using crocodile tears when they are called for in a moment of manipulation. This expertise comes from years of practice. Therefore, attention-seekers often give an Oscar-winning performance in this respect to gain sympathy. A particular application of this behavior is see when feigning victim-hood is used as a favorite tactic of bullies and harassers to evade accountability and sanction. For the bully-abuser, when accused of bullying and harassment, the person immediately turns on the water works and claims they are the one being bullied or harassed. This is true even though there has been no prior mention of being bullied or harassed. As a result, the fact that this claim appears only after and in response to abusive-bully is called to account for behavior reveals who they really are. A commonly known fact is that mature adults do not burst into tears when held accountable for their actions without good cause.

Unfortunately in daily relationships, managing this kind of behavior is increasingly difficult when we are tangled in the web of relationship.  This is especially true of those we are close to because the behavior has become a common part of life, behavior, thinking, and feeling. However, when it is apparent that there is a disconnect in functional relationships, what can we do?  One response is to act intentionally and responsibly. Next, get help-advise from someone with an objective view point of view who can be give perspective to what is occurring. Then, establish clear boundaries in relationships and understand that this behavior is not caused by you and you cannot fix it. In dysfunctional relationships, it is common to get trapped in a dependent relationships of  which results in a feeling of helplessness in a situation that seems impossible to remedy.

Obviously, not all attention seeking behavior rises to the level of a diagnosable metal illness or personality disorder. However, there are times that life becomes very frustrating by a lack of understanding about where the behavior is coming from exactly.  The goal is not to diagnose, but to equip our relationships with understanding that people can be very frustrated when they are not getting the attention they think they deserve.  In addition, attention seekers can disrupt, divert, and even destroy relationships in life when their are not clear ways of understanding where behavior comes from and how to cope with the attention seeking behaviors of those with a pathology of mental disorders.

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