We’ve Got It All Wrong: Attention-Seeking Turned Around

Let’s turn our negative assumption about needing attention on its head

Girl with blonde hair wearing sunglasses and a white feather boa.How often have you heard someone say, rather derisively, “Oh, s/he’s just looking for attention!”? There is an implied understanding that this is not good… that somehow the person in need of attention is too needy, or inappropriately needy, or perhaps even that their need is wrong, or not real.

We might even feel an implication with this statement that the person in need should be ignored or punished somehow, so they stop seeking attention, or at least stop the behavior driven by their seeking.

Do you know what I’m talking about? People label “attention-seeking behaviors” and proceed to respond to those behaviors by ignoring them, or getting upset with them.

There is something inherently wrong with this negative implication surrounding attention.

Imagine you are in a shop and you see the perfect house plant for your office. You’ve been looking for something for that one corner for a while, and this plant is absolutely perfect. Excited and pleased, you buy the plant and bring it to your office, only to discover you were absolutely right! It’s just the thing for the space!

Then you go about your business, doing your job, going home at night, and within weeks the plant starts to look droopy. You might wonder what’s wrong, but you think, “oh, it will be fine,” and you continue on with your work.

A few weeks later the plant looks like a shriveled, dried up disaster. “What happened?!?” you wonder. You consider taking the dumb thing back to the store, because clearly they sold you junk. But, you know a good plant person, and decide to first ask her to come into your office to take a look.

She looks at the plant, observes your office, and puts her finger in the soil in the pot.

“What is wrong?” you ask.

“Well, your office has no windows, so your plant hasn’t gotten any sun. And when was the last time you watered it? The soil is so dry it’s like rock,” she responds.

The plant that was so perfect is dead, from lack of attention in the form of the right amounts of sunlight and water.

We could up the ante a bit and talk about puppies. If you went out and adopted a puppy, (cutest wittle fing you ever saw, all fuzzy and wiggwy and sweet!!) and brought it home, but then gave it no attention, within hours your house would be a wreck and you would be wondering why you were so insane as to think this was a good idea.

Or, how about your spouse or partner? If I came home from work and my husband was home before me, sitting in the living room watching his favorite show, and didn’t greet me… ignored me… he would be in SO much trouble! Same thing if the situation were the opposite, and I ignored him, I would be in trouble!

When we get home, we greet each other. We hug. We kiss. We ask about the other’s day and tell about our own. We give each other attention. And if we didn’t, our marriage would not be a happy one.

My point here is that attention is a basic need of all living things, and we need to stop thinking about it as “bad,” especially in children. Our children need our attention.

In fact, I would posit that healthy relationships — between parents and children, partners, friends — are all about the quality of our attention!

So, what do I mean by that? Well, there are three components of high quality attention:

1) Good observations

High quality attention begins with good observations. It’s all about noticing the small things…downcast eyes, slumped shoulders, a change in tone of voice.

These are not things we will notice as easily if we are rushed, or sick, or having a bad day. Our ability to make good observations is strongly dependent on our own internal climate, which is part of my case for good self-care and self-regulation, which you can check out here and here.

2) Accurate interpretations

The second step in high quality attention is accurate interpretations. If we are making good observations, are we also making accurate interpretations of the things we notice?

We are most likely to misinterpret things when we have unresolved trauma, or when something we see in this moment is linked in our minds with something else that happened before.

We also are more likely to misinterpret our observations when we are dysregulated in other ways, perhaps feeling lonely, or angry, or overwhelmed, or tired, or even hungry.

Another thing to consider here is the power of an open mind that believes the best. This does not mean ignoring a problem, but to consider as many possibilities as we can, and to make interpretations which honor the highest good in the other person.

3) Respond in a way that meets the need

Once we have made good observations, and have accurately interpreted what we notice, we then have an opportunity to respond to the need in a way that the other person feels it is met.

Let’s think about an example of this process together. Imagine with me that your child has just come home from school. You are waiting at the bus stop, and notice him getting off the bus quietly, looking down at the ground. You know that usually he comes down the aisle giving fist bumps to all his friends and hops down the steps to the sidewalk, a stark contrast to what you just witnessed.

You give him a sideways squeeze, kiss the top of his head, and then ask, “what’s up, buddy? How was your day?”

You notice he is still looking at the ground as you walk and hasn’t spoken to you yet. He kicks a small rock hard enough for it to ricochet off a sign post and ping your ankle.

At this moment, you could be feeling many things. You might be worried about your typically energetic and engaging child. You might be upset that he isn’t speaking to you, and frustrated, or even angry that the rock hurt your ankle. The amount to which those things bother you is likely correlated with what type of day you have had so far and what your expectations are for your child’s behavior.

How will you interpret these behaviors? To honor the highest good in your child, you certainly would NOT assume he was just being a brat. Instead, you might start thinking that perhaps he’s had a hard day, or maybe that something has happened that has upset him somehow.

How will you respond? Knowing your child and relating to him in ways that are appropriate for his age and personality are at the foundation of your response. You might say something like, “it seems like something is upsetting you.” Or, “seems like it’s been a hard day.”

You probably don’t want to focus on the rock that hit you, or the fact that he is not speaking to you. Instead of being punitive, believing the best of your child, and understanding that he is having a hard time, will help you hear and respond to his need in the best way possible.

It could be that this is all your child needs — a bit of compassion and a ready listening ear. It could be he needs time just to be close to you, walking home, and will be ready to talk later. It could be that he needs a hug or time to snuggle together.

Meeting his need will result in the two of you feeling connected. If it all goes as we would hope, you will come through this situation with both of you feeling better. He will feel valued, understood, and cared for. You will feel like an effective parent.

Attachment research tells us that if we give our loved ones high quality attention (making good observations, accurate interpretations, and responding in ways that meet the need) a mere 30% of the time, we will have a secure relationship! This gives us so much room to be human. We can be distracted and miss the behaviors showing us there is a need. We can misinterpret the behaviors. We can respond in ways that don’t meet the need. But if we are giving it our best, choosing to learn and grow, we can repair mistakes and strengthen our relationships.

“Needing attention” is the state of all things, ourselves included. Let’s embrace our ability to meet that need for those we love, and enjoy the deep and lasting relationships that result.

So much love,

~April

To Hear and Respond

Sharing our stories, and welcoming the stories of others, can be avenues for hope, learning, and growth

Close up of a shiny black mug of coffee with three steamed milk hearts

The other day, I went to two churches… one, the place where I am experiencing some healing through welcome and kindness. The other, the place where some of my deepest pain originated.

As I sat in the one service, tears came to my eyes multiple times. The singing was authentically beautiful. Words from the scripture passage in Luke leapt at me. The pastor’s words were full of grace, compassion, and truth. Tears flowed down my cheeks as the pastor said, “the very nature of God is to hear and respond.”

My son lay down on the pew and fell asleep for a while. The woman next to us smiled and shifted down so he could have more room. When he woke up and started to rock and flap his hands, no one stared or even gave us looks. When we needed to leave in the middle of a prayer, all the embarrassment I felt seemed to come only from me, not from the judgement of others.

This, for me, has been a space I could enter tentatively, my uncertainty offered grace without even knowing my story. It has been a place that has reminded me of home… of the little country church where I grew up, where people still love me after (and through) everything. 

It has become one of very few spaces in my life where I feel I can let my guard down a bit with my son, my hypervigilance in this public gathering reduced by the kindness I feel in the very air around me.

As I left that space to go to the next church, I had a visceral sense of anxiety… my chest tightened and my shoulders tensed. Even as I got in my car, I considered just going home. The excuses began running readily through my head… all the ways I could justify not going to the place I had said I would go. 

But I had said I would go. My daughter had asked me to come. She was singing her favorite songs and was excited. I had told her I would go. So I would go.

Pulling into the parking lot, I recognized every person. Some had aged, some had grown up, some seemed to have stayed just the same. Some waved, friendly. Most paid no attention, or just looked at me, perhaps wondering if they recognized me. 

I could have told you each of their names. I had made it my job to know each one.

Walking in, I passed some people who did not smile, did not greet me.

Was it because it was me, or because they would not have greeted anyone?

I made it through the doors and hid for a moment in the bathroom, gathering myself together.  Then I stepped out again. The service had started. I could hear my daughter singing.

I breathed deeply and looked in at the sanctuary to try to find a seat. A wave of relief washed over me as I spotted one of my best friends sitting with her family in an otherwise empty row. I made a beeline and sat down. It was right up front, on the side. No hiding here. Breathe.

My friend’s son saw me first and smiled, getting his mom’s attention. Welcome. A smile and a hug. “Come over here, beside me. I’m so glad you’re here.” She knew how hard it was.

Then my daughter spotted me and smiled from up on stage. I had made it. I was there for her. I forgot everything else and focused on the beautiful human up on that stage, nervous and excited, helping to lead worship. My girl.

I watched people notice and recognize me slowly. One by one, eye contact, few smiles. Perhaps it was just the space… not the time for smiling. Perhaps it was me.

The striking contrast I was feeling between churches continued as the scripture was read… a Psalm calling out to God for justice against enemies. A delineation between “us” and “them” in which the writer is the dove and his enemies are wild beasts.

My self-righteousness reared its ugly head as I related to the Psalm. The part of me that wants that kind of justice could have laughed out loud at the irony of the moment.

That part of me wants to tell my story and all of its particulars to the world. That part of me wants to blame others for the mistakes I made, to justify my failings with a childish “he made me do it” complete with a pointing finger and red-faced tears.

In some way, I know I must find expression for that part of me too. She is the hurt child who just wanted someone in a position of power to protect her, to stand up and defend her. To tell her they believed her, that what was done to her was wrong, that those who did it would have to be reprimanded, that it would not be allowed to continue any longer.

That is the part of me that feels so deeply betrayed and abandoned.

And as I let those thoughts and feelings wash over me, they were followed other thoughts…

The recurring realization that God’s justice does not look like ours. God’s justice is for everyone, not just me. God’s justice says there is no “us” and “them,” but we are all one. Loved and delighted in. God’s justice means that God wants good for me just as much as good for those who hurt me.

Indignation followed close behind. Because how will I ever find my voice if I keep being this egalitarian empathic freak?!?!? It would seem to me that one cannot tell a story about pain, without discussing the reason for the pain.

My child comes to me with a cut on his finger, and my first question is, “oh baby, what happened?”

If someone said that to me, how would I respond?

The question brought me up short. Because that is exactly how God comes to me, comes to each of us, in our pain.  “Oh my child, what happened?” Spoken tenderly. The Unconditionally Loving Parent bends down to be with us and hear our story, holding us while we cry.  That same Parent knows the best way to heal the wound, carefully tending it. And like a child, we might resist… “No!!!! That will sting!!!” But when we embrace the care, and give it time, healing does come.

God has more than enough good, more than enough healing for everyone.  For me, and for those who hurt me.

When I find my voice from this internal space, sharing my story can be for the benefit of those in similar situations.  To let them know they are not alone. To offer some hope that they, too, can make it through. It can also be for the learning and growth of those who caused pain, that they might not repeat what they did before.

As I’ve reflected on these two church services, it struck me that they are a reflection of our culture. 

For the past few years I have felt that we are at a crossroads… on one hand, devolving into “us” and “them,” in which anyone who is “them” is ridiculous, or stupid, or aggregiously wrong and “I can’t even listen to you because you are clearly insane.”  This path leads us to division and pain… to everyone losing.  

On the other hand, we could notice this time in history as an opportunity… we could allow our nature to be like God’s, ready to hear and respond. 

We could take time to listen to the painful stories others share about their experience and simply believe them without defending ourselves (“but we didn’t mean to,” or “that may have happened, but it wasn’t me,” or “but you are not the only one in pain here, I’m in pain too”).

We could choose kindness, graciousness, and welcome, instead of dividing those around us into the camps of doves and wild beasts.

I believe with every fiber of my being that everyone is doing the best they can, and the path to healing involves radical belief in the highest good existing in every one of us.  

I believe that the vast majority of people do not intend to harm others, but they do.  And those who do intend harm are filled with pain in such a way that it overflows to those around them.

It is my deep hope that each of us can experience the healing of welcome, kindness, grace, and understanding… and that we can, in turn, offer the same to others in the best way we are able each moment.

Where have you experienced welcome and kindness?

Where have you experienced pain?

We each have a story to tell.  Sometimes the particulars are things we share only with our closest, most trusted friends.  Sometimes we pour them out only to God. May our stories bring us together. May they be vehicles of hope, learning, and growth for those willing to hear and respond.

Happy Holidays??

Experiencing joy in our open, exhausted hearts

Sunlight on icy, delicate, dried flowers

I’ve been struggling to write the past several days, and I was just about to chalk it up to writer’s block, when something made me pause.

“Writer’s block?!? Maybe. But seriously, have you considered what the last week has been?” The skeptical little truth teller voice in my head likes to jump right in during my introspective moments.

I took a minute to consider this… the past week has been full of good things and very challenging ones. School was only in session two days, after a four day weekend due to snow days at the end of the previous week. And then it was off to the grandparents for Thanksgiving, leaving at different times because my husband needed to work late Wednesday, which we have NEVER done before. Not once. This kind of unusual schedule throws us all for a loop… and that’s a nice, mild euphemism.

And while I love love love being home with my parents, my thrown-for-a-loop youngest children were almost literally bouncing off the walls the entire time we were there.

Not kidding.

Not even exaggerating.

It was mind-numbingly exhausting and I became less patient than usual. If you had been a fly on the wall three days in, you might possibly have caught me screaming into a pillow.

Maybe.

I won’t bore you with the details of insufficient sleep and unrelenting teasing and sugar highs (and sugar lows!! why do we never talk about the crash, my friends?!? The crash is a terrible time of misery for anyone within ear shot of my youngest child).

We got home, and I sat at the table with my husband as our seemingly feral children ran circles around us, and I asked, “am I unreasonably impatient right now? I mean, could this be a side effect of the new supplement I’m taking, or do our circumstances warrant my short fuse?”

He looked at me, half smiled, and said, “oh, our circumstances warrant it. For sure.”

Perfect.

Happy Thanksgiving! And here’s to doing the same thing to the nth degree in just a few short weeks.

Now, today, my littlest guy has been running around playing with his toys. They are all saying, “Happy Holidays!” to each other.

We’ve been putting up Christmas decorations, and he’s been playing with Mary, “Jofuss,” and baby Jesus.

This evening we tried watching a family Christmas movie together. It was not to his liking. And as he cried heartbroken, wailing, gasping tears about wanting a monster movie instead, his big brother went and found him his pjs and his nighttime diaper. The same child who has been teasing this little one mercilessly for days, was the most tender, sweet sibling for him tonight.

Both of the youngest balls of energy are now fast asleep, and I am feeling not unlike day old bread… kind of stiff and bland, not too far from molding.

In previous years I have been aware of my expectations being too high or too different from reality, killing my joy. This year, I think I had a win on that front. I’m pretty sure my expectations were almost nonexistent and therefore impossible to be unfulfilled. I am thankful for the joy which opened up in unexpected places because of that.

And maybe this is what holidays are… exhaustion with joy sprinkled on top. Like some kind of stale cupcake with superb icing. Maybe crawling in bed early tonight is not only a gift to myself, but a reasonable response to the week we have had. And maybe, tomorrow morning we’ll wake up ready for a new Monday. Or maybe not. But at least I’ll have gotten enough rest to get me through whatever the day might hold. I hope. And if not, there’s always coffee.

Here’s to happy holidays in all their forms. May you and yours be conscious of unexpected joy springing up inside your open, exhausted hearts.

So much love,

~A

Repairing Relationships

It could be the best thing you ever do

Black and silver hammer laying on a piece of wood with various nails driven into it with varying degrees of success — some are bent, others only part way in

Relationships are complex! We are in a continual dance with those around us, sometimes one that flows and feels amazing, other times stepping on toes and tripping each other. When relationships are going well, we can feel on top of the world. Burdens are lighter. We have less anxiety and feel more capable of facing challenges. But when relationships crumble, we can crumble too, falling apart in ways we never dreamed possible.

I have experienced this in my own life, and as a therapist working from an attachment perspective, I’ve walked with clients through the highs and lows, beginnings and endings of their relationships.

One of the biggest reasons I am so in love with Bowlby’s attachment theory is the concept of repair. Maybe this shouldn’t feel so novel to me. After all, I take my car in for repairs regularly. We repair things around the house. I’ve had some teeth repaired. Repair is a normal part of life!

But somehow, when it comes to relationships, we tend to not think about repair. We might think about “making up” after a fight, or “making it up to” someone we’ve wronged, and those things can get at repair if done well, but real relationship repair runs a bit deeper.

Think about any close relationship in your life (because this will happen in every one of them at some point — much more than once). Remember the last time you were really excited about something, or really sad, or just filled with fear, and you went to your person. You tried to tell them about it. But they were busy, or distracted, maybe feeling overwhelmed by their own emotions, and you didn’t feel understood. Or you felt brushed off, unimportant. Hurt.

A small rupture just happened in your relationship with that person.

What did you do next? Depending on the situation, you might have done any number of things… perhaps you tried to talk it out, told your person how you felt, they listened, understood, and the relationship was repaired; or you were too upset to do that, so you yelled, or shut down, or just walked away.

The interactions following a relationship rupture determine the depth and breadth of what needs to be repaired. What started out as a small thing can become huge. A moment of pain can become a pattern. We can begin to close ourselves off from the other in an attempt to protect ourselves. We can feel less safe, less secure.

But wait! All is not lost. Repair is the beacon of hope in relationships. Research tells us that not only can repair happen after hurt, it can actually make the relationship stronger than it was before!

That’s right. Messing up can actually benefit you and those you love when relationship ruptures are repaired well.

So what is it? What does repair look like in relationships?*

Step 1

Repair begins with openness toward the other, a desire to maintain connection, and a courageous vulnerability to examine oneself and one’s behaviors without defensiveness.

Step 2

The next step is empathy. When we empathize with someone, we are able to see things from their perspective without offering to fix it or change it. This is vital because there are at least three things going on when people relate with one another: there is my experience; there is your experience; and there is a third, a co-created experience of us, who and how we are in relationship with one another.

When we are able to be open to hear the other’s story, to empathize with how it was for them, and to examine our own thoughts and actions without defensiveness, we have a solid foundation for repairing the rupture in any relationship.

Step 3

After those pieces are in place (and this may be quick and easy, or long and arduous, depending on the situation), the next step is for each person to think about what I need to do to make it right. You might be thinking, “I don’t need to do anything! They hurt me!” And sometimes that is totally true, but this goes back to openness. Perhaps what I need to do is forgive, let go of my bitterness or desire for some form of revenge.

Then more hard work of introspection… are we willing to be open to the possibility that it is not entirely the other’s fault? Are we willing to look at ourselves first, not to take blame, but to own what is ours? Just as defensiveness has no place in repair, blame will kill the process.

Likewise, we do not do anyone any favors by taking responsibility for what is theirs. When you are vulnerable enough to examine yourself, also be wise and discerning enough to only own what is yours. This isn’t about blame! You can own what’s yours and allow the other to own what’s theirs without blame. Repair is about each person taking responsibility for themselves.

It’s kind of a spiral process that builds on itself: begin with openness and vulnerability; empathize; take responsibility.

When each of these steps is done with thoughtfulness and kindness, repair is most likely to be successful and the relationship made stronger.

So next time you trip up in the dance, or get your whole foot crushed, remember: repairing relationships is not only possible, it could be the best thing you ever do.

So much love,

~A

*Repair cannot happen in abusive relationships. What happens in the cycle of violence is not repair. It is not good, nor healthy, for the victim to try to be open and vulnerable with someone whose intent is to harm them emotionally or physically. If you are in an abusive relationship, protecting yourself is both reasonable and healthy. You can get help. Call the Domestic Violence Hotline at 1-800-799-7233, or go to their website at thehotline.org for live chat.