I occasionally give a training about how to help people in psychological distress. The purpose of the training is to coach people who are not mental health providers to actively listen and support those who have suicidal thoughts and/or are in psychological pain. Inevitably at this training the question comes up “But what do we do if someone is saying they are suicidal just for attention”. This question always makes me flinch. Not because the person asking has any bad intentions, but because we live in a culture that can demonize the most basic of human needs—the need to be seen. I think about people who feel so desperate to be seen and are in so much pain that they disclose suicidal thoughts in the hopes that someone will confirm that their existence matters and that they matter. I want to be clear that threatening to kill oneself unless someone else behaves or emotes in a certain way is exploitative and can be a form of emotional abuse. But, people who act in a manipulative way often do so because they feel intensely powerless and don’t know how to be direct, vulnerable, open with their needs, and sturdy enough to take care of themselves if others are not able to meet them. While I cannot condone the behavior, I can absolutely empathize with the emotional experience.
My five year old daughter loves getting attention, and she will do all kinds of things to get it. “Mom watch how high I can jump”. “Mom look at me spin in a circle”. “Mom, here is some grown-ups-love-it stew that I just made for you”. Since she now has a younger sister, sometimes she asks for it directly “Mom, I need some attention too!” Sometimes her behaviors in pursuit of attention are less acceptable like when she interrupts a conversation I’m having a million times or starts coloring on a wall. I tell her that she can’t interrupt and she can’t color on a wall. I let her know that she has to learn to play on her own sometimes or be her own friend, but I always say that it’s ok to want attention. I don’t want to shame her for being human. I think about all of the lessons college students receive from hook up culture—there is nothing more unattractive than someone who is too “needy” so push down everything you want and pretend you’re in a relationship for mere kicks. I wish we told ourselves as a culture “of course you want to be seen and of course you want attention and intimacy—now here are ways you can communicate that effectively.
I hear this phrase in all kinds of other contexts as well—“She’s dressing that way just for attention”, “He’s making that up just for attention”. Again I agree that some of these behaviors are absolutely problematic and often keep people from accomplishing the very thing they want most—to have a real connection, to feel loved, to feel validated and seen and valued. My issue is that if we pretend that we don’t all need attention and love, if we minimize this most basic of needs, then we implicitly tell these people who are in pain that they are less-than. We end up turning away from the people who are most hungry for some human contact and empathy.