Attention Is a Basic Human Need

We’re not being vain. We’re just being human.

A close friend recently texted me that they felt “ashamed” because they “wanted to get more attention” for telling a story about their life.

I felt myself tense up around my friend’s statement and flash back to all the times in my life I felt like I had to prove I wasn’t doing something just for attention.

What a ridiculous thing to have to prove! A few years ago, when I was researching crying, I learned that the biological consensus about hurt-tears (different from onion-tears and happy-tears) is that they exist to attract attention from others in our species. Hurt-tears show we’re in distress and need help and support. Babies would be a lot quieter if we weren’t a communal species reliant on group collaboration for survival.

Bodies react when they don’t have enough of what they need. You’ve likely experienced this if you’ve ever gone too long without eating.

A lot of children grow up not getting enough attention for their growing bodies. It’s been normalized that we are taught to stay small and need less. When kids or teenagers act out and the response is “Oh, they just want attention,” it reemphasizes that attention is a luxury commodity. It implies there is not enough of it to go around and that it is detrimental and selfish to demand it.

None of that is true.

When a person is acting out for attention, it might signify that there’s a pretty big deficit, that the person needs attention—and needs it now—in order to survive. We can prevent that from happening by showing people attention in small ways and making it clear that they don’t need to do anything extreme or special to get their needs met.

There’s a version of this deficit in which children only get attention when they’re “exceptional.” All children need attention, and by definition, not all children can be exceptional. So we need to give children attention for small things—for nothing, for just being.

Can you give children too much attention? Maybe. But the language that doing something “just for attention” is bad and wrong comes from the deficit and not an overabundance.

If you see someone repeating attention-seeking behavior, it’s likely because they got the attention they needed from doing that behavior once before, so of course they’re going to do it again. To regulate a deficit, attention must be provided in small ways, not just as an antidote to an outcry of emergency.

Instead of looking at behaviors and trying to prove that someone “shouldn’t” be behaving that way, perhaps we should look at them and determine if there’s a need that’s not being met. For me, this shift in thinking has been personal.

I am a lifelong cutter. I have asked myself often if self-harm was something I was doing for attention. I am still not sure. Only recently have I realized that this was not a particularly useful question. If the answer had been yes, what then? Would that make me snap out of it and stop?

Instead of figuring out what I actually needed and how I could get my needs met, I spent a lot of energy trying to prove to myself there was some “noble” reason outside of attention-seeking that I was cutting. And I just kept cutting — and hiding it to prove that it had nothing to do with attention.

I only stopped once the question changed from “Why are you doing this?” to “Oh, honey. What do you need?”

If you are struggling with self-harm and need support, the Crisis Text Line can help. Text HOME to 741741 for free, 24/7 crisis counseling.

A person who writes and draws and eats her feelings.

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