We can all bring to mind a person in our current or past lives that we might label as needy. The person who can drain our energy, demand a lot from us, and seems to draw attention to themselves in often unhealthy ways. This is the person we think of when we hear the words attention seeking. One of the greatest lessons I learned, from one of my favourite people, was to reframe this concept of attention seeking to connection seeking. What is the difference? Empathy, compassion, and an understanding of what that person might be going through. Some humans grow up in circumstances that do not teach them how to ask for what they need in healthy ways. This shows up in behaviour that can be challenging to manage but if we choose to see the person as needing to find connection versus attention, we can provide them a safe space. It can often feel counterproductive as many of us were taught not cater to negative behaviour. In reality that person needs love and support and not neglect. When we ignore the behaviour instead of taking a curious stance and providing connection, the person in need may become isolated without meaningful relationships. In the most difficult situations, they may choose to end their lives.
Everyone in this community is worthy of love, everyone. Some of us just know how to ask for it in better ways than others. Sadly, if we are not taught healthy interpersonal relationship skills, we can act out in ways that actually take us farther away from the connection we so crave and desire. The following are some tools you can use with the people who you notice are seeking connection in your life.
Connect before you correct. This means that before you offer support or a correction you must connect. You can do this via listening, giving a hug, or simply just sitting with someone while they are in pain. You do not have to fix it, agree with it, or even fully understand it. You can simply sit with someone while they are in pain. The Gottman Institute suggested that the three most important words in any relationship should be, “that makes sense.” These three simple words allow someone to be seen and understood. Once someone feels safe, they will be more open to hearing suggestions for growth, change, and even constructive feedback.
When someone wants to connect with you and share a story you can ask, “Would you like me to offer solutions or just listen and support?” This one actually works both ways, one of the best ways we can get what we need when engaging in conversation with others is to state it ahead of time. For example, “I am having a really tough day and it would be helpful if you could just listen for a bit and I will let you know if I need help in problem solving.” This way both parties are primed and ready to know exactly what to do in the scenario, thus lessoning the potential for conversations where needs are misunderstood or not met. Sometimes, the people in our lives may not have the capacity to do this so we can help by asking ahead of time, or gently interrupting the narrative to ask.
It is important to note that healthy boundaries are important. All individuals are worthy of connection, and we must protect ourselves as well. As much as it is important to foster connection, we also need to let people know what behaviours are okay and not okay for us and when we have the capacity to help.
The content provided in this article is for information purposes only. It is not meant as a substitute for professional medical or psychological advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you find yourself in distress, please reach out to your local physician who can provide mental health resources in your community.