Leanne Chapman Psychology

[ Guidance for the wounded soul ]

Are You ‘Just Trying To Get Attention’?


As a therapist, I’ve often heard this phrase:

‘Oh he/she is just trying to get attention’.

I’ve heard this said about children and teenagers who are struggling with major transitions, adults who are battling depression, people who have threatened or attempted suicide, and so on.

They are just trying to get attention.

Most of these people were genuinely struggling with life situations that were proving too much for them to handle, and doing it in an under-resourced way with very little support. Illnessses such as eating disorders and depression are not something anybody would consciously choose to have. They are incredibly painful ways to live.

But when loved ones struggle to make sense of what’s happening, they feel helpless. If they’re encouraged to view behaviour as ‘just attention-seeking’, it can reduce their worry and stress.

Research shows that up to 80% of people who later went on to attempt suicide had talked about it within the month prior to doing it. This challenges the common belief that if someone talks about hurting themselves, they won’t really do it. The truth is they’re often working up the courage, and many in this situation would dearly like someone to step in and give them an alternative.

But society’s tendency to view these behaviours  as ‘attention-seeking’ means we miss crucial opportunities to genuinely understand what’s going on for a loved one, and to find an effective way to help them.

My Attention Seeking 

My aunt tells me about the only time she saw my grandmother cry. I was 3 and we were living with my grandparents. I had my first bout of tonsillitis, and my mother insisted I eat everything on my plate, even though it took me up to an hour to do.

My grandmother was one tough woman – she lived on the land, rode horses, and I still have a photo of her proudly holding up a snake she killed by herself. But my mother managed to reduce her to tears more than once with her treatment of me.

The second time I had tonsillitis I was 8. I’ve always been a slow eater but I was getting even slower. My mother took me to a doctor to prove there was nothing wrong with me. The doctor ordered me up to the hospital immediately. My tonsils were so swollen and infected they needed to come out the following morning.

I was told I would be asleep when they took them out. So when they came and gave me an injection, I expected to go to sleep. When I didn’t, I started to worry they wouldn’t realise I was still awake, or worse, maybe they had decided not to put me to sleep while they took them out.

I became more and more anxious as I waited for them to come and take me to surgery. Where was my mother? My mother, who is a nurse by profession, had other things to do.

Of course when I got to theatre, they put the mask over me and the ether blessedly put me out. I woke up feeling like a truck had run over me. They removed my adenoids as well, so the first thing I saw was blood on the lining under my head.

My mother was there, but announced that since I was obviously just going back to sleep, she was leaving because she had things to do. I begged her to stay – the blood scared me because I didn’t know why it was there, and I felt so awful. But off she went.

The nurses were lovely to me. There was no room in the children’s ward so I stayed in the adult ward and they loved fussing over me. This was new to me, being treated as though I was special, surrounded by smiles and concern for my wellbeing.

I decided I wanted to stay.

My father told me not to be ridiculous, and I went home. But for years afterwards, I became obsessed with the idea that I had appendicitis. The doctor must have had some idea what was going on, because he gave me placebo tablets – for ‘wind in the appendix’.

It wasn’t a conscious thing at the time, but I was trying to get back to the place where I felt loved. To this day I still have a perfectly healthy appendix.

I recently watched as a friend posted photos and updates on Facebook as her little boy went into hospital to have his tonsils removed. She stayed with him the whole time, fretted while he was in surgery, and shared how proud she was of him afterwards. I was stunned.

What’s Your Need?

It was easy to dismiss my fixation on my appendix as ‘just trying to get attention’. It’s true, I was. I was trying to get a need met the only way I knew how.

Of course there were more effective ways to feel loved and supported but I had no experience of them, so I tried to return to the only experience I knew. Many of us are very clumsy about this, but is that a reason to dismiss somebody’s very real pain?

If you’ve been told you’re just trying to get attention, think about what it is you really need and ask yourself the following questions:

1. If my life was exactly the way I would like it to be, what would be different to the life I have right now?

2. What are some ways I could go about bridging this gap, even a little bit?

3. Who would I need to ask for help, and how could I best go about that?

4. What other resources do I need to utilise?

Then do what you can as soon as you possibly can.  For me, it meant building a big friendship network around me. Knowing I had such great friends meant that I couldn’t be as unlovable as I felt, otherwise why would these people bother with me?

I also learned to change my self-talk, and to question the negative views I had of myself. Once I did this, I forgot all about my appendix.

Reach out. It’s ok to seek attention, as long as you do it as constructively as you can. It could improve your quality of life. It might even save it.

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  1. I felt the pain of the little girl when I read this. “Feeling” written words is a sign not only of the experience but that of a gifted writer. Your experience and sensitivity will be healing to many, Leanne. You give others much hope for a better future in boldly facing their past. (Jer. 29:11) Nancee

  2. This came at a time I really really needed to hear it. Lately, I have too many of the ‘wrong’ people in my life that are — and do not take this the wrong way — but think I must be ‘spiritually screwing up’. I know me, and I know what, when, and how I do things and sometimes, it is just really an accident. Other times, a pill is needed in addition to cleansing what is going on with you … both sides must come together to help your life and your world. Love this post, LeAnne, you sweet friend, you. I love you.
    Renee recently posted…It Takes What It Takes – Welcome 2014!My Profile

  3. This is a very interesting topic and it has made me realize that not asking for attention on my part comes from wanting to do things on my own.

    I always seem to get more satisfaction from finishing a project and figuring it out on my own but it is true that life would be so much easier if we could just ask for help and let others in.
    steffie recently posted…Creating your moon journal.My Profile

  4. Wow, Leanne what a well-written post. Emotional. It knocked the wind out of me. I did not have an abusive childhood, yet my husband did. His was so horrible he shouldn’t have been able to live through it. Me? I had other problems…

    I have been suicidal several times in my life. Why? Because at the time there seemed like no other way out of the jungle I’d created for a life. Yes, I told others about it. Then I either saved myself (twice because I could not bear the idea of what would happen to my beloved cat if I did not exist) or I reached out for help from supportive friends. I did not want to die; I just didn’t see ANY other way out. Just as the saying goes, “Suicide is someone’s way of telling God you can’t fire me. I quit!” ‘I was trapped like a mouse in a maze who had been blocked so many times he ran out of steam and didn’t have the energy for one more step. I sure was not after attention. I have been working on an article for some time, adding bits to it as I think of them, entitled “Suicide is Plan C.” It is about an absence of coping skills and trust in life that creates a backup plan; suicide.

    • Diane, thanks so much for your comments. I can relate to your cat being a reason for going on living, and I’m so glad you reached out to supportive friends when you needed them. Most people don’t want to die but they can’t see any other options, but there are. I’ll look out for your article. x

  5. Those attention seekers, huh? A guy I went to high school with shot himself in his bedroom, and barely anyone knew who he was. People actually thought a different guy (with the same name) had done it, and were surprised when they saw him walking around school. Like you said, it takes courage. I’ve had suicidal thoughts, but I was always able to back myself out of the hole and tell myself I should try again. But that’s not how it is for everyone else.

    As an adult, it’s a catch 22. We have more resources at hand versus when we were a child, but we also feel everyone telling us to just snap out of it. The best thing we can do right now is to love the ones in our life, because everyone needs it.

    Thank you for such a beautiful story.
    Keri Kight recently posted…Are you taking the safe route in life?My Profile

    • Keri, I’m so glad to hear you’ve always been able to out of that hole and try again. Being told to snap out of it is never helpful, like you said just loving people is the most important and effective thing we can do most times. x

  6. What a wonderful deep insightful story you shared here. And so brave to admit it. I guess we all have some coping mechanisms to protect ourselves and get what we need. Thank you for sharing. Alenka
    Alenka recently posted…Goodbye, 2013! Thank you for your lessons!My Profile

  7. I love you, my brave, compassionate, amazing friend. Thank you for validating people who have a hard time speaking up for their needs in what others may term an “appropriate” manner. xxx
    Shan recently posted…Balance in all ThingsMy Profile

  8. Loved it. Very honest, raw, compassionate.

  9. I really enjoyed this because it speaks to the need for self acceptance no matter where you are in your experience of life. It is “okay” to just want attention and then to go within gently to find out why. Well done beautiful!! Thank you for putting this out into the world!

  10. You are brave. You are LOVED. Thank you.
    Shann recently posted…Free Goddess Card MessagesMy Profile

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