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The Dark Side of Your Emotional Needs – Attention

Part one: How you can be manipulated through your need for attention

Left chronically unmet, your emotional needs could be your undoing

I heard a story once.

Long before mobile phones were a thing, a group of people were driving through a desert in punishing heat. As terrible luck would have it, their vehicle broke down, right there in the baking wilderness.

They were stranded for days and, drop by drop, their water supplies ran out.

Slowly, they began to die of dehydration.

One man eventually become so deliriously thirsty that he succumbed. He drank engine oil from their vehicle. He drank so much that he died.

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Not half an hour later the others, weak and dehydrated beyond belief, were rescued and given fresh water.

The man who drank engine oil had a need. A real, undeniable need. He felt he was meeting it somehow, but the effects were deadly.

True or not, this tale is a perfect analogy for how emotional needs can make us just as vulnerable and drive us to just-as-crazy actions. And that’s what this series is all about.

Why did I DO that?!

Why did I start smoking? Guzzle cake all night? Fall for that conniving conman? Willingly kill myself just because the cult I’d joined told me to do it?

How could I have been so stupid?

Why do otherwise rational human beings do crazy things? This series on the dark side of human emotional needs seeks to answer just this question, and to show you how you can use this understanding to help your clients, enrich the lives of those around you, and, most importantly, make sure you are meeting your own needs.

In this first piece, I want to give you an idea of how a thwarted need for attention can ruin lives.

Mysterious motivations

We all have basic, primal emotional needs. (These needs are central to understanding Human Givens Psychology.) When we meet these needs healthily, in a place where satisfying them won’t cause problems, we have spare capacity to make good judgements and pursue long-term objectives. We have space in our emotional lives to work for a wider cause than the self, or to improve the self in the long term.

The healthy fulfilment of emotional needs is at the core of good mental health. There’s no doubt that understanding emotional needs helps us be better practitioners.

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As a reminder, all people, everywhere, to varying degrees, have a need:

  • to give and receive attention
  • to feel safe and secure
  • to heed the mind–body connection
  • to have a sense of purpose and meaning
  • to feel a sense of connection to community and of making a difference
  • to be stretched, to be creative, and to face manageable challenges
  • to experience intimacy
  • to feel a sense of control
  • to feel a sense of status; to feel valued, appreciated, and respected.

When we are not meeting our emotional needs enough and in the right way, we are said to be vulnerable.

Lonely hearts beware

Lonely people – people who don’t give and receive enough attention, have a sense of meaningful interaction (intimacy), or feel part of a group – become vulnerable because these needs remain unmet.

People who are unable or find it difficult to meet their needs, perhaps due to environmental factors or a condition such as autism, are vulnerable. And vulnerable people are very prone to depressing when they ruminate on their needs remaining unfulfilled.

Such people, those whose emotional needs are not met adequately, become so vulnerable to their own emotional drives that they, like the man in my opening analogy, may ‘drink petrol’.

They can also be vulnerable to the influence of people who seem to give the person what they need emotionally, at least at first, but are unscrupulous. There’s a reason so-called ‘lonely hearts killers‘ target lonely people: they know their victims are so desperately searching for water that they might just drink petrol.

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Let them drink! (But not all from the same glass)

Psychotherapists work to help their clients meet their needs in balance in their life. They help their clients remove what may have been blocking the completion of these needs.

And, to avoid clients becoming dependent on therapy, they help their clients meet these needs in a self-sustaining way outside of therapy. Therapy sessions can be thought of as ‘training wheels’ – they support the client until they are ready to discard them.

We help our clients meet their needs in a range of ways so they don’t ‘put all their eggs in one basket’. Having all or most emotional needs met by a single source is very dangerous. If that source disappears, everything falls to the ground. We call this the ‘all your eggs in one basket trap’.

When people whose emotional needs are not being adequately met find themselves in a situation that can meet all their needs, they are likely to become dependent on that one person or organization.

This leaves them open to being more easily manipulated because they unconsciously know that all or most of their needs are being met through this person or organization. They hand over all power to that entity, and in the process lose their own claim to control. The fear of abandonment may become overwhelming as they come to feel that their needs can only be met by that one source.

Many of us are very careful to avoid being manipulated by others, but neglect to realize that we can just as easily be manipulated by our own emotional drives (which focus us on meeting emotional needs).

And when other people, instinctively or otherwise, twig which of our needs are under-met, they might make a point of focusing on supplying that need. They become your supplier of attention, or life meaning, or self-esteem.

But if they are your sole supplier, and you come to believe these needs cannot be met in any other way (perhaps because they told you this), then we have a problem. And this problem is all the more dangerous if they, be they a cult or a person, are controlling and unscrupulous.

I’ll get back to this. But first I want to emphasize why understanding the attention factor in human life is so important.

Knowledge is real power

Knowledge is real power. And that’s something we all need. Power to chart our own course in life.

When we are clear about our emotional needs, we see clearly why we develop emotional problems, and therefore how to avoid them as far as possible. But we also have an incredibly valuable tool to explain all kinds of otherwise baffling human behaviours.

Our needs are always seeking completion. Even when you’re not aware that a need exists, it is still driving you. And it’s driving you hard. Even when you think you’re doing one thing, you might really be doing another.

So let’s look at the need for attention and how it can work against us (and, of course, our clients).

When we don’t even realize what we’re doing

We all know people who demand more than their fair share of attention. They talk at length and expect you to listen, yet when you talk they can’t seem to keep their focus. Every time you manage to squeeze a few words in, they are itching to snatch back the attention, and using what little time you get to rehearse what they will say next.

The natural, reciprocal back-and-forth flow of attention just doesn’t seem to happen. You could be any old giant ear sitting there – in fact, an ear might be preferable. At least it can’t interrupt.

People like this can be hard to be around, at least until they have ‘drunk’ enough from the cup of attention to calm their inflamed need.

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If someone keeps asking for reassurance or ‘advice’ but never actually heeds it, then they’re not asking for advice. They’re seeking your attention. It’s harder for someone to say, “I am seeking attention” than “Can I have your advice?” Besides, they may genuinely believe they are seeking advice. Self-knowledge isn’t easy.

The best psychologist is the one who can see what people (and they themselves) are actually doing, not what they say they are doing.

Different personalities at different times require different quantities and qualities of attention. Some may not care what kind of attention they elicit, good or bad, while others may want approval and fear being seen negatively. On the flip side, the need for privacy or ‘me time’ may be indicative of a need for less attention.

The need for attention reaches just about every part of human life.

You may have heard of the Hawthorne Effect, named after a study done in the 1920s and ’30s in which workers in a factory were observed to see what changes in working conditions would increase their happiness and productivity.

After many external changes to their working environment, it was concluded it was the interest and attention the workers received from the researchers that made them happier and better workers, not the conditions themselves. Attention is powerful.

The need for attention is honest in babies who simply cry for it. Unfortunately, if I go to a party and feel I’m not getting enough attention, I can’t really start hollering and screaming to gain the attention I feel is my right (at least, not until the seventh pint of beer!).

Adults (well, most of them) are more sophisticated than babies, and may be able to find subtle and complex ways to meet their ‘nutritional’ need for attention. The trouble is, if we don’t meet it in ways that are healthy, we become less effective and cause ourselves and others problems.

You may have met people who are extremely vocal about some cause or other. They rant and rave about how close it is to their heart, yet you can’t help but wonder – if suddenly they ceased gaining any attention for espousing this cause, would they continue with it just as passionately? Or is this cause, so ‘close to their heart’, actually an unconscious device for gaining attention?

You might say it doesn’t matter as long as they are doing good. But that view neglects to take into account personal effectiveness and spare capacity.

How to be an effective human being

The well-worn analogy for this is the man who hasn’t eaten for a week but believes his primary need and focus is to learn Spanish at night school.

He attends his evening class, but the whole time he is thinking about, asking about, and looking for not a broadening of his Spanish vocabulary, but the one thing his body knows it needs – food. He may say, and even think his interest is Spanish, but that’s not what his drive really is.

Because his basic need hasn’t been met elsewhere, he can’t help but demand its completion within the current realm – one in which it really shouldn’t apply. He stops himself from being fully effective at learning Spanish. Worse still, he may stop other students from learning too.

This idea of getting your house in order before you strive for higher, non-basic, long-term aims is really important for all of us to register.

It’s quite an ancient idea. Centuries ago, it was a requirement for certain types of spiritual activity that the applicant for study be meeting his or her emotional needs before they could seek higher fulfilment. Otherwise, the spiritual activity could be considered tantamount to an emotionally based cult. (See The Commanding Self, by Idries Shah).

But you’ll notice there is a bit of a cultural taboo against this idea, and for many it is quite unfamiliar. Many people seem to reject the ‘spare capacity’ idea out of hand. But if you use the idea, it can transform your life. And, of course, your clients’ lives.

There are other ways the drive for attention can cause people problems, both emotional and social, and block personal progress:

  • The untamed drive for attention can cause us to seek attention, be it good or bad. Not receiving, or being able to give, healthy attention at home may cause a child to seek it at school. Disapproval is still attention (eventually, when we want not just any but a certain kind of attention, we may say we want ‘respect’, although for some the word respect has been misinterpreted to mean ‘fear’.)
  • Some people may get a kind of ‘secondary gain’ from the attention their emotional or behavioural problem elicits. They may, perhaps unconsciously, fear they will lose a source of attention, perhaps a partner or friends, if they ‘get better’ – especially if the problem has been longstanding. Attention may need to be withdrawn from one area (the problematic behaviour) and extended to more positive aspects of the person’s life.
  • While someone is starving for attention, this need may become so urgent it ironically prevents them forming social ties which, if formed, would be a healthy supply of the attention need.

All things in balance

It isn’t that we shouldn’t meet any of our attention needs from activities that aren’t ostensibly social. But if following the cause or the learning or any other activity is mainly an unconscious vehicle for attention, then:

  • we will be less effective than if we had a ‘clean slate’ or spare capacity from the need being adequately met elsewhere. Our decisions may be predicated on “How much attention does this give me?” rather than “What is best for the wider cause?”
  • we may lose interest if the perhaps worthwhile activity stops giving us attention in the same measure. For instance, someone may lose interest in their healthy eating plan once others habituate to their slimmer, healthier appearance and therefore give them less attention in that way. If their motivation was mainly to do with eliciting approval, then they may go back to unhealthy eating unless they can find another motivation, such as being healthier for themselves and themselves alone.

So to be really effective we need to meet our attention needs in ways that don’t interfere with our activities.

Imagine a practitioner, maybe someone naturally communicative and sociable, who never saw anyone in their lives other than their clients. The practitioner may well have no spare capacity to be effective for the client. They may feel the overriding ‘thirst’ to talk about themselves to the client non-stop.

So helping clients and ourselves understand the central role the exchange of attention plays is vital. We can then help regulate it to become happier, healthier, and more effective.

And of course the attention factor plays a major role in human relationships. If someone is starving for attention, or seeking it all from only one place, they may develop real problems, from stalking to feeling suicidal, if a relationship breaks down.

Many friends, many social contacts, and at least a few social events a month all help create spare capacity so that we don’t turn everything we do into a disguised attempt at meeting this most basic of needs.

But not meeting the attention need also leaves us vulnerable to a kind of psychological attack (not to sound too melodramatic!).

Let’s look at this another way for a moment.

Pushing the self-destruct button

One way to understand subtle psychological influence is to clearly see more gross psychology at work.

It’s 1978, in Guyana. There you stand, in the middle of ‘Jonestown’, a loyal member of Jim Jones’ cult: ‘The People’s Temple’. He commands you, along with 900 others, to take poison and die. What do you do?

Well, of course you don’t do it. Who is he to tell you to end it all? You are not an automaton to be ordered about!

But an astounding 900 people simply followed his instructions. People who wanted to live, and wanted their children and wives and husbands to live.

Why did they do it? Why did all these men and women allow themselves to be sexually abused and Pied-Pipered all the way to an early tomb? Why did they agree to sell their homes and give all their money to the People’s Temple? Were they of unusually low intelligence? Were they completely crazy? All of them?

Or was Jim Jones a highly skilled manipulator of human emotionality? Did he instinctively know how to push the human ‘buttons’ and so string people along, even to the extent that they would poison their own children?

Before the implosion of his cult, Jim Jones had expertly sought to meet all his followers’ emotional needs through him and him alone. The power of a cult lies in the fact that it prevents you meeting your needs from anywhere but itself. Relatives and friends not in the cult are derided, and you may be denied access to them.

The message from a cult or charming manipulator is “You can only meet your needs from me! Without me you are nothing! Only I can give you love, meaning, connection, purpose, and ultimate safety!”

One technique ‘The People’s Temple’ used was to shower new recruits with attention and approval – ‘love bombing’. People without purpose, who felt marginalized (which means not gaining an adequate sense of attention from wider society) or lonely, were suddenly given undivided focus.

If you are dying of thirst and someone gives you water, and only they seem to be able to provide that water, you might feel you would do anything they say. You or I might have ended our time in Jonestown in 1978, too.

But ‘love bombing’ is used as much by individuals as groups.

Meeting of your needs, or just manipulation?

Any organization or unscrupulous person will, if they are to manipulate you, do it through your emotional needs. They will seem to offer you the easy completion of many of your emotional and even physical needs. And for someone whose needs aren’t being met adequately this can be overwhelming.

You might ask: “What does she see in him!?”

A better question is: “What does he seem to give her and how can she otherwise meet that need?”

I have worked with both women and men recovering from tumultuous and traumatic relationships with narcissistic manipulators.

Here are the kinds of things I have heard hundreds of times:

“At first he showered me with affection. He was so attentive. It was all about me. It was overwhelming!”

“I was new to the area and didn’t know many people. He seemed so besotted with me. He would text me 20 times a day, send me flowers and tell me he loved me. That’s before it became a nightmare.”

“I had gone through a really hard divorce and was feeling bad about who I was. She made me feel fantastic! Told me I was wonderful, was constantly affectionate, told me that she loved me every day, really suckered me in!”

Love bombing – attention overdose

People can be left feeling stupid when it happens to them, but love bombing is such an intense form of supplying such a basic need that none of us are immune to it.

Love bombing happens in cohesive organizations to hook the potential member and hold them fast. It also happens on the personal level and masquerades as genuine romance.

The love bomber would be instinctively skilled at spotting which needs – and there may be many – are not being met adequately, and seeming to meet those needs in overwhelming abundance so that the object of the love bombing becomes ‘stuck on them’, and therefore malleable.

Before you write me off as a romanceless cynical old hack, I want to make it clear that some people are incredibly romantic, and do like to shower their lover with attention and loving gestures in a genuine way without then going on to destroy their lives.

What I really mean is that overdosing someone with attention is also a way of emotionally destabilizing them to the point that they become yours to own.

One way to discover whether a relationship is toxic to the extent that it has become essentially a ‘cult of two people’ is to consider whether the love bomber is unreasonably demanding (“after all I do for you!”) or resents you meeting your attention needs outside of the relationship. Has the love bombing become demand-napalm?

One woman told me, “Pretty soon he tried to stop me seeing my friends and family. He would say horrible things about them!”

Any cult will want to be the sole source of influence on you. Even if there’s just the two of you in the cult.

So to summarize this brief exploration of the flow of the human need for attention:

  • The giving and receiving of attention is a vital human need. When the need is not met people suffer mentally and eventually even physically.1
  • Being too desperate for attention can make it, ironically, harder to build the relationships that might become a stable source for the completion of this fundamental need. A neat but horrible vicious circle.
  • If we don’t meet our attention needs in social ways or within familiar settings, the need may build and seep out to pollute other enterprises. This makes us less effective. If we start to receive less attention for a particular (maybe worthwhile) activity, we may quickly lose interest in the political cause, or diet, or whatever the overt goal of the activity was, once we no longer receive the same levels of attention from it.
  • Meeting our needs for attention adequately helps us build spare capacity within ourselves to actually focus on bigger patterns and long-term goals. Once you’ve eaten, you have a better shot at learning Spanish.
  • There may be an attention-seeking element to problematic feelings and behaviours. Disapproval can be a very focused and powerful form of attention from others.
  • Occasionally someone may derive a ‘secondary gain’ from maintaining a long-term problem, in the form of ongoing attention from a partner or others. Conversely, some partners may worry that once their loved one gets better they will no longer be needed. The need to be needed is part of the attention need too.
  • Finally, if someone is chronically undernourished with attention they may be susceptible to ‘love bombing’ from organizations and/or individuals who, like Venus flytraps, seem to offer when they really seek to take.

The attention factor in all human life is fascinating, and understanding when and how it operates can help us know ourselves and others better. It’s too easy to say, “I know attention is important… duh!” or words to that effect. But when you start seeing how the drive for attention influences so much of human life, all kinds of seemingly bizarre behaviour becomes easier to understand.

I hope you’ve enjoyed my first foray into the dark side of the human needs. In the next instalment I’ll be exploring the dark side of the need to feel safe and secure.

Let me leave you with this quote from the English writer William Hazlitt:

“The art of conversation is the art of hearing as well as of being heard.”

And you can catch up on all the articles in this series so far by clicking below:

To see therapy performed with emotional needs at its heart, join Uncommon Practitioners TV, our online professional development ‘Netflix for Therapists’. Click here to be notified when booking is open.

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Mark Tyrrell

About Mark Tyrrell

Psychology is my passion. I've been a psychotherapist trainer since 1998, specializing in brief, solution focused approaches. I now teach practitioners all over the world via our online courses.

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