Health

How to Tame Your Inner Attention Whore

A psychoanalyst discusses my obsession with the limelight and provides tips on how to step out of it once in a while.

by Elizabeth Brown
May 1 2017, 4:00pm

Drew Angerer / Getty Images

I live in Los Angeles, the attention-whore capital of the world. We are a city of underemployed artists, composing Oscars acceptances speeches in our bathtubs while crying into glasses of wine because we can't book the part as the woman in the background of a lunch meat commercial.

That last part was just about me. Fine. This is ALL about me. I need attention—a lot of it. I'm not a full-blown narcissist, but I definitely need to be liked. And heard. And seen. And applauded and lauded and published and filmed and projected into a billion television screens all over the world so that I know that I exist and have value as a human being.

I have a long and sordid history of attention whoring. I recreated the When Harry Met Sally orgasm scene in my college cafeteria on a dare. I performed the complete Flashdance "Maniac" routine including a knee slide in a 30 pound dress with a cathedral train at my wedding. And, perhaps most shameful of all, I performed improv comedy—in public—for nearly 15 years. The last endeavor landed me a spot in the prestigious Sunday Company at the world-renowned Groundlings theater. It was great. I totally felt like I existed. When I got kicked out for not being funny enough six months later it was like I lost my heroin dealer and couldn't find another one. I spent the next three years crying, having panic attacks and muttering to myself, "No one knows I'm here."

I was so desperate for an audience to see, hear, and validate me, I ended up spending 60 percent of my salary going to two different psychotherapists three times a week just to have someone focus all of their attention exclusively on me.

Part of me knows that I'm smart, hilarious, likable and not an ogre. The other part of me is sobbing for attention on the inside because I haven't been able to land a part in a single one of the 150-ish commercials I've auditioned for over the last four years.

I got really close last year. It was a non-speaking role described as "Woman, not necessarily overweight, but unathletic—and willing to eat meat." I thought I had it. I thought the world would finally know my gift again. I'd finally be seen again. But another unathletic meat eater booked the part at the last minute. So, I remain in utter obscurity desperately trying to tell the funniest story at every party and work function and write the most hilarious and provocative Facebook status updates to acquire enough "likes" to justify my existence.

Since the two psychotherapists I was currently paying weren't enough, I talked to Gail Saltz, a psychoanalyst and clinical associate professor of psychiatry at the New York Presbyterian Hospital Weill-Cornell School of Medicine, about what I can do to curb my inner attention whore.

The first piece of good news she gave me was that I'm not a full-blown narcissist or I wouldn't be asking for help in the first place. "Narcissists," she says, "have an over-inflated view of themselves or fantasy of themselves and really no concern about other people's feelings on the matter, other than that other people should hold them in that high esteem." Well, that's not me. I totally care about other people's feelings. About me.

Saltz gave me some practical tips on how I can tame my inner attention whore in ways that will, hopefully, make me more likable and popular.

Address the Larger Problem.
Saltz says the real question isn't "Why am I such a loser that I can't be in the background of a lunch meat commercial?" but rather "Why would I ever define myself in relation to a lunch meat commercial?

"With attention-seeking behaviors," she says, "the reasons could stem from anything from real insecurity to 'I need this moment-to-moment to reassure myself that I'm okay or I'm likeable or people want to be with me. I'm entertaining. I have value. I need the applause to tell me I have value.'"

Saltz says that treatments like psychotherapy can help us unearth the roots of our insecurities, gain a deeper understanding of where excessive needs for attention stems from, and develop alternate coping mechanisms for those moments when we feel the urge to dance on a table in a tube dress at our grandma's 100th birthday party. 

"In the moment is the hardest time to employ anything because you're driven by the wave of the feeling state," she says. "If you've rehearsed already you'll be prepared. Understanding the origins of your drive goes a long way."

Let the Moment Pass.
I talked to Saltz about how difficult it is to hear other people talk at parties when I have something substantially more interesting, entertaining, and insightful to say. What I can do, I asked her, outside of sticking my fist in my mouth, to combat the urge to one-up them? She says getting attention and applause has come to feel so good to me, I've come to use it as a coping mechanism for my low self-esteem. Sweet.

"It's a matter of practicing letting the impulse pass," she says. "You think 'Ahhh…that feels so good. I just want to feel that good again. I don't want to feel bad.' It's having insight into that compulsion to do it and the obsession that's driving it. It's recognizing it as a cycle and being willing to, at times, be capable of forgoing the compulsion." Saltz suggests I remind myself that I won't be 'cured' by getting applause or attention. And if I am, it's only a five-minute cure before I'll be right back in the same spot. "If you can allow the feeling to pass, then it doesn't reoccur over time. It doesn't keep recurring with the same intensity," she says.

Find That Line.
Saltz says it's important to recognize that not all attention-seeking behaviors are unhealthy.
"There are plenty of people who get energy off of [extroverted behaviors] and thrive and enjoy and make good use of it. They are comedians or actresses and it's a wonderful outlet for them or whatever it might be. [Wanting attention] in and of itself is not a 'bad.' It is a matter of degree. If your exhibitionism is such that you have to be a flasher and commit crimes, then that's not a good thing, but if you enjoy dancing around without your clothes off in front of your partner and doing a pole dance and your partner enjoys that, good for you."

The definition of unhealthy probably has to do with one's own functionality and feelings, Saltz adds. "If you're in a perpetual state of 'nothing is ever enough, so I'm always chronically miserable,' or it causes you to engage in behaviors that ruin relationships or ruin work or blow things up, then I would qualify that as unhealthy."

Delete Your Account.
Okay, not really. But maybe.

I ask Saltz about attention seeking behavior on social media sites like Facebook and Instagram and am surprised by her answer. She says that constantly posting bikini photos of yourself or bragging about the role you just booked in a lunch-meat commercial isn't necessarily unhealthy, but constantly looking at other's people's bikini/lunch-meat posts could be.

"I think the people that are most at risk are the people that are looking at all of these things and believe that everybody's life is so fantabulous, so they're miserable. These are edited versions of themselves they've constructed that may not even be real at all. If that is not getting through to you and still is bothering you, then to be perfectly honest I'd say, don't look," she says. "But people who are exhibitionists often have a very strong voyeuristic side as well and so that might be a challenge that you have. You feel compelled to look if it's there. So I'd say to you, frankly, delete some of that stuff."

So far, Saltz's advice is already serving me well. I'm already down to one psychotherapist and I only cried for like five minutes last week when I didn't get a callback for a veggie burger commercial. I've hidden all of my Facebook friends who have flourishing careers and limited my feed to other failures like me. I've still got three years until my grandma's 100th birthday party, so with some hard work, introspection, and practice, I may just be able to save my tube dress dance for a more appropriate occasion, like a work party or something.

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