Image of homelessness from the now-defunct Italian blog Moving & Learning.
For a million years, the desire for social interaction with other humans has been coded into our DNA, because social human groups survive better than lone wolves. Not surprising then, that almost from the moment of birth we begin to crave the attention, and later the appreciation, of other humans.
When I was a young child, my peer group was happy and stable, and so was my family environment. Laughs and mutual compliments and the near-automatic pleasure of others’ company was something I just came to expect. At this age, love and affection were abundant, and I thought nothing of them.
As I got older I realized that a couple of people just outside my peer group were troubled. We tended to avoid them, but they were aggressive and relentless. Soon, it seemed, their behaviour had begun to affect ours. We became less generous with our affection, and then less honest. These unhealthy behaviours were reinforced by others propagated in the school system: reticence replaced enthusiasm, bullying replaced playful debate, silent obedience to (and fear of) authority replaced openness and honest dissent. A social ‘pecking order’ emerged, based on who had power, who used force, who was more physically attractive, or more socially clever, or more facile.
It was a rather brutal indoctrination into the insidious power of pathological people and institutions to corrupt everyone they touched, until we were all poisoned.
As we emerge as adults from this toxic cauldron, it only gets worse. The media seem to be designed to inure us to the pain of our endemic social brutality by presenting us with incessant numbing graphic violence. The workplace is a continuation of the pathology of the schoolyard, except the power dynamics are more explicit, and, thanks to its elitist hierarchy, attention and appreciation are even scarcer, since criticism (and enforced self-criticism, the type on most “performance self-assessment forms”) and anxiety-creation are far more effective at achieving the desired obedient behaviours. Advertisements, clubs, and other influencers of social behaviour are designed to exclude, to make you feel inadequate, and even to belittle and ridicule. Cowed, self-loathing individuals who do what they’re told out of ignorance and fear and peer pressure are ideal passive, ‘productive’ citizens in a world that is horrifically overcrowded, with far too few resources to go around. Just as the Chinese built the great wall, not to keep the Mongols out, but to keep the stooped, malnourished peasants in, our modern societies are prisons of psychopathic intimidation and cultured self-imprisonment.
No surprise, then, that for most of us, social activity is not sought for pleasure as much as to sate a desperate and unfulfilled longing for attention and appreciation. The world, our teachers, our bosses, our bullying and strutting and fiercely competitive peers, may all hate us and ignore us and shun us, but we love each other, right, and we’re going to cocoon ourselves and console each other for all the hurt the world has ever inflicted on us.
This addiction to attention and appreciation is the sign of a culture in the throes of crisis and collapse, a consequence of the violence and antisocial behaviour that is evident in all overcrowded and mostly-starving cultures of all species. And now, like true addicts, we crave attention and appreciation continuously, and we envy and begrudge others who have more of it than we do. The damage this has done to our individual and collective self-esteem is massive.
Although it’s a generalization, it’s been my experience that most men crave attention more than appreciation, and most women crave appreciation more than attention. So many men speak louder and dominate conversations, to the point they are so busy trying to get others to pay attention to them that they fail to listen to or hear anything anyone else is saying. And many women live for stingily doled out compliments, as if it were their life’s sustenance.
This makes us as a society completely dysfunctional. We become selfish and introspective, filled with fear of losing, or never finding, love. We buy things that we hope will attract attention and appreciation, regardless of their lack of any intrinsic value. We don’t say thank you or give spontaneous compliments privately or unless it’s absolutely called for, because giving attention or appreciation without appropriate fanfare (an awards ceremony, or some other major “appreciation event”) could be considered gratuitous and insincere.
Contrary to Maslow’s hierarchy, I would argue that attention and appreciation are now, for most, our greatest needs. They’re what drives politicians to run, and to lie. They’re what drives the unsustainable consumer economy, from muscle cars to cosmetics and cosmetic surgery to self-help books and psychotherapy and new age spiritualism to diet fads and penis enlargers and logo clothes and knock-off jewelry. They’re what drives our endemic levels of stress, which is now producing the greatest health crisis in a century. They’re what drives so many of us to misery, tears, all-consuming jealousy, violence and despair.
It is a vicious cycle, which serves the rich and powerful corporatists very well, but it is also largely a result of our own doing and acquiescence. As long as attention and appreciation are scarce, anyone who is generous with either is likely to be so swamped with needy takers (telemarketers and hucksters, sob-storytellers, the lovelorn, stalkers, cult followers etc.) that she will likely rein in that generosity out of sheer self-defence. We come to hoard attention and appreciation because it has become dangerous to do otherwise. This is tragic, monstrous.
There is no top-down societal solution for this. It’s something we have to fix inside each of us. It starts with self-knowledge and self-understanding — knowing why we feel unduly needy for attention and appreciation (there’s nothing wrong with liking and wanting these things; it’s when it becomes a pathological need that it becomes a problem). The next step is taking control of our own lives, or what I’ve called writing (and acting in) our own story. It’s only when we feel helpless to fulfill things ourselves that we become desperate to get them from others. This helplessness can be overcome by giving ourselves attention and appreciation, realizing that we do have the power to write our own story.
I have found that the ‘sweet spot’ model I describe in my book is helpful in doing this — learning enough about ourselves to appreciate what we are uniquely good at and what we really love doing (it’s amazing how few people have this self-knowledge, because most of us have only had the courage to try a few possibilities), and then finding an application in the world outside where those Gifts and Passions can be put to good use, and will hence get attention and be genuinely appreciated (area 3 in the chart above). To the extent battered self-esteem is behind our addiction to attention and appreciation, I think this is a way forward.
My book also describes how to do world-class research, and I think this is also a skill that can help us overcome our addiction to attention and appreciation. Such research is mostly primary i.e. face-to-face not done online, and entails a lot of listening to others, asking important questions, and helping them to imagine something better. It’s my favourite form of learning. And learning, as we’ve been told, is the best way to overcome sadness, even when it is caused by feelings of not having enough attention and appreciation in one’s life.
That leaves us with the age-old problem of how to find life partners — the people who will give you the attention and appreciation you want, without having to be compensated for it, and who you will likewise get personal satisfaction and joy from giving attention and appreciation to. I confess I’m still working on this, though I’m increasingly convinced that part of it is developing the capacity to love many others unjealously and unexclusively. It just seems to be illogical to expect one person to be everything you want in a partner. To the extent you are getting a bit of attention and appreciation from a lot of people (and reciprocating as generously as you can, without exhausting yourself or allowing people to get addicted to you because of it*) I think it can help wean you off your own addiction, and perhaps help others do the same.
My final thought is that you will be less likely to crave an excessive amount of attention and appreciation from others if you learn to enjoy your own company, and that entails finding something that you genuinely love to do alone, that you can get lost in, completely caught up in. That is probably something in the red “Your Passions” circle above, but it need not be something in area 3. Our society has a strange propensity for laying guilt trips on us when we do something alone and purely self-indulgent, and that can of course cause problems if we let ourselves feel guilty. But if we’re also doing something in the area 3 sweet spot, why should we feel guilty for indulging our own private passion?
What do you think? What other things can we do to help ourselves and others overcome our addiction to attention and appreciation? How can we move “receiving attention and appreciation” from a consuming need, to just something we want and love?
* There is a real risk that if you’re generous with love, affection, attention and appreciation, people will start to want more and more of it, to the point they will expect too much of you, and end up making you both unhappy.
Category: Human Nature