Celebrities draw attention but some crave out the spotlight a little more than others. We live in a culture that is focused on media and appreciation. Some showbiz personalities have made careers out of attention-seeking behaviours. It feels good to get recognized and feel special, but the desire for attention can also become pathological. Craving attention can lead to maladaptive habits that may become painful and damaging. Most of us admire being the center of attention. However, attention seeking becomes problematic when people engage in excessive or inappropriate behaviours in order to gain attention on a regular basis. Psychiatrists view that it could be due to lowered self-esteem, a lack of self-confidence, and low levels of self-worth or feeling insecure. There are people who seek normal attention by creating situations in which they hope to be praised, thanked or admired which is acceptable and understandable. Some people perhaps get bothered about the quality of attention they get and so they draw attention perhaps by making a scene in public, getting over-indignant about a trivial matter, causing heads to turn and drawing eyes onto them. Some seek out sympathy by always having something to complain about. When analyzing, it becomes important for the psychiatrist to evaluate if someone’s actions are plainly done to get others to take notice and react. Simple question then is what is motivating them? If it is a one-off, it might be a sign of tiredness or a reaction to pressures and stress. If the behavior is persistent or goes beyond what one might normally expect, it can be a sign of an underlying mental health issue.
Attention seeking is a tell-tale symptom of narcissistic personality disorder (NPD). Not every desire to be praised is pathological and there is a continuum, a spectrum. It is important to distinguish the personality traits in normal people and between narcissistic traits. Normal people will have attitude and behaviors which may be advantageous such as confidence, a need to achieve the best, the need for praise in contrast to the incessant desire to be constantly admired at the pathological upper end of the spectrum. Those with the personality disorders are exploitative, and likely to cause significant distress to others. NPD is a mental disorder in which people have an inflated sense of personal importance and an unhealthy craving for admiration. They feel superior to others and indifferent to their feelings and act supremely confident but are actually deeply insecure and easily crushed by the slightest criticism. Underneath their pretence confidence, many individuals with NPD feel a profound sense of shame. They embarrass others to build themselves up. When they perceive criticism or rejection, they retaliate with rage and contempt to hide their weak egos.
Interestingly narcissists gravitate towards professions where they can control people and elicit manipulation. They are more likely to work in politics, finance or showbiz than in shoemaking. The cause of the disorder is unknown, but genetics and early childhood experiences are thought to contribute.
Many people exhibit some narcissistic qualities, but full-blown narcissistic personality disorder afflicts about eight percent of men and about five percent of women. Difficulty is that they come glaringly into the relationship with this charming and highly seductive presentation. Complications however, arise in relationships when they are expected to show sensitivity to others but they do not have the ability for empathy or to emotionally tune in to their partner or their children. This then turns into emotional warfare. Narcissists are people who lack understanding about how others feel and they are fixated with themselves and locked into their world so it is about them. They exploit and manipulate others for their own gain. Sadly when in a relationship with a narcissist, others are mostly painfully revolved around them and struggling always to please them. It is understandable to see the shock that happens for people when they find out (and if they are lucky to find out) that they got seduced into something they thought was the best thing that ever happened to them and it turns into this kind of relationship. While it is a bad luck to be married to a narcissist, it is a nightmare to divorce one.
In my practice, I frequently see couples where one partner lacks empathy, is self-centred and has hugely inflated self-ego, and believes that he/she is never at fault in any situation. This partner may meet criteria for narcissistic personality disorder; although narcissists usually see no reason to accept the diagnosis. Narcissists are extremely difficult to treat in couples counselling, because they resist any suggestion that they could be contributing to the current marital difficulties. They blame either their spouse for infidelity or circumstances outside their control (for example, their job, other family members) for all their conflicts within the relationship. The non-narcissist partner commonly suffers from low self-esteem which then due to the rejection from the narcissist partner further spirals in a vicious cycle and throws the non-narcissist partner to the low self-esteem even more. Teaching basic empathy and validation skills can be seen as an effective way to initially get buy-in with a narcissist in couples counselling, so that more profound change can occur later.
The writer is a practicing psychiatrist and academic in UK