Attention – an emotional need and a resource

by Ezra Hewing | 14 Dec 2018

Written by Ezra Hewing, Head of Mental Health Education, Suffolk Mind

Attention is an important emotional need. Sometimes people who are obviously in need of attention are dismissed as needy attention seekers, but this is unhelpful and doesn’t support their emotional health and mental wellbeing. We all need attention and we could help each other in healthier ways by exchanging positive attention. 

The psychologist and writer, Idries Shah, published the first comprehensive theory of attention in his 1978 book Learning How to Learn. Shah described attention as a kind of nutrition that we all need, just as we need food, water and air. Just like food, too much or too little attention is bad for us.

So if we are socially isolated we will suffer from attention deprivation, loneliness, stress and worry. On the other hand, if we are receiving too much attention we may find it overwhelming and struggle to meet the need for privacy. Equally, because attention is pleasurable, too much can be addictive, which we can see in action in much of the drama of celebrity culture. 

Also, we will often settle for negative attention when positive attention is not on offer. Because we will accept negative attention when positive attention is not on offer, the need for attention may even trump the need to feel safe. Disconcertingly, research has shown that on balance, people find it less stressful to be the victims of verbal bullying, rather than to be completely ignored and go without attention at all. This research illustrates that attention of any kind is rewarding, and helps us to understand why children will behave badly if they ‘learn’ that they will receive attention; and why people go back to unhealthy and potentially harmful relationships if they are a source of attention.

As well as being an emotional need, attention is also a resource – we have a limited amount of attention capacity to give to other people and activities. When we ‘run out’ of attention capacity we lose the ability to reflect, think more deeply and to problem solve and analyse. In The Attention Merchants, Professor Tim Wu describes how advertising, marketing and social media designers capture our attention, distracting us with ‘clickbait’ news headlines, flashing lights and colours, in order to sell advertising space. This means that if we spend too much time on our phones or looking at screens, we can run out of the attention capacity we need to give to our partners, children, friends, learning and meaningful activities.

It is a useful exercise in self-development to learn to observe what we give attention to, and to consciously give attention to what is really important to us, and not to things which drain us of attention. Switching our phones off, especially at night when we go to sleep, and putting them somewhere out of sight, can help us to replenish our attention capacity.     

Giving and receiving attention is part of building and nurturing relationships, families, businesses and culture as a whole. Exchanging attention is also how we learn about how other people see the world around us. Interestingly, people who have paid attention to their own need for attention say that they have gained more freedom from distractions and more control over what they give attention to. Who and what will you choose to give attention to, to improve your relationships and mental wellbeing?    

by Ezra Hewing

Ezra Hewing is Head of Education at Suffolk Mind and a Human Givens Therapist. Since joining Suffolk Mind in 2009, he has grown our busy workplace wellbeing service, training frontline mental health workers, doctors, nurses, substance abuse workers, members of the emergency services and heads of organisations, amongst others, in how best to understand and support emotionally healthy workplaces. He holds an MSc in the psychology and neuroscience of mental health from the internationally renowned Institute of Psychology, Psychiatry and Neuroscience, King’s College, London, where he researched REM sleep and mental ill health, with a focus on the symptoms of schizophrenia.

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