Are you paying attention?

For Self-Harm Awareness Day, 1st March 2024, at Penumbra we wanted to highlight and challenge the negative and unhelpful associations of “attention-seeking”. Even when unrelated to self-harm, the term attention-seeking is often viewed and mentioned in a negative light, as though the person who is seeking attention is underserving of it and at fault somehow. Attention-seeking behaviour is also described as disruptive, when this behaviour becomes excessive, as it can hinder effective communication and complicate interpersonal relationships.

The truth is, we all seek attention from others. A baby does this by crying, as the only way to communicate its needs. A young person or adult can do this by asking directly for help. But sometimes, it is not easy to ask for help, especially regarding our mental health. With physical health, it can often be seen and measured through tests. Mental health on the other hand, is not visible in the same way and is still stigmatised a lot. For some people, this means that they use self-harm as a way to communicate with themselves and sometimes other people. Some people may not know how to voice what they are going through. They may not know what exactly they are feeling. So maybe, yes, it is a way to try to communicate that they need some attention!

Another way to consider the expression is “connection-seeking”: a person that is engaging in a behaviour or verbally seeking connection from others. This is a fundamental part of our human experience – to connect with others, and to have a sense of belonging. Regardless of connection, attention is something we all want and need. We may share a joke or story, in the hopes that we will have a moment of joy with someone or simply feel understood.

If you’re worried about reinforcing an action that you don’t agree with, try wondering whether you may actually be offering a potential lifeline, a feeling of safety, the confidence to access support, and perhaps the first step in someone’s recovery journey. So, with that in mind, an important way to approach attention-seeking behaviours is with empathy. We should strive to understand the underlying reasons for these behaviours and constructively offer support and validation.

For some people, this means that they use self-harm as a way to communicate with themselves and sometimes other people. Some people may not know how to voice what they are going through.

Consider the following conversations. Whilst they are both valid, do they both offer the same sense of support and safety?

Conversation 1:

“Why have you been doing that? Why don’t you just speak to me about it?”

“I don’t know. I don’t know how to. I don’t know why I’m like this!”

“Well, it can’t be that bad then. You just need to stop worrying and try to be more positive about things!”

“But… everything hurts. I feel so under pressure. I don’t know what I’m doing. It feels like the world is falling apart.”

“Och, see what I mean! That’s all so negative! You’ve got a roof over your head and food on the table. Think of all the starving children in the world!”

“I know… I know other people have it so much worse…”

“We’ve all got problems. We just have to get on with it.”

“I feel so alone. Why can’t I just be normal?

Contrast that with a different approach in conversation 2.

Conversation 2:

“I noticed you’ve been doing it again. When you’re ready to talk about it, you can talk to me.”

“Oh… yeah… sorry. It’s been really hard recently.”

“Yeah… sometimes it is really hard and we don’t always know the right ways to cope. But that’s not something to apologise for! It’s ok. If you would like to, we could get out and get some fresh air for a bit?”

“That might be a good idea. I just don’t really know what to do.”

“You don’t have to have it all figured out. If you want you can talk through any thoughts or feelings you’re having… But there’s no pressure. We can enjoy the fresh air and talk as much or as little as you like.”

“Okay, thank you.”

“That’s okay, I am here for you. And if you want any help to find other support too, I can look at options with you. You don’t have to do this on your own.”

“Thank you for your help… I still don’t really know what to do, but I don’t feel so alone now.”

Huge thanks to our colleagues, Frankee, Steph and Roberta in our Edinburgh Self-Harm Team for putting together this helpful blog.

For support and information on self-harm, please visit: Self-Harm Network Scotland

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