My secret shame is that I need your attention.
I don’t like admitting that, but I can’t help myself. It’s not just an egotistical desire. It’s a craving — for attention, approval and love. I don’t like feeling this way. I’ve beaten myself up about it for years and tried to shame myself into changing, but I’m not sure I can. I’m still struggling to figure this out.
My ex-wife had an insightful observation years ago. As we talked one time about what I should do with my future, she said that whatever I did, it had to be something with an “applause factor.” She pointed out that I was driven by the applause I get — metaphorically speaking — from my work.
Her insight was that I was not going to be happy unless I could do something that would be on public display — and that people could give me approval for.
I had never consciously been aware of this, but I knew she was right. I’m always watching my audience — consciously or unconsciously — out of the corner of my eye. Are they watching? Do they like me? Will they love me? I need applause just as much as I need food, water and air — but I don’t feel shame about needing food, water and air.
I feel a strong sense of shame about needing your attention. And now I don’t even know who my audience is anymore.
For almost eight years now, I’ve known who my audience was. There was a woman who I had loved — and who had loved me — and everything that I did or said or published or planned was all done through the lens of her existence.
Whether I knew she would read what I said or did mattered little. Everything in me was oriented toward her just as powerfully as the needle of a compass finds magnetic north. But that recently changed. She’s no longer my audience, for reasons that I won’t explain now. (I’ll have a little bit to say about that another time.) The sudden change has left my compass spinning wildly — as though it no longer has any idea where to orient itself.
It’s as though I’ve been performing — metaphorically speaking — for an audience of one. And now that audience is no longer there, so I’m confused about whose attention and approval and love to seek. I crave those things — and feel guilty for craving them — but I no longer have any idea whose attention I need.
When I was a newspaper editor, I used to go into restaurants where people were reading my newspaper, especially in the mornings. Nobody would know who I was, but I could watch people’s reactions and hear them talking. And when I had been part of publishing something of which I was especially proud, I couldn’t help but go out there and listen.
The occasional comments of approval I heard were the applause that I needed to keep going. They gave me fuel to do something better the next time. I needed that.
I’ve written before about how social media is a danger to those who grew up with narcissists. If you had a narcissistic parent, you probably never felt good enough and never felt that you could get enough approval to make you feel loved. You learned to eat up every morsel of approval you could find, because in those moments of approval, you had just a hint of the esteem that more healthy people had for themselves most of the time.
Social media is a great place to “perform” in order to get such approval. If you allow yourself to do it, you will become almost unrecognizable to yourself on social media, because you’ll find yourself trying to get “likes” and “loves” and “laughs” and whatever little insignificant scraps tell you that people approve of your performance.
But this is probably why my entire life has centered around media in one form or another. Newspapers allowed me to experience praise for my work. Making a short film which was accepted at a couple dozen film festivals — and won some awards — was another huge shot of attention and approval.
Everything that I’m still drawn to doing — writing, video, podcasts, movies — all have that in common. If you’re an accountant, few people know whether you’re a good accountant. Few people can see your work and praise you. But everything which draws me allows me to speak to an audience — and pray that they like me and approve of me.
Weirdly, part of me is extremely confident — yet another part of me is still a child longing for the teacher to put a gold star next to my name.
I need your understanding. I need your love. I need to believe you like me. And if I can’t get those things, I’ll at least work for your applause — and that’s why I crave the approval that comes with success.
Will you like me? Will you approve of me? Will you love me? Will you finally understand me?
Those are the questions the child in me asks. They’re the questions the adult in me still needs answered. And so I seek the approval and good feelings from anywhere I can find them, whether that’s in line at the grocery store or posting photos on Instagram or publishing video on a YouTube channel.
While I’ve been struggling to write this, I came across something I typed a couple of years ago. I don’t remember writing it, but it’s very true. I said, “Training a child to seek approval from other people keeps the child feeling scared, misunderstood, dependent and alienated for life.”
I don’t want to need your attention. I really don’t. And right now, it’s even more confusing since I no longer have a specific audience whose approval and love I crave. It’s really scary and disorienting.
I need a new muse. It would be best if I didn’t, I suppose, but the reality of my life is that I still have these long-term questions — about being liked and loved, about getting approval, and about being understood.
In order for me to feel good about myself, I need a very specific audience — an audience of one — to watch all of my performances in life, good or bad. And for that person to love me anyway.