Without Attention, we would cease to exist – like being lost in space

The giving and receiving of Attention is not on everyone’s list of essential emotional needs. We can understand the need to be safe, to have some control of our lives, to have meaningful relationships and a sense of meaning. But attention – what is that exactly?

To my mind, the best way to understand attention – both the giving and receiving of attention is to understand that it is about self referencing and learning in the most profound sense. It is about checking and learning about oneself in the easiest way possible – which is with reference to what is happening outside of us.  It is only by watching and observing others and what they say and do and by testing our own thoughts, emotions and actions by the reaction of others that we in fact learn in the most fundamental sense about what is appropriate and best for us.  It is absolutely essential for our survival.

And if we find that our attention exchanges are limited to a very narrow group, then this will mean that our capacity to live a life that works can be seriously compromised. I got a magnificent example of this from my early days as a therapist when I saw a young depressed university student. Eventually I asked her about her friends at university and she said they were all like her – not working, staying in bed late and drug taking. I remember saying to her that she needed new friends – ones that could give her a much better model of living.  That she could observe them and they could, by their reaction to her, push her to live a life that worked better. And that was exactly what she needed.

Now imagine a life where there is no meaningful attention exchange at all. Where no one recognises or acknowledges you. Where you are viewed as either mad or useless and where nothing you say is heard at all. And so you respond by disappearing from view. Can you imagine that? It would be as if you were losing all meaningful contact with the world. It would be like being lost in space with no sensory contact possible.  It would be as if you ceased to exist. Maybe that is madness?

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