Dealing with Attention Seekers

Emotionally immature people are tiring to be around because they constantly look for other people to confirm their worthiness. For such insecure people, every person they encounter becomes that magic mirror in the fairy tale. Mirror, mirror on the wall, tell me if I’m lovable at all.

The expectation is clear: your full agreement reassures them of their worth. It’s as if they are still trying to get the unconditional approval they should have received as children. Whatever the cause, these unfinished people won’t stop trying to wrest constant validation from you.

What makes good social interactions enjoyable is the sense that both people are listening and showing interest in each other. In these energizing moments, you get to know each other better and hopefully share a new experience: an idea, a laugh, or a bit of self-revelation. There’s a creative spark in how such a conversation takes its twists and turns. But this cannot happen when the other person just wants you to be their lovability mirror.

It’s hard to put your finger on, but you will find yourself instinctively backing away from the deadening effect these people have on your energy. Feeling cornered by them is the typical experience. You feel trapped because there is no relief from their need for you to serve as their attentive mirror.

Like children, emotionally immature people look for you to confirm their goodness in each and every encounter. As they do this, their vibe begins to feel coercive. They are not looking for a conversation where both of you can add your own spice to the mix. They want you to follow along with them, like the slipstream around the wake of a boat.

Usually there is something negative to their theme, something that is unfulfilled in them. It’s a subtle thing, but you soon realize that they’re not just communicating in a relaxed and sociable way. Instead, they are looking for you to confirm and agree with the rightness of their existence. They make their points with persistence. They approach you with the tug of an ignored child who needs you to acknowledge him or her, over and over.

With mirror-seeking people, the deal is always the same. There is no fun or discovery going on between you because the formula never changes. It is clear your job is to smile and agree. They do not look in your eyes and show interest in you as a person, any more than you would try to relate to your own image in the mirror. You might try single-handedly to redirect the conversation to something both of you might enjoy, but that will be an uphill siege. This exhausting person will quickly try to maneuver you into confirming they are lovable and right, and your energy will deflate like a flat tire.

Many of these mirror moments can be gotten through with no ill effects by keeping it light. But when a family member, co-worker, or even a partner, repeatedly does this, it can wear thin fast because it’s not so easy to get away.

If you don’t want to serve as someone’s magic mirror, your best bet is to sidestep the urging for agreement with something noncommittal, like “I’ll have to think about that” or “I don’t know.” Any response other than agreement will do because your agreeableness and feigned interest are what keeps fueling their behavior. You may think you are being polite, but your willingness to be a passive mirror is just as enticing to the needy person as active approval.

The next time you are feeling trapped by one of these people, exit the mirror mode by turning your body a little sideways to him and by shifting your gaze to something else in the room for a few moments. This makes you an unrewarding mirror. Breaking eye contact while deliberately taking a couple of deep breaths for yourself takes only a few seconds and helps break the mirror spell so you can move on. As soon as you feel the person’s negative tug on your energies, you will know it’s time to stop acting the part of his mirror. There’s no need to be rude or hostile, but neither is there any rule that you have to play the magic mirror and reassure him that he is good, right, and lovable.

Being noncommittal communicates that you don’t agree these people have the right to commandeer all your attention. Just knowing that you don’t have to put out effort to support their moods or agendas can be a marvelously freeing experience. There they are, and here you are. It’s simple; you are not their mirror, and there’s no need to knock yourself out. They can seek attention, even try to coerce it, but you are never responsible for reassuring them of their lovability. That’s an impossible and thankless job, even for a magic mirror. 

Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., is a clinical psychologist. For information, call 757-490-7811 or visit www.drlindsaygibson.com.

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