They’re doing it for the attention.
It’s a refrain uttered everywhere, as people attempt to explain why troubled adults, adolescents, and children behave the way they do. Overused and indiscriminately applied, doing it for the attention has bothered me since I was a trainee in child psychology. Surely, humans do what they do for a wide range of reasons. And if someone is crying out for attention, don’t they deserve—need—us to notice? To attend?
Instead, seeking attention from others is all too often reviled. It’s dismissed as indulgent, considered a reward for undesirable behavior, a reinforcement of disavowed emotion. So, we stop being curious about others’ internal experiences — disconnecting from what they know, feel, need, want, fear — and, necessarily, we disconnect from our own. Rather than noticing, bringing attention to what’s happening inside no matter how confusing or intense or messy, we learn to turn our attention away. We numb, avoid, put aside. It feels safer to stop noticing. If we don’t give it attention, we can make it disappear or pretend it’s not real.
Not so in the process of EMDR therapy. There, the words, “Just notice,” are the foundational guideposts.
“Just notice,” we therapists say. “Let whatever happens, happen.” We may repeat this mantra countless times a day-- a reflex woven into procedural memory as we support clients dealing with trauma.
Just notice? The mother wonders, just notice what?, as she stands over the warming bed of her two-pound baby in the NICU. She tries desperately, silently, to notice what the nurse is showing her about her newborn baby’s skin tone. What if I never get it? she thinks. What if my ability to notice what’s important is broken?
“…and let whatever happens, happen,” we say, as the newly bereaved parent of a baby who died at birth looks at us with wide eyes.
“Let whatever happens, happen? I can’t just notice. I can’t trust my judgment. Just look at this baby, who my body failed, who I have failed…”
We say these words because we know that the key to healing begins with simply noticing. Pay attention. Be curious, see what happens next.
But it’s a catch-22. Trauma fractures our natural ability to notice. It disrupts our capacity to access that calm curiosity that allows us to stay connected to what’s happening inside. Bringing our attention to pain, even though it’s uncomfortable, seems to be essential to recovery. It’s as if we need people to be healed in order to access the healing.
Fortunately, as in all relational psychotherapy, EMDR therapists offer our attuned presence as scaffolding and support as people begin to turn their attention to their internal world. With EMDR therapy, we provide precisely the sort of nuanced appreciation for the ebb and flow of thought and feeling, somatic sensation, and memory that parents must bring to their babies and that, especially in the face of disruptions on the road to parenthood, can seem both frightening and out of reach.
It goes something like this:
As you bring your attention to yourself, just noticing, I will help you. I will notice with you. I will notice the subtle changes in your skin tone, as your cheeks redden and clear, as the tears rise and fall. I will note your breathing and breathe with you. I will not turn away from your fear or your pain or your anger. My nervous system will listen to the rhythms coming from yours. I will notice and then you can notice, too.
That subtle sensation, that flickering emotion, it all matters. “Notice that,” we say, inviting gentle curiosity, remaining just as engaged and attentive as when tears are flowing. “What are you noticing now?” we ask. So often, language is elusive but the emotion, the emergent shift, is palpable and so we lean in. “Just notice it,” we say, affirming that it exists even when it can’t yet be articulated. “That blossoming warmth? That stab in your chest? Just notice it. And when you do, when you let whatever happens happen, we will notice together. We will know its truth and meaning together.”
This is how we walk with our clients into the process of EMDR therapy where everything they notice, no matter how subtle, counts, not just the sobs or the searing flash of memory. It’s also how we accompany bereaved and traumatized parents into the new world born in the face of perinatal trauma. We notice the shrapnel causing pain and blocking healing. Just as important, we nourish and support the gradual creation of connective tissue that forms the foundation of a new sense of self: as a parent to this baby within the matrix of relationships, within this family.
All of it, every single nuance, counts.
“My baby only spent a few days in the NICU,” said one father to me in response to a call for interviewees for our book. “Are you sure you want our story?” “Our baby died,” whispered another. “Do you really want to interview us?”
It’s a common concern that parents express to therapists. Does it count? Does our experience really matter? Even if my baby is fine now, or if there are no marks on my body to prove that we’ve walked through the fire or no living baby to parent after all we endured? Do I have permission to notice what this means to me, how it actually feels? And if I do notice where it hurts, can I show you? Will you pay attention?
So we sit across from the families who land in our offices-- parents unmoored from what they used to know about themselves, about babies, pregnancies, and the way the world is supposed to work when you’ve followed all the rules, and we pay attention. We notice and most importantly, we trust what they notice. We show them with our engaged, calm presence, staying out of the way but staying.
If we’ve been fortunate to become a parent to a full-term, healthy baby, conceived, gestated, and born without incident, it can be challenging to learn to decipher these signs of dislocation and the consequences. When the road to parenthood has been pitted with earthquakes and storms, parents cannot trust in what once seemed natural and easy. Without that steady sense of “I can figure this out,” or “everything will be okay,” parents feel unmoored and may desperately turn to others to steady themselves.
They often turn to professionals, like us.
And yes, they are doing it for the attention.
And in fact, they benefit when we pay attention-- when we see them as they are, validate their experience of their journey, acknowledge their pain, and accompany them as nonjudgmental witnesses. Our attention is what helps them learn to notice both the obvious and the nuanced and let what happens happen. Our attention is what helps them regain feelings of confidence and competence. Gradually, they begin to believe in themselves as parents, including, “I can learn to read this baby’s cues,” or, “I can trust my sense that something is wrong (or right) with myself or my baby,” or, “My pain counts even though other parents are experiencing a grief and fear I can’t even fathom.” Or even, “I feel love and hope and joy even though strangers glance at my baby and turn away,” or, “I am a loving parent even though my baby died.”
Our attention validates these truths. Noticing them guides our clients to turn their own attention back to their lived experience in all its mess and meaning. Only then can they weave together the strands of their experience, appreciating them all as part of a larger whole.
Institute for creative mindfulness
Our work and our mission is to redefine therapy and our conversations are about the art and practice of healing. Blog launched in May 2018 by Dr. Jamie Marich, affiliates, and friends.