Having another person pause to gaze at us validates that we exist. The presence of another person is also comforting because it means we are not alone. The connection that simple eye contact provides accomplishes both at once.
Young children are more transparent in expressing this need, but plenty of adults need attention too. This is what we want - to be soothed with connection. People who have a lot of existential anxiety might become performers and thrive on the attention of large audiences. Or perhaps they behave in ways others cannot ignore, just to be seen. Acting out, eye-catching clothing, hairstyles, tattoos, make-up, jewelry or even driving a flashy car accomplish this. So even when someone says, "leave me alone!" but acts provokingly, they express the primal desire to have their existence validated. Teenagers come to mind, but they are not alone.
In The Stain, Sergei says, "Look at me!" to Cassandra, who is somewhat introverted and withholds connection from him when she needs emotional privacy. This is one of the sources of friction in their relationship. He needs to be validated, and she needs to conceal her feelings. The more he demands her attention, the more she hides from him. This one dynamic drives a lot of drama in the story.
I imagine some of us settle into our personhood more fully than others, which is why we have differing levels of existential anxiety. And yet, we all go about meeting our needs in unique ways, quite unaware of what we are doing most of the time.
Psychology makes for rich characters and stories based on the interplay of relationships, but it is not just for the benefit of writing. When we look more closely at the needs expressed by behavior, the world becomes an infinitely complex mystery.
Today I am thinking about the people no one seems to see – those who suffer from neglect. If you are one of these people, I want to let you know that you matter to me. I see you.
Image courtesy of the Canva pro media library.