Attention-seeking personality disorders, victim syndrome, insecurity and centre of attention behaviour.
All cruelty springs from weakness.
Most organisations have a serial bully. It never ceases to amaze me how one person’s divisive, disordered, dysfunctional behaviour can permeate the entire organisation like a cancer.
The truth is incontrovertible; malice may attack it, ignorance my deride it, but in the end, there it is.
Lack of knowledge of, or unwillingness to recognise, or outright denial of the existence of the serial bully is the most common reason for an unsatisfactory outcome of a bullying case for both the employee and employer.
On this page
The need for attention
Attention seeking methods
Attention seeking and narcissism
The serial bully
The need for attention
Human beings are social creatures and need social interaction, feedback, and validation of their worth. The emotionally mature person doesn’t need to go hunting for these; they gain it naturally from their daily life, especially from their work and from stable relationships. Daniel Goleman calls emotional maturity emotional intelligence, or EQ; he believes, and I agree, that EQ is a much better indicator of a person’s character and value than intelligence quotient, or IQ.
The emotionally immature person, however, has low levels of self-esteem and self-confidence and consequently feels insecure; to counter these feelings of insecurity they will spend a large proportion of their lives creating situations in which they become the centre of attention. It may be that the need for attention is inversely proportional to emotional maturity, therefore anyone indulging in attention-seeking behaviours is telling you how emotionally immature they are.
Attention-seeking behaviour is surprisingly common. Being the centre of attention alleviates feelings of insecurity and inadequacy but the relief is temporary as the underlying problem remains unaddressed: low self-confidence and low self-esteem, and consequent low levels of self-worth and self-love.
Insecure and emotionally immature people often exhibit bullying behaviours, especially manipulation and deception. These are necessary in order to obtain attention which would not otherwise be forthcoming. Bullies and harassers have the emotional age of a young child and will exhibit temper tantrums, deceit, lying and manipulation to avoid exposure of their true nature and to evade accountability and sanction. This page lists some of the most common tactics bullies and manipulators employ to gain attention for themselves. An attention-seeker may exhibit several of the methods listed below.
Attention seeking methods
Attention-seeking is particularly noticeable with females so I’ve used the pronoun “she”. Males also exhibit attention-seeking behaviour.
Attention seekers commonly exploit the suffering of others to gain attention for themselves. Or they may exploit their own suffering, or alleged suffering. In extreme forms, such as in Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy, the attention-seeker will deliberately cause suffering to others as a means of gaining attention.
- The sufferer: this might include feigning or exaggerating illness, playing on an injury, or perhaps causing or inviting injury, in extreme cases going as far as losing a limb. Severe cases may meet the diagnostic criteria for Munchausen Syndrome (also know as Factitious Disorder). The illness or injury becomes a vehicle for gaining sympathy and thus attention. The attention-seeker excels in manipulating people through their emotions, especially that of guilt. It’s very difficult not to feel sorry for someone who relates a plausible tale of suffering in a sob story or “poor me” drama.
- The saviour: in attention-seeking personality disorders like Munchausen Syndrome By Proxy (MSBP, also known as Factitious Disorder By Proxy) the person, usually female, creates opportunities to be centre of attention by intentionally causing harm to others and then being their saviour, by saving their life, and by being such a caring, compassionate person. Few people realise the injury was deliberate. The MSBP mother or nurse may kill several babies before suspicions are aroused. When not in saviour mode, the saviour may be resentful, perhaps even contemptuous, of the person or persons she is saving.
- The rescuer: particularly common in family situations, she’s the one who will dash in and “rescue” people whenever the moment is opportune – to herself, that is. She then gains gratification from basking in the glory of her humanitarian actions. She will prey on any person suffering misfortune, infirmity, illness, injury, or anyone who has a vulnerability. The act of rescue and thus the opportunities for gaining attention can be enhanced if others are excluded from the act of rescue; this helps create a dependency relationship between the rescuer and rescued which can be exploited for further acts of rescue (and attention) later. When not in rescue mode, the rescuer may be resentful, perhaps even contemptuous, of the person she is rescuing.
- The organiser: she may present herself as the one in charge, the one organising everything, the one who is reliable and dependable, the one people can always turn to. However, the objective is not to help people (this is only a means to an end) but to always be the centre of attention.
- The manipulator: she may exploit family relationships, manipulating others with guilt and distorting perceptions; although she may not harm people physically, she causes everyone to suffer emotional injury. Vulnerable family members are favourite targets. A common attention-seeking ploy is to claim she is being persecuted, victimised, excluded, isolated or ignored by another family member or group, perhaps insisting she is the target of a campaign of exclusion or harassment.
- The mind-poisoner: adept at poisoning peoples’ minds by manipulating their perceptions of others, especially against the current target.
- The drama queen: every incident or opportunity, no matter how insignificant, is exploited, exaggerated and if necessary distorted to become an event of dramatic proportions. Everything is elevated to crisis proportions. Histrionics may be present where the person feels she is not the centre of attention but should be. Inappropriate flirtatious behaviour may also be present.
- The busy bee: this individual is the busiest person in the world if her constant retelling of her life is to be believed. Everyday events which are regarded as normal by normal people take on epic proportions as everyone is invited to simultaneously admire and commiserate with this oh-so-busy person who never has a moment to herself, never has time to sit down, etc. She’s never too busy, though, to tell you how busy she is.
- The feigner: when called to account and outwitted, the person instinctively uses the denial – counterattack – feigning victimhood strategy to manipulate everyone present, especially bystanders and those in authority. The most effective method of feigning victimhood is to burst into tears, for most people’s instinct is to feel sorry for them, to put their arm round them or offer them a tissue. There’s little more plausible than real tears, although as actresses know, it’s possible to turn these on at will. Feigners are adept at using crocodile tears. From years of practice, attention-seekers often give an Oscar-winning performance in this respect. Feigning victimhood is a favourite tactic of bullies and harassers to evade accountability and sanction. When accused of bullying and harassment, the person immediately turns on the water works and claims they are the one being bullied or harassed – even though there’s been no prior mention of being bullied or harassed. It’s the fact that this claim appears only after and in response to having been called to account that is revealing. Mature adults do not burst into tears when held accountable for their actions.
- The false confessor: this person confesses to crimes they haven’t committed in order to gain attention from the police and the media. In some cases people have confessed to being serial killers, even though they cannot provide any substantive evidence of their crimes. Often they will confess to crimes which have just been reported in the media. Some individuals are know to the police as serial confessors. The false confessor is different from a person who make a false confession and admits to a crime of which they are accused because of emotional pressure and inappropriate interrogation tactics.
- The abused: a person claims they are the victim of abuse, sexual abuse, rape etc as a way of gaining attention for themselves. Crimes like abuse and rape are difficult to prove at the best of times and their incidence is so common that it is easy to make a plausible claim as a way of gaining attention.
- The online victim: this person uses Internet chat rooms and forums to allege that they’ve been the victim of rape, violence, harassment, abuse etc. The alleged crime is never reported to the authorities, for obvious reasons. The facelessness and anonymity of the Internet suits this type of attention seeker.
- The victim: she may intentionally create acts of harassment against herself, eg send herself hate mail or damage her own possessions in an attempt to incriminate a fellow employee, a family member, neighbour, etc. Scheming, cunning, devious, deceptive and manipulative, she will identify her “harasser” and produce circumstantial evidence in support of her claim. She will revel in the attention she gains and use her glib charm to plausibly dismiss any suggestion that she herself may be responsible. However, a background check may reveal that this is not the first time she has had this happen to her.
In many cases the attention-seeker is a serial bully whose behaviour contains many of the characteristics listed under the profile of a serial bully, especially the Attention-Seeker.
Feigning victimhood is common to serial bullies and this aspect comes to the fore in most cases once the bully has been held accountable and he or she cannot escape or rely on their support network.
Attention seeking and narcissism
Like most personality disorders, narcissism occurs to different degrees in different people and reveals itself in many ways. Many business leaders exhibit narcissism, although when present in excess, the short-term benefits are outweighed by long-term unsustainability which can, and often does, lead to disaster.
The need for attention is paramount to the person with narcissistic personality disorder, and he or she will do anything to obtain that attention. Over the last two years, the fastest growing sector for calls to the UK National Workplace Bullying Advice Line has been from the charity / voluntary / not-for-profit sector. In most (although not all) cases, the identified serial bully is a female whose objective is to demonstrate to the world what a wonderful, kind, caring, compassionate person she is. Bold pronouncements, a prominent position, gushing empathy, sitting on many committees for good causes, etc all feature regularly. However, staff turnover is high and morale low amongst those doing the work and interacting with clients. In each case, the relief of other people’s suffering changes from an objective and instead becomes a vehicle for gaining attention for oneself. In some situations, more money is spent on dealing with the consequences of the serial bully’s behaviour (investigations, grievance procedures, legal action, staff turnover, sickness absence etc) than is spent on clients.
The serial bully
How to spot signs and symptoms of serial bullies, sociopaths and psychopaths, including the sociopathic behaviour of the industrial psychopath and the corporate psychopath.
Types of serial bully: The Attention-Seeker, The Wannabe, The Guru and The Sociopath
The serial bully:
- is a convincing, practised liar and when called to account, will make up anything spontaneously to fit their needs at that moment
- has a Jekyll and Hyde nature – is vile, vicious and vindictive in private, but innocent and charming in front of witnesses; no-one can (or wants to) believe this individual has a vindictive nature – only the current target of the serial bully’s aggression sees both sides; whilst the Jekyll side is described as “charming” and convincing enough to deceive personnel, management and a tribunal, the Hyde side is frequently described as “evil”; Hyde is the real person, Jekyll is an act
- excels at deception and should never be underestimated in their capacity to deceive
- uses excessive charm and is always plausible and convincing when peers, superiors or others are present (charm can be used to deceive as well as to cover for lack of empathy)
- is glib, shallow and superficial with plenty of fine words and lots of form – but there’s no substance
- is possessed of an exceptional verbal facility and will outmanoeuvre most people in verbal interaction, especially at times of conflict
- is often described as smooth, slippery, slimy, ingratiating, fawning, toadying, obsequious, sycophantic
- relies on mimicry, repetition and regurgitation to convince others that he or she is both a “normal” human being and a tough dynamic manager, as in extolling the virtues of the latest management fads and pouring forth the accompanying jargon
- is unusually skilled in being able to anticipate what people want to hear and then saying it plausibly
- cannot be trusted or relied upon
- fails to fulfil commitments
- is emotionally retarded with an arrested level of emotional development; whilst language and intellect may appear to be that of an adult, the bully displays the emotional age of a five-year-old
- is emotionally immature and emotionally untrustworthy exhibits unusual and inappropriate attitudes to sexual matters, sexual behaviour and bodily functions; underneath the charming exterior there are often suspicions or hints of sex discrimination and sexual harassment, perhaps also sexual dysfunction, sexual inadequacy, sexual perversion, sexual violence or sexual abuse
- in a relationship, is incapable of initiating or sustaining intimacy
- holds deep prejudices (eg against the opposite gender, people of a different sexual orientation, other cultures and religious beliefs, foreigners, etc – prejudiced people are unvaryingly unimaginative) but goes to great lengths to keep this prejudicial aspect of their personality secret
- is self-opinionated and displays arrogance, audacity, a superior sense of entitlement and sense of invulnerability and untouchability
- has a deep-seated contempt of clients in contrast to his or her professed compassion
- is a control freak and has a compulsive need to control everyone and everything you say, do, think and believe; for example, will launch an immediate personal attack attempting to restrict what you are permitted to say if you start talking knowledgeably about psychopathic personality or antisocial personality disorder in their presence – but aggressively maintains the right to talk (usually unknowledgeably) about anything they choose; serial bullies despise anyone who enables others to see through their deception and their mask of sanity
- displays a compulsive need to criticise whilst simultaneously refusing to value, praise and acknowledge others, their achievements, or their existence
- shows a lack of joined-up thinking with conversation that doesn’t flow and arguments that don’t hold water
- flits from topic to topic so that you come away feeling you’ve never had a proper conversation
- refuses to be specific and never gives a straight answer
- is evasive and has a Houdini-like ability to escape accountability
- undermines and destroys anyone who the bully perceives to be an adversary, a potential threat, or who can see through the bully’s mask
- is adept at creating conflict between those who would otherwise collate incriminating information about them
- is quick to discredit and neutralise anyone who can talk knowledgeably about antisocial or sociopathic behaviors
- may pursue a vindictive vendetta against anyone who dares to held them accountable, perhaps using others’ resources and contemptuous of the damage caused to other people and organisations in pursuance of the vendetta
- is also quick to belittle, undermine, denigrate and discredit anyone who calls, attempts to call, or might call the bully to account
- gains gratification from denying people what they are entitled to
- is highly manipulative, especially of people’s perceptions and emotions (eg guilt)
- poisons peoples’ minds by manipulating their perceptions
- when called upon to share or address the needs and concerns of others, responds with impatience, irritability and aggression
- is arrogant, haughty, high-handed, and a know-all
- often has an overwhelming, unhealthy and narcissistic attention-seeking need to portray themselves as a wonderful, kind, caring and compassionate person, in contrast to their behaviour and treatment of others; the bully sees nothing wrong with their behavior and chooses to remain oblivious to the discrepancy between how they like to be seen and how they are seen by others
- is spiritually dead although may loudly profess some religious belief or affiliation
- is mean-spirited, officious, and often unbelievably petty
- is mean, stingy, and financially untrustworthy
- is greedy, selfish, a parasite and an emotional vampire
- is always a taker and never a giver
- is convinced of their superiority and has an overbearing belief in their qualities of leadership but cannot distinguish between leadership (maturity, decisiveness, assertiveness, co-operation, trust, integrity) and bullying (immaturity, impulsiveness, aggression, manipulation, distrust, deceitfulness)
- often fraudulently claims qualifications, experience, titles, entitlements or affiliations which are ambiguous, misleading, or bogus
- often misses the semantic meaning of language, misinterprets what is said, sometimes wrongly thinking that comments of a satirical, ironic or general negative nature apply to him or herself
- knows the words but not the song
- is constantly imposing on others a false reality made up of distortion and fabrication
- sometimes displays a seemingly limitless demonic energy especially when engaged in attention-seeking activities or evasion of accountability and is often a committeeaholic or apparent workaholic
The serial bully appears to lack insight into his or her behaviour and seems to be oblivious to the crassness and inappropriateness thereof; however, it is more likely that the bully knows what they are doing but elects to switch off the moral and ethical considerations by which normal people are bound. If the bully knows what they are doing, they are responsible for their behaviour and thus liable for its consequences to other people. If the bully doesn’t know what they are doing, they should be suspended from duty on the grounds of diminished responsibility and the provisions of the Mental Health Act should apply.