You’ve seen at least one before: the kid who thinks they’re weirder than they really are, or claims that nobody understands them, or who self-consciously begins a question with, “Am I the only one who…” about something so normal that you can only sigh and brace yourself against the second-hand embarrassment.
It can be genuinely annoying.
Knowing I’m not the only one who’s been bothered by this on occasion, I’ve decided to share some thoughts on how people begin to think that way in the first place, as well as some musings on how to shut this sort of thing down.
Part One: Origins
As a clarifying note, this post will not be discussing people or traits that are genuinely are rare/strange/abnormal or what have you. We’re considering the case of someone who has a nature that is not all that unique, and whose supposed-unusual traits are more commonplace than they think.
What makes a person feel extremely different to begin with? Not necessarily the absence of people who are the same, but the absence of visibility of people who are the same. When you never hear anyone talk about having X trait, and when you’ve neither met nor heard of anyone who is X, and when you see next to no recognition of X anywhere you look, X begins to seem pretty outlandish. Maybe it’s not really all that outlandish, but that doesn’t matter. If an individual feels something that they rarely see discussed or brought to anyone’s attention, then it is natural for them to think they must have a rare trait, because it appears to be scarce.
Scarce, uncommon, few and far between. Isolated from similarity.
Let’s get one thing straight: isolation is pain. It’s bad for your spirits and it’s bad for your mental and physical health. And it’s a necessary prerequisite to thinking of oneself as extremely different.
Saying someone wants to “feel special” is saying they want that pain.
People want to be memorable, to be accomplished, to be notable, to be worthy. Not “special”. Feeling extremely different originates from the pain of isolation, and so the best way to banish that feeling is to point out the others who are the same — as a gesture of comfort, not an attack on a claim. Dismiss or challenge whether someone really is “different” enough to count themselves as such, and all you’re doing is questioning whether they’ve felt enough pain, which is itself an infliction of pain, and you can see where this is heading. Circumvent that unproductive strategy by recognizing their suffering as too much, not too little — because your point, presumably, is that their perception of their own difference exceeds the actuality.
Part Two: Parasitism
The popular suspicion that arises in these situations is that an insatiable desire for attention is at play. My theory is that actual attention hounds would move on to more effective strategies, but let’s consider the word “attention” for a moment. What are the sources of attention for a person identifying as, say, demisexual?
First, there’s the attention from similar people, which I consider to be negligible — not just because they are small in number, but because you can’t feel special in relation to people who are the same. Seeking a community just to act elitist toward them about what you have in common doesn’t work. Wanting to engage in discussions about experiences you can’t actually relate to doesn’t make sense either, unless there are additional factors involved (like, say, crushing loneliness). Whatever attention people gain from this audience of peers, it’s hard to imagine it being exploitative unless, again, there’s an additional dynamic at play. Simply seeking each other out and decreasing the perception of each others’ rarity has no inherently negative effects as far as I can see.
Secondly, the other main source of attention is, unsurprisingly, people making the accusation that these other people are just looking for attention. However, publishing such an accusation (say, on the internet) would presumably only done with the wish that it be seen and be granted some recognition or response, i.e., attention, so it’s implied that the word “attention” is being used to mean something more specific in these cases — a parasitic relationship of sorts, in which someone is granted unwarranted positive treatment for self-indulgent purposes.
However, a parasitic relationship requires both a parasite and a host. A community of people who share their unusual identity in common can’t all be parasites to each other, and there doesn’t seem to be anything harmful about them coming together and recognizing each other. The only other plausible “host” in this situation is the second group: the people complaining about the hypothetical parasitic relationship. It would almost seem like a “chicken or the egg” scenario if it weren’t so obvious.
If you don’t want people to receive unnecessary attention, then stop giving it to them.
Another facet I’ve observed in this dynamic is how vitriolic and acerbic the complaints often are in attacking people for identifying as this, that, or the other, and if we operate on the assumption that these complaints, themselves, function as a significant share of the attention received (for the word “attention” is usually given no other modifiers), then the message is essentially, “You want us to mock you. You want us to hate you. You want us to tear you down.”
Arguing that people “want attention,” while granting it to them via attacking them for as much, is arguing that people want to be abused. These claims appear to be based on the notion that experiencing pain in and of itself proves that you deserve that pain — an overzealous manifestation of the just world fallacy.
And that is why I consider the aggressive misapplication of the term “special snowflake” to be equivalent to victim-blaming.