Shirah Vollmer MD

The Musings of Dr. Vollmer

Exhibitionism

Posted by Dr. Vollmer on September 6, 2012

Nolan, nine years old, wants to show off his muscles to me. He comes in with such enthusiasm, clearly wanting my praise. He appears hungry, in a good way, for positive attention. I think about how we, as adults, lose our openness about wanting to be admired. We.  adults, seem to pretend that we don’t need admiration. How do we change from being open about wanting affirmation to being ashamed about that? This was our discussion in what I call my “play class”. Sometimes kids utilize a child psychiatrist to feel good about themselves. They do this in a way which is clear and to the point. Adults, by contrast, also want our admiration, but it usually takes a lot more time for this to be  obvious. “This is normal?” One student asks about Nolan. “Absolutely. It is not just normal,” I reply, “but it is also a positive sign about Nolan’s self-confidence. “He understands that I want to appreciate him, and at some deep level, he knows that he needs appreciation.” I say, trying to explain the importance of affirming children, in order to build self-esteem. At the same time, I am mindful of the notion that our current generation of ’emerging adults’ are criticized for being affirmed too much for too little. Parenting in the 80s seemed to be about the need for affirmation, possibly resulting in a generation of adults who feel entitled to tell their bosses what to do. This notion may have some truth, but that does not mean that we should not encourage parents to recognize the strengths in their children. Parents, generally speaking, should encourage exhibitionism as a sign of forward developmental motion. The confidence and pride in one’s own accomplishment is something that many adults have trouble holding on to, maybe as a result of the lack of recognition in childhood. Many folks think of exhibitionism as boastful and insensitive which it can be, but when done with the sweetness of childhood enthusiasm, it is neither. After talking about how so many things can go wrong in child development, I think my students were surprised I said something positive.

2 Responses to “Exhibitionism”

  1. Jon said

    A problem with the current crop of “emerging adults” is correctly stated as “being affirmed too much for too little.” For one to feel good about oneself, there should indeed be something substantive to feel good about – some accomplishment, some deed, something.

    Nolan has muscles to show off. Great. Perhaps he has worked in some way to build those muscles. Even better. As noted, we all have something that we would want to show off; however, as also noted, as we age, it becomes harder to do so in a socially acceptable manor. Finding ways of being an acceptable exhibitionist is indeed arduous but not necessarily intractable.

    • Thanks, Jon. I am not sure that I agree that to be an ‘acceptable exhibitonist’ is arduous. I think the arduous part is accepting our need for that. Children seem to embrace their exhibitionism, while adults often feel shame about it. I am interested in how that transition takes place. Actors, comedians, speakers, politicians, and teachers seem to embrace their exhibitionism, but I imagine the consciousness involved is variable. Thanks Again.

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