© 2014 Bill Eddy, LCSW, Esq.
Does this person make you nuts?
Constant crises, needs help
Intense, shifting emotions
People with a Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD) can be extremely irritating and unpredictable. The American Psychiatric Association has estimated that 2-3% of the population suffers from HPD * and that translates into a whole lot of people. You may be involved with someone with a full disorder or someone who just has traits of the problem, but either way they can be a handful. I’ll focus on the traits and share what I have learned from the High Conflict Institute and other readings as to what you can do to manage the drama and get some peace back into your life. I cannot give you clinical advice, but I will share general principles that can help.
Who’s a Histrionic?
They’re the people who make you roll your eyes when they regale you with their most recent problems and/or they make you feel like you must help them. They always want your attention—good or bad—and it’s very intense emotionally. They are dramatic and throw tantrums, but it frequently comes off as being superficial and fleeting—like someone who tells you they have every trendy illness making the Internet rounds then forgets it when a new trend hits. Other times, they get into genuine trouble and call you daily demanding your help but they are never responsible for their own crisis—you are! Histrionic Personalities are expert at projecting their issues onto others and you may find that they accuse people of the annoying behavior they are demonstrating themselves.
Perhaps most aggravating is their penchant for stretching the truth. Much of the research indicates they don’t generally lie with hostile intent. Rather, it seems as if the attractive drama of the moment simply overshadows any need to be accurate. For example, they may tell you they witnessed a horrific car crash and embellish with gory detail, when in reality they only saw a sanitized clip on the news. During the act of telling you, however, they are the center of your attention and that’s right where they feel most secure.
Researchers don’t know what causes the disorder. Childhood events and genetics may both play a part and some studies say more women are affected than men, while others say men may simply miss being diagnosed. There is a fair amount of consensus, however, that underlying all the mayhem is the Histrionic’s intense and unconscious fear of being ignored.
The Hysterics of Histrionics
Let’s say you got the following email from your sister:
WHY DON’T YOU ANSWER YOUR PHONE? YOU KNOW YOU NEED TO HELP ME. THAT’S WHAT A BIG BROTHER IS FOR. BUT NO! YOU WILL SIT THERE IN YOUR NICE CONDO AND LET ME—YOUR OWN SISTER—LIVE IN HER CRAPPY CAR. YOU’RE SO SELFISH! WHY IS EVERYTHING ALWAYS ABOUT YOU!!?? YOU NEEDED TO HELP ME FIX MY CAR SO I COULD GET TO WORK. NOW SEE WHAT HAPPENED? I LOST MY JOB BECAUSE I COULDN’T GET THERE AND NOW I’M ABOUT TO LOSE MY APARTMENT BECAUSE OF YOU. YOU SHOULD BE ASHAMED OF YOURSELF. THE LANDLORD IS KICKING ME OUT TOMORROW. YOU HAVE TO LET ME COME LIVE WITH YOU UNTIL I GET BACK ON MY FEET. IT’S YOUR FAMILY RESPONSIBILITY. I’LL BE OVER LATER TODAY WITH A LOAD OF MY STUFF.
Wow. All caps and bold—it feels like you’re being screamed at. Again. It’s all about Jennifer’s crisis. Again. Full of guilt-trips, yet no taking responsibility for anything. Again. You’re tired of being blamed for problems she creates and yet you feel terribly torn. You don’t want her out in the cold, but you don’t want her living with you either. You’re also quite annoyed: how can she possibly hold you responsible for this and why do you somehow feel guilty about it? You want to write back to set her straight, but you’re sure that would be useless since she’d just dive deeper into her pity party. Oh, what to do, what to do?
How to Dodge the Drama
Once you recognize that you might be dealing with an HPD, the easiest thing you can do is ease out of contact and he/she will find someone else to give them attention. If you can’t end the relationship, you can try this strategy to limit it.
Think about your choices. Paul was weary of the drama. Instead of responding right away, he took a few minutes to write out some options so he could calm himself and think:
A. Let Jennifer move in
B. Tell her she is on her own and to leave him alone
C. Ignore Jennifer’s email.
D. Talk with Jennifer with a therapist
E. Give Jennifer some rent money
Paul decided that A and E were out of the question. He was afraid of the commotion she would create under his roof, and he was not about to bail her out of financial trouble again. Besides, if he caved in, it would reinforce her behavior in the future because she got what she wanted through her dramatics. He also decided against B. Paul loves his sister and cutting her out of his life altogether would be difficult to uphold. The drama would find its way to him through other family, anyway. Option C was also out. Like B, it would be hard to maintain and he knew from experience that Jennifer would only increase her attempts to reach him, possibly showing up at his job and creating a scene.
Paul decided that D was a good mix of not feeling like he abandoned his sister, while trying to get help with her behavioral issues. He sat down and wrote a carefully worded BIFF Response to her email. A BIFF Response is Brief, Informative, Friendly and Firm and is much less likely to trigger Jennifer further.
Dear Jennifer, I love you very much but I cannot let you move in again. We have talked about this kind of thing before, and it didn’t seem to help, so I have decided that I can only communicate with you about this problem with the help of a therapist who can help with a good plan. You seem to have some recurring issues and a therapist could help you feel and do better with events in your life. Until you accept some help getting back on track and taking responsibility for your problems, I will not help you nor respond to any more emails nor answer the phone/door. I will help pay for the therapist and we can pick one you are comfortable with, though. Many people have had the same kind of issues you have and therapy helped them a lot, so I hope you will accept. Love, Paul
Note that Paul’s response ignored all the accusations of being a bad brother, which would trigger a more intense response from Jennifer, and he presented a plan for helping her while setting firm limits. In short, Paul was not emotionally hooked by Jennifer’s Histrionics. Instead, the reply directed the discussion to a more positive outcome. The difficult part for Paul would be that he has to refrain from answering further emails or calls (or stick to his plan with another BIFF Response), but doing so means less stress for him and his family.
You may be saying that it can’t be that easy, and you’d be right.
Bill Eddy is a lawyer, therapist, and mediator. He is the co-founder and Chief Innovation Officer of the High Conflict Institute, a training and consultation firm that trains professionals to deal with high conflict people and situations. He is the author of several books and methods for handling high conflict personalities and high conflict disputes with the most difficult people.