As a teenager, I lived in breathless anticipation or sickening dread of the inevitable drama with a capital D that Monday mornings brought with them. Who had hooked up with whom that weekend (and where and when)? So-and-so called someone a nasty name. Did you hear Sally broke up with her boyfriend … or did her boyfriend break up with her? At an all-girls prep school, drama queen was a default personality setting. Now that I’m a young-adult author, drama is my literary milieu. It provides the conflict that makes a plot. But that doesn’t mean I want it in my real life.
You expect drama from teenage girls. They’re all self-consciousness and hormones and disdain. But why does it seem some adults never made it out of that overwrought stage of life? There’s the colleague who sends interoffice memos about a shortage of English breakfast tea bags in the break room; a friend who must be talked down from the ledge every time a relationship, no matter how brief or insignificant, ends; a relative who reads your delayed acceptance of his Facebook friend request as a line in the sand. Why are some people addicted to drama?
Exciting or Exasperating?
There are certainly times when drama is sincere or even justified. Events are devastating, lives are changed, circumstances overwhelm. Sometimes drama is even pleasurable. Clinical psychologist Dr. Elaine Ducharme offers our media culture, which—no shocker here—thrives on drama, as an example. “Drama creates publicity,” she says, pointing to the precipitous ups and downs splashed across celebrity magazines and reality shows. “A little bit of drama,” she says, “can be fun.” It can shake you up and cause you to look at things in a different light. Drama becomes harmful, however, when it becomes uncomfortable, often for everyone but the instigator.
The New Oxford American Dictionary defines “dramatic” behavior as “intending or intended to create an effect.” Therein lies the reason dramatic people tend to grate on our nerves: consciously or not, drama queens are angling for a response. When someone uses excessive emotionality as a way to garner attention, the people around her, while perhaps initially sympathetic, often ultimately feel manipulated.
For some people, says Dr. Ducharme, drama is a comfort zone. Children raised in chaotic homes, especially those characterized by drug or alcohol abuse, may go on to re-create that chaos in their adult lives. For them, drama is normal. It may also be a way to avoid feelings that surface when things around them get too calm.
People also use drama for self-validation; drama queens are often full of themselves. “She thinks she’s fabulous and important and just wants other people to notice it,” the thinking goes. In fact, says Ducharme, the opposite may be true. Many drama queens are, in reality, insecure. “They don’t think they [asking for] attention,” explains Ducharme, “but creating chaos proves they exist.” A single episode of The Bachelor will confirm this notion.
When Is Drama a Disorder?
For a small percentage of people, an overdeveloped tendency toward drama is symptomatic of a deeper personality disorder. People with histrionic (or hysterical) personality disorder exhibit excessive, almost childlike emotionality and conspicuous attention seeking. They are prone to hypochondria and sexually provocative behavior. Any attention is better than no attention. Their relationships are passionate but short-lived. People with borderline personality disorder, characterized by wildly fluctuating emotions and unstable relationships and self-image, are also prone to dramatic behavior.
But while there might be drama queens in your life you’d love to tag with the “personality disorder” label, only 2 to 3 percent of the population qualifies as having histrionic personality disorder, and 2 percent can be called borderline. While someone might exhibit histrionic traits, a patient must meet specific criteria—their personality traits must be pervasive and inflexible—to be diagnosed with a disorder. Drama is the only way someone with histrionic personality disorder knows how to respond, and she has no idea she’s doing it.
Dialing Down the Drama
If you’re dealing with a drama queen in your life, the best advice is simply to walk away. Don’t let yourself get sucked into the hurricane. If your Chicken Little keeps involving you in her drama, confront her about it in as undramatic a way as possible. “Ask [her] to stop and breathe and look at what’s happening right now,” says Ducharme. Perhaps the person will see her behavior is not, in fact, getting the desired response. At the very least, you can express your discomfort and extricate yourself from the situation.
If you think someone you’re close to may suffer from a personality disorder, refer her to a licensed therapist, but keep in mind that she probably won’t recognize that her behavior and thought processes are not normal.
Just as in high school, staying out of the drama can be a challenge, but if you’re committed to living a happier, healthier life, it’s necessary. If all else fails, slap on the headphones and pump the George Michael until the storm has passed. It worked then; maybe it’ll work now.