322 Stephenson Avenue, Ste B
Savannah, GA 31405
Drama!!! That's what most people think of when they hear the word "histrionic." In fact, that's exactly what it means with respect to personality. Histrionic Personality is the term used to describe a person who engages in drama as the primary way of defending against the vulnerabilities they fear most. Typical traits of the Histrionic Personality include exaggerated responding, a need to be the center of attention, a seductive nature, extreme femininity in feminine histrionics and extreme masculinity in masculine histrionics, as well as a tendency to be easily influenced. Other less obvious traits include the inability to take responsibility and the inability to feel special. Although histrionic behavior is utilized frequently when a person does not actually have Histrionic Personality (for example, individuals with Borderline Personality frequently behave histrionically), for the individual who truly manifests this personality, it is the need to feel special and the inability to take responsibility that is truly at the core of Histrionic difficulties.
Typically the development of the Histrionic Personality begins very early in life. Two factors 1. the natural, self-centered nature of the infant and 2. extreme interpersonal conflict in the infant's environment, combine to create a torturous level of responsibility and a complete lack of specialness. It may sound strange, but the natural tendency of the baby, the tendency to feel that they exist at the center of the universe, gives life to the core of the problem. New-born babies have a completely chaotic experience that is structured by the parenting they receive. The baby cries and then waits for the parents to respond. From the perspective of the adult, it would seem like such an experience would lead the child to feel that nothing is in their control. To the ever-learning baby, however, the experience is more like everything is about them. They poop or pee and the foul mess is whisked away with a pleasant wipe wipe, googly bubbly noises, and a reassuring smile. They feel hungry, whimper or cry, and they're offered sweet milk from a breast or a bottle, while they bask in glorious repose with a warm pleasant body. Out of disorganized chaos of unmet needs and instincts emerges a sort of magical sense of power over the world. Unfortunately, in the world of the child who will develop Histrionic Personality, the magic does not last as long as necessary for healthy development.
Although the history of the Histrionic person typically involves a loving mother, and sometimes a loving father, as the child develops, there also tends to be dramatic conflict between their caretakers. Frequent, and vociferous arguing, with lack of resolve, dominates the experience of the child. Even worse, the actual conflict is often about the child because each parent feels the other should be doing more, or because the child's behavior is out of control (like that of the parents) and each adult argues about how to handle that behavior. Because the child feels that they are at the center of the universe and that everything happens because of them, the child starts to feel that the conflict is their fault. In fact, the child often feels as though each of the parents can only be comforted by the child. When it is the opposite sex parent that needs most of the comforting, it is quite typical for the child's behavior to become sexually charged.
The sense of responsibility for the conflict and heightened chaos, along with the feeling of being the go-to person of one of the parents during conflicts, leads to tremendous guilt. In fact, the possibility that the tearing apart of one's parents could possibly be the child's fault, in turn leads to extreme discomfort with any kind of responsibility. This is the hallmark of the Histrionic. Histrionics eschew even the most mundane kinds of responsibility as though any kind of responsibility reminds them of the trauma they experienced when their caretakers could not stand each other. In severe Histrionics, there can be almost wholesale avoidance of responsibility, while in less severe cases only social/relational responsibilities pique the pathological vulnerability.
Drama becomes a part of the picture for complex reasons. Initially, the child simply finds that the behavior they see in their parents can be used by the child to stop the parents' fighting and to get attention for themselves. On one hand, parents tend to stop fighting when kids act really badly so that they can attend to the child's behavior. On the other hand, and as indicated above, often the child's behavior leads to more fighting. Thus, while bad behavior may secure attention for the child in the short run, in the long run that attention is lost when the parents return to conflict over how to handle the child's behavior. One way or the other, the child quickly learns that only the most exaggerated behaviors get any attention at all. In the child who comforts one of the parents, very specific kinds of exaggerated responding can start to be shaped, including ways of making that parent feel special such as sexual seductiveness. It is unfortunately all too common for those cases in which a child takes to comforting the opposite sex parent that the hurt parent turns to the child for the kind of closeness that is meant to remain between adults...
Copyright 2010 Daniel A. Bochner, Ph.D. All rights reserved. Material provided on this web site is for educational and/or informational purposes only. This web site does not offer either online services or medical advice. No therapeutic relationship is established by use of this site.
322 Stephenson Avenue, Ste B
Savannah, GA 31405