Having talked about narcissists, we now turn to the histrionic. Psychologists place Histrionic Personality Disorder within the same cluster as Narcissistic Personality Disorder, but each is different, requiring unique approaches both to understanding and intervening with compassion. That said, those of us who work in the church, as well as those of you who manage organizations, know the histrionic personality. Look for drama, and you’ve found it.
As an empathetic person (in general…ask my wife if that’s true always!), I tend to be drawn to people in need. If someone is struggling, I like to consider myself a person who cares. I’m prone to show up and listen. I’m apt to be there when the proverbial sh*t hits the fan. But I learned many years ago that for some, the sh*t keeps hitting the fan, and hitting it, and hitting it, and hitting it, and hitting it. And herein lies the drama.
In your small group, they tend to have a different problem each week. “My prayer request this week is for my most recent struggle – my clothes dryer. It’s acting up again. It’s making a funny sound. I’m not sure what’s up, but I’m sure this is going to be another huge bill and another big problem.” At this point, you realize that the clothes dryer came up about 6 months ago. It’s cycling around again, literally. And guess what? You’ll likely get a call this week. “John, can you come and take a look at this? I’m sure its nothing but I could sure use your help!”
In your organization, histrionics tend to have sick days for different reasons each week. “I’m just calling to say that I need to see the doctor again.” You can’t say no, obviously, or you’d appear to lack empathy. But it keeps going. The heat is too high or too low. Email is too slow. Your cube-mate is irritating. No matter the issue, you know one thing – there will be an issue. As the manager, you expect the email, the meeting, the inevitable complaint.
In the church, it’s difficult to deal with a histrionic. After all, as Christians we are supposed to be the most compassionate. But what I often tell students (and future pastors) is that compassion may mean tough love. Histrionics can devour you, using up the last ounces of energy you have. They live in a storm of drama which, to some extent is real, but in large part masks the real struggle underneath. The key is to get to the good stuff underneath, but you must often deal with the storm before that.
The analogy is a hurricane. Histrionics live a hurricane-life. People experience them as a whirlwind. Drama surrounds them. However, in the eye of the storm is a peaceful center, a place where you can find a real person. The question is: Can you endure the hurricane? Most cannot. And this is because the hurricane comes with extraordinary damage. The winds beat you down. You feel the intensity of the drama coming at you, over and again. Histrionics come at you with a fierce resolve: I’m tired. I’m being attacked by friends again. I’m sick. I’m not sure anyone likes me. You want to be patient, loving, and compassionate. But you are quickly becoming impatient, tired of the relentless litany of struggles.
I remember seeing a histrionic for counseling. For weeks, she came in again and again with yet another story of tragedy each week. At first, I was empathetic. Then, I was confused. Finally, I got it. I was in the hurricane. I realized that there was something behind the strong winds, beneath the drama. But how would I get to it? Finally, she came in one day with a drama to top all dramas. I said, “You’ve put on quite a performance. Yet another incredible story! But here’s the deal. I don’t want to see you on stage anymore. I’d like to be invited behind the curtain, to see the real you.”
In time, she let me behind the curtain. And I saw a more vulnerable and believable person than I ever saw before. Often times, those of us who lead, whether in churches or in organizations, need to see both sides of the histrionic. The outer hurricane winds are annoying, if not destructive. However, if we endure, patiently entering into the tender and vulnerable interior, we find that real self. And that is where we can show extraordinary love and compassion – the compassion of Jesus.