dealing with difficult people :: histrionics

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.

4 comments

  1. Enjoyed your article. But I dealt with a histrionic for 5 yrs – a major roller coaster that ended very suddenly when “Mr. Drama” was finally busted for cheating. Finally had the proof and he couldn’t deny. Is there a vulnerable/tender person inside that predatory user? Maybe. But the chances of that histrionic allowing themselves to be made “vulnerable” = the very thing they are terrified of – is about as likely as finding snowballs in you know where. Your experience has got to be considered one of the MOST rare that I’ve ever heard of. Being histrionic is an ingrained behavior – it’s their method of survival having been traumatized at a very young age. Do you fix it? No. Can you give them coping techniques? Maybe. But by the time the histrionic is 59 yrs old – what are the chances of them wanting to change.. or being able to? Most will never admit they are wrong – or have a “problem”…. If you managed to break thru this “hurricane wall” to find this broken inner child… I’d say YOU are nothing less than a miracle worker.

    1. I hear you. And you’re right…it’s a hurricane wall, and extraordinarily hard to break through. Yes, I really do believe that within the hurricane is the calm eye of the storm, the center, a vulnerability. But often times, those with what psychologists call “personality disorders” are hardest to counsel. You don’t feel as if you can get past their walls. As Henri Nouwen might say using a different metaphor, “Much has happened in their lives to create those clenched fists.” And then, even more, there is a component of nature, of biology, of heredity. I’m sorry for your pain.

  2. hello. i googled histrionics in the church and your post came up. i read it and thought it was good, but not a TRUE depiction of what a histrionic is. its it so much more than just someone who what a problem this week and another the next…. histrionics have no sense of reality, take zero accountability and will ruin and distroy all things in its path. these behaviors are much more than what a few church counseling sessions could fix. these behaivors are so engrained that it is more than a behavioral disorder, it is mental illness.

    with that said, i was raised by a histrionic mother. my life growing up with her was a living hell. her verbal and physical abuse still lingers in my brain and every memory i have of holidays, birthday and social atherings have been tarnished by the abusive antics of her. a hystorionic will do anything in their power to be the center of attention, even when they are miles away. they have no guilt, no remorse, no im sorrys and nothing but finger pointing, deflecting and blaming. growing up my friends were not allowd to come over because their parents didnt want them in our house. at school my teachers would weekly pull me into the hall way to ask me if i needed help and what the extent of the abuse was. as a teen i developed severe self hatred and look to please everyone at the same time. i hated being her daughter and was seeking the approval that i never recieved from my mother. i could go on and on, but i know exactly how distructive this illness can be.

    i eventually got married and my husband is a minister. my mother was so threatened by the “authority” i married into that she tried to suck the very life out of our marriage. making herself and her antics the center of everything evn when she wasnt home. when we refused to give into her behavior she would twist and manipulate scripture, mock our callings and accuse us of treating her how she in fact was treating us (one of the main crazy things a histrionic does.) a little while later we had a first son who was special needs. for a hystrionic to have a special needs child as a their grandchild is like a kid in the candy store.  in a nut shell, one thing you were correct on was that yes, it is hard to weather the storm of a hystrionic, if not nearly impossible, because for a true hystrionic the storm never ENDS. tough love is right, and being a christian doesnt mean people can  ruin your life. my mother stole my childhood. she robbed me of my youth. and was continuing right into my marriage and my role as a mother to my own children. many tears have been shed in mourning of the fact that i will never have  a true mother. but sometimes god gives us the authority to say this is ENOUGH. and gives you the authority to put your foot down and say NO MORE to your ABUSER. regardless if its your own family. abuse is abuse. i am well adjusted and god has blessed me and restored me. but the flesh struggles daily in the fears of “what will she do next.” thats just a glimps of living with a hystrionic. 

    1. Married to one for nine years now, just found out her behavior was a disorder of this magnitude. Always knew there was something wrong. It’s an extreme case, daily routine includes every aspect of the disorder. It’s hard to live with. Draining doesnt quite explain it. How do you get someone diagnosed that doesn’t know they’re ill? It’s a very sad and complicated issue. I’m in the military and have left for deployments ext. This has added fuel to the fire and I believe I have and am experiencing the real thing. These people are the absolute grand masters of making you look like an idiot if you tell someone they are abusing you. Are there any cases where someone has turned this around? And yes, I’ve prayed and thousands of prayers and its continuously gotten worse and on a grander scale

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