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Understanding Histrionic Personality Disorder
(Formerly known as hysteria)
by Gary D. Hanson, M.A.
 

Twenty-seven-year-old Christy sought pastoral counseling at the request of her husband because of disillusionment over her marriage, now in its fourth year. Her church counselor was already aware of Christy because the church's worship leader had threatened to resign several times over her emotional outbursts from being turned down for a lead in the latest dramatic presentation or a special music solo.

Christy's husband, Tom, had expressed an urgent concern to their pastor after a recent event when Christy forgot their infant daughter and left her with a

Understanding Histrionic Personality Disorder

day care provider while Tom was out of town on a business trip. Christy had entered a modeling contest at a local mall, and as she basked in the attention of the local talk show cameras, the thought of her daughter, now in the care of a disgruntled day care employee, completely slipped her mind. This event—just one in a series of similar incidents—had triggered yet another bitter argument over Christy's lack of attention to her daughter and to Tom himself. Reluctantly, Christy agreed to discuss her issues with a pastoral counselor.

During the initial interview Christy was warm and charming. She maintained good eye contact and was dressed attractively and a bit provocatively. Struck by Christy's rapid changes in emotion, the counselor noticed that one minute she was smiling with elation, the next erupting into tearful sadness. The picture Christy painted of her life was one of extremes. She just didn't understand why her "fabulously handsome" husband could not understand her need for self-expression and her gift of adding life to any social setting. Christy "absolutely adored" her "precious" daughter who was an "angel" in her eyes, but who seemed to take after her father in being demanding of Christy's attention. As Christy moved from excited speech regarding her personal accomplishments to tears over her lack of understanding from her husband and daughter, she frequently used a compact mirror, stopping at one point to touch up her eye makeup before continuing the discussion.

When she (Christy) doesn't receive the
attention she craves, she can quickly lose
her charming style and become angry,
pouty, rude, or condescending.

From Christy's outward appearance, she could pass as a fashion model, actress, or TV talk show host. She is attractive, gregarious, energetic, and has a dramatic flair that often makes her the life of the party. She is acutely attuned to her surroundings, an astute judge of the likes and dislikes of others, and a ready resource for the latest fashion trends. But that is only one side of the story.

Sometimes Christy's style turns out to be more of a curse than a blessing. Although she impresses people positively upon a first meeting, she never develops any deep, committed relationships, and her shifting moods eventually start wearing on those around her. Her consuming need for approval and desperate striving to draw out affection are just too much. And no matter how much attention she receives it is never enough. Her thirst is unquenchable but her efforts persistent. When she doesn't receive the attention she craves, she can quickly lose her charming style and become angry, pouty, rude, or condescending. These shifting moods leave her family, friends, and acquaintances hurt, bewildered, put off or mistrusting and cause them to keep their distance—the very thing Christy fears the most.

In addition to creating interpersonal problems, Christy's need to constantly evoke attention has another downside. She is constantly under pressure to perform and she is emotionally susceptible to the approval or disapproval of everyone she meets.

None of Christy's traits or attributes are negative in and of themselves. In fact, most of them are very enjoyable in moderation. But when they all come together in one person in a pronounced way, they cause serious problems and reflect a personality maladjustment known as Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD).

While both men and women develop Histrionic Styles, they show them somewhat differently. Men with this disorder often dress and behave in a "macho" manner and seek attention by bragging about their "manly" activities. Women, on the other hand, tend to choose very feminine clothes and attract attention through charming, seductive, or helpless behaviors.

Histrionic Personality Disorder has a long history dating back some 4,000 years when it was called hysteria. Today, the histrionic personality can be thought of as ranging from acceptable, mildly dramatic behavior, to unhealthy, potentially risky behaviors or characteristics. Individuals who display a few histrionic characteristics but function in generally healthy interactions with others are characterized as having a Histrionic Personality Style. Individuals who exhibit serious dysfunctional characteristics are clinically diagnosed as having Histrionic Personality Disorder. Here are some of the main characteristics and personality dynamics of Histrionic Personalities.

Continued on Page Two

 
   
   
   
   
         
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