Understanding Histrionic Personality Disorder
False Assumptions About Life
Along with their distinctive emotional, relational, and intellectual styles, histrionic individuals tend to hold a certain set of largely unconscious assumptions or beliefs about themselves and what they need to do to have a good life. They believe, for example, that to have meaningful relationships with others means they must be the center of the group with others playing the role of attentive audience. They believe things like: "Unless I captivate people, I am nothing." "If I can't entertain people, they will abandon me." Or, "If I can't captivate people, I am helpless or no good!"
Because of their unrealistic views of themselves and life, people with histrionic personalities are constantly setting themselves up for failure, rejection, and frustration. No one can always be the center of attention! When they aren't, they either conclude that they are worthless or that other people are bad for not constantly affirming them. So they either feel depressed or resort to crying, tantrums, assaultive behaviors, or even suicidal gestures to get their way, gain attention, or to punish a perceived offender. Tom wept as he described his many attempts to show Christy love and affection only to be chastised and ridiculed for his efforts or incorrect timing.
Since histrionic individuals believe it is necessary to be loved by virtually everyone for everything they do, they also have an exaggerated fear of rejection. Any hint of rejection is devastating, even when the person doing the rejecting is not actually important to the histrionic person! Feeling basically inadequate, yet desperate for approval, they feel they can never relax and leave the gaining of approval to chance or the good will or love of others.
Causes and Dynamics
Researchers have found that histrionic adults tended to display a high degree of vacillating or erratic emotions from infancy and early childhood. They are also more likely to be hyper responsive and to look to others for gratification from the time they are quite young. This suggests some physiological predisposition to a hysterical style. These inborn tendencies alone, however, are insufficient to cause someone to develop a Histrionic Personality Disorder. The histrionic person's self-perception and excessive need for attention have nearly always been deeply influenced by their early family environment and relationships. Something happened in those relationships to program them for an exaggerated search for attention.
Although every person is different, one parenting style often experienced by the potentially histrionic personality is characterized by reciprocity. That is, the parent or other significant person communicates, "I'll give you attention, if you do X." This, of course, trains the child to look for cues of what to do to gain approval. All parents do some of this with few or no negative consequences. But when a child with an especially strong inborn sensitivity to others grows up in a home with a constant diet of these messages, he or she can become programmed for the excessive search for attention that influences the development of histrionic personalities.
The histrionic person's self-perception and
excessive need for attention have nearly
always been deeply influenced by their
early family environment and relationships.
This parenting style is closely related to conditional love and approval. The child receives attention and affection when he performs in a way that meets his parents' approval, but is ignored, or even punished at other times. Christy, for example, described her family of origin as "the perfect family." But her counselor noticed that she emphasized the praise she received when she performed for her parents in social settings in contrast to their general lack of attention and support in any other area of life.
Another parenting style that can lead to the development of histrionic patterns is one of minimal or inconsistent discipline combined with rewards for attention-getting antics. On the one hand, the child is not taught to take responsibility and reflect on his misbehavior or the needs of others. On the other, his attention-getting behavior gets frequent attention.
All of these problems in family relationships are troubling for a growing child. Instead of feeling loved for who he is, he learns that he is only appreciated, cared for, or affirmed for what he does. This leaves him feeling empty and unloved. Since those feelings are so painful he begins to pay especially close attention to the approval of others and to behaving in ways that are calculated to elicit the longed for attention.
This shift from feeling good about being ones true self to trying to become what others want in order to be loved is a life altering movement. People with a healthy sense of self have a strong inner sense of who they are, what they like and dislike, and their values and commitments. They value other's opinions but they aren't at the mercy of them. They have a realistic understanding of themselves and know their strengths and weaknesses. These people can enter into deep relationships and make lasting commitments, but they can also be alone without feeling anxious and abandoned.
Histrionic Personalities and others without this healthy sense of self tend to be unaware of their true feelings and their likes, dislikes, and values. They become dependant on others, constantly search for attention, or engage in work or other activities to shore up their shaky self-esteem since they are unable to sit even briefly with their uncomfortable feelings. This discomfort is what drives the histrionic person to constantly seek attention.
In a real sense, the histrionics' constant search for attention and affection represents a core struggle of our fallen human race. We all tend to want to earn love and acceptance, rather than accept it as a gift from God and others. We don't want to fully face the depth of our sinfulness and needs, and our inner hurts and pain. And we find all kinds of ways to avoid facing ourselves honestly. But histrionic personalities have exaggerated struggles in these areas and their struggles impact their spiritual lives as well as their emotions and relationships.
Continued on Page Four