How many of you have a friend, relative or coworker who just won’t let up? Someone who constantly calls or gets together with you to bend your ear with a long-winded story about some insult or “catastrophe” that’s really no big deal and whose tale you’ve heard over and over again. On the one hand, you’re sure that you should compassionately listen and offer help. On the other, this person’s ongoing “problems” are a huge drain on your time and energy—and worse, the complainer doesn’t take your advice and may even get mad at you for offering it!
What can you do about these hyper people who constantly create crises for themselves and make mountains out of molehills? Face it. These friends, relatives or coworkers are addicted to drama. They can be charming, compelling or even fascinating as they spin a tale or spill their guts, but when they draw you too deeply into their experience, you become drained—and even feel used. Clinical psychologist and Daily Health News columnist Judy Kuriansky, PhD, has this advice about how to spot and deal with a drama addict…
First, recognize that drama addiction is a real mental health problem. “Being overly emotional was once called hysteria, regarded as a bona fide mental health condition. Nowadays, it’s referred to as histrionic personality disorder, and that refers to behaviors that are emotionally excessive, exaggerated and attention-seeking,” said Dr. Kuriansky.
Like other forms of addiction, being addicted to emotionalism and creating drama is (ironically) a way to escape real emotion. Although it seems as if drama addicts are expressing their true feelings, their “look-at-me” flights into either doom and gloom…or glory and grandiosity…can often be a way to avoid and compensate for feelings of worthlessness…feelings that can frequently be traced back to how they were treated during childhood. So when a drama addict starts emoting about some incident, you might want to keep in mind that something more subtle and complex may be behind this behavior.
Also, trust your own reaction. “You know that you are dealing with a drama addict if you have a gut sense that what’s being said is sensationalized, overacted and doesn’t match the situation,” said Dr. Kuriansky. A friend who constantly bends your ear about how much he or she sacrifices for family in spite of abuse or neglect…or who has to recount every minute detail of constant fights and makeups with a romantic partner…is probably a drama addict. “In addition, notice how frustrated, angry or ignored you feel when you offer advice to the person,” Dr. Kuriansky added. Drama addicts do not care about what you have to say unless it’s to egg them on. They simply want an audience, which leads to Dr. Kuriansky’s next points.
Be on guard about how and why you might get sucked into someone else’s drama. After all, emotional intensity can be exciting and even seductive. “This is where drama addicts can become manipulative. They can bend you to their will by playing on your guilt or common decency, by acting helpless, scared or demanding. They may even threaten suicide to get their way,” she warned.
What to do?
“Set limits,” advises Dr. Kuriansky. “Responding to someone else’s constant inflated crises can be exhausting and emotionally draining. Don’t be afraid to establish boundaries about what you will and won’t do for or with the drama addict, taking into account the nature of the relationship.” If the person is a casual acquaintance, it’s probably best to keep your distance to keep your sanity, says Dr. Kuriansky. If the drama addict is a coworker, keep interactions formal and brief, avoid sharing personal information and, if possible, include other coworkers in any projects shared with the drama addict to defuse contact.
When friends and relatives are drama addicts, you may similarly want to consider distancing yourself. Don’t initiate calls to the person, be too busy to get together and consider discontinuing or limiting social engagements such as buying season tickets to the community theatre together or sitting next to each other at the pool or the big family dinner party. Especially don’t ask leading questions. And instead of listening endlessly to repetitive complaints, speak up and say, “Yes, you already told me that,” and change the subject.
If you want to help the person, let him or her vent, but then ask to hear what happened instead of how the person feels about it. Also ask the person to speak in a calmer tone. Say simple sentences to show caring. (“I can understand”), but refocus the conversation on a solution. (“What can be done to solve the problem?”)
Granted, you may want to help, but if the theatrics wear you thin, shift the subject to a topic that is simple and unemotional or end the conversation. Admit, “I can’t listen right now, you’ll have to excuse me.” Or share, “Your high pitch is upsetting me too much now.” Do be aware that you may pique the person’s denial, resentment or blame when you either shift the conversation to a solution or excuse yourself from it.
If the person’s panic is persistent or spells danger (for example, a threat to commit suicide or hurt someone), insist that he or she seek professional help, said Dr. Kuriansky. After all, you’re not a therapist (and if you are, you’re not this person’s therapist!), and when kind compassion becomes a burden, remember it’s not your responsibility to be an unwilling sounding board or punching bag for a drama addict.