Behavioral Contagion: Histrionic Personality Disorder


Histrionic Personality Disorder

Individuals diagnosed with Histrionic Disorder often act as though they were “on stage” performing for a large audience. They are theatrical in the ways that they exaggerate their emotions, use drama, and use exaggerated speech. The exaggerated emotions of this personality type were once named Hysterical Personality Disorder. These individuals may dress in ways that make their physical appearance the focus of everyone’s attention. They are uncomfortable when they lose the attention of other’s and they may react in sexually suggestive and provocative ways to remain “center stage”. Others around them may initially see these behaviors as attractive, exciting or charming. However, histrionic behavior patterns make it difficult to maintain close and enduring relationships. After a time, the over-exaggerated happy and excited or profoundly upset and sad emotions become intolerable to many others. They often come to see such emotional displays as shallow and manipulative. This leads to chronic relationship problems.

A Representative Example

She was very beautiful young woman who shined and sparkled in every way. She was a bleach blond, with heavy make-up, lots of jewelry, and she dressed in short dresses with plunging neck lines. She also had the ability to move into a social setting and “take over the spotlight”. She was witty, charming, entertaining, and she had and infectious laugh that enlivened happy social occasions. The lady had a special ability to make a man think that she was attracted to him and that she was “available” to him. She “never met a stranger”, and was never at a loss for words.

The lady in question was married to her third husband who was very jealous of her flirtatious ways with other men. He did his best to satisfy her extravagant wants and desires, but she always wanted more. He did his best to raise his step son, but the boy was oppositional and defiant to him, as he treated his mother the same way. This ladies husband found his family life to be in constant conflict and turmoil.

If the husband took exception to her dramatic or flirtatious behaviors, she was “deeply wounded” and her anger at him could last for days. She was as extreme in her upset as she was in her joy and happiness.

The marriage ended when her husband found out that she had been arranging to meet a lover (another married man)when she was away on business trips.

Possible Causes

Histrionic personality disorder is thought to be caused by emotionally cold and over-controlling parents who have caused  their children to feel unloved and fearful of abandonment. These kinds of early experiences are thought, for many, to lead to extremely high needs for attention and nurturance from others in adult life. It is thought that by creating situations in which they play the role of a victim, in some form of crisis, these individuals are able to manipulate others into supporting and caring for them. Histrionic behavior patterns are thought to be a defense against a deep fear of rejection and abandonment. At other times they are extremely skilled at using different methods to remain the center of attention.

The spread of psychological problems within a population resulting from Histrionic personality disorders can occur through the ways in which these individuals treat their children. In the example above, the son became frustrated, angry and oppositional towards not only his mother and step father, but also all other adults. The series of divorces that this woman experienced was not only harmful to her son and her extended family,  but also to her husbands, their families, and any children that the husband may have brought to his new marriage. Also, in the example above, the woman had an afair with another married man which threatens to be a destructive force in that family.

V. Thomas Mawhinney, Ph.D.    4/7/10

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