The Science Behind Drama Queens and Kings

Joel Eisenberg

If you or someone you know experiences emotional exhibitionism on the part of an associate or loved one, do not give up. Help is available.
Emotional ExhibitionistsiStock


Overt displays of emotionality of the likes frequently considered “over-the-top” or attention-getting by those not prone to the trait is an issue as complex as it is glaring. While many believe such behaviors are largely emotional exhibitions, consisting of deliberate mannerisms and speech patterns that can be considered egocentric on the part of the exhibitionist and annoying to those in their purview, those who fall within this realm are frequently labeled by professionals as sufferers of a legitimate mental illness.

Though the pejorative term “drama queen” has for many years been generally utilized by a dismissive public to describe such people, the lesser-used “drama king” has also recently found favor.

Both Scientific American and Psychology Today have extensively covered the tendencies of so-called “drama-prone” individuals, while shares this explanation of an overriding disorder: In modern culture, these people are frequently called drama queens. But in psychology, they are labeled as suffering from Histrionic Personality Disorder (HCD). A personality disorder is pervasive, meaning it exists in all environments such as work, home and community. Individuals who fall into this category seem to have a constant flow of drama following them everywhere.

Immediate gratification and disapproval over not being the center of attention are hallmarks of the disorder, but often the extreme side of both behaviors are outside of any deliberate action.

The Science Behind the Drama

A strongly-cited Wikipedia entry on Histrionic Personality Disorder can be found here. The disorder is characterized in the current edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the DSM 5, as the following: A pervasive pattern of excessive emotionality and attention-seeking, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts, including inappropriate sexually seductive or provocative behavior, rapidly shifting and shallow expression of emotions, usage of physical appearance to draw attention to self, speech that is excessively impressionistic and lacking in detail,
self-dramatizing, theatrical, and exaggerated expression of emotion is suggestible, i.e., easily influenced by others or circumstances considers relationships to be more intimate than they actually are.

When I taught special education for a decade, my students were primarily at-risk: substance abusers, severely emotionally disturbed children and adults, and gang members were my primary population. I dealt with egocentric personalities on a daily basis. Similarly, when I was student teaching prior to satisfy my Abnormal Psychology minor, my in-person experiences with these students mirrored the volumes I was assigned to read.

Today, HCD is not only a disorder as listed in the DSM, but with the World Health Organization (WHO) as well.

The WHO publishes a regularly-updated listing, called the International Statistical Classification of Diseases and Related Health Problems (ICD). The current ICD-10 also defines HCD: A personality disorder characterized by: shallow and labile affectivity, self-dramatization, theatricality, exaggerated expression of emotions, suggestibility, egocentricity, self-indulgence, lack of consideration for others, easily hurt feelings, and continuous seeking for appreciation, excitement and attention.

Note: Both the DSM and ICD must satisfy a general personality disorder criteria prior to formal classification.

How to Cope With Drama Queens or Kings

Licensed Professional Counselor Paul Chernyak wrote a terrific article on how best to deal with the dramatic personality. His advice includes establishing boundaries, not engaging with drama, and making an effort to redirect dramatic behavior. Further, he reminds us that said behaviors may be mental illness-related — as with Bipolar Disorder as an example — and though it is not your job to find the sufferer help, he suggests to gently encourage said individual(s) to seek it out for themselves.

Perhaps most importantly, as someone who deals with an emotional exhibitionist, a neutral term I prefer to use without regard to a specific underlying cause, understand that you are under no obligation to shoulder their burden. This is another important point brought up by Paul Chernyak, LPC, in his linked article, above.

In Conclusion

Whether we refer to emotionally needy individuals as “Drama Kings” or “Drama Queens,” “emotional exhibitionists” or sufferers of HCD, the truth remains, as with all things, that there is an underlying cause in all cases. To reiterate, whether that cause is mental health-related or not, should not be your determination. Again, if you would like to do something for a sufferer, I would suggest gently asking them to seek help.

Refer this link from for a sufferer to find an HCD specialist or therapist.

If the HCD personality does not believe they need help and yet their symptoms are overt, you may want to consider distancing yourself, if you can, from the situation.

Your life is important too, as is the preciousness of your time. There is nothing wrong with politely advising a person to find help if they want to “get better.” During our present Covid-19 pandemic, the world is full of anxiety, and many are acting out upon it. Sometimes, one who suffers simply does not consider asking for help. If your words are not taken in the spirit intended, that is no reflection on you.

If they are, you may have even saved them.

Thank you for reading.

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I am an award-winning author, screenwriter for film and television, and producer. My mission on News Break is to share socially important perspectives on both culture and pop-culture. Member of PEN America, and the WGA.

Northridge, CA

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