6 steps to defuse a drama queen and get your life back

"Difficulty is inevitable. Drama is a choice." —Anita Renfroe

Stuck moment: Oh no. She’s calling AGAIN. At midnight! I wonder what her freak-out is this time… More boyfriend drama? Her boss has a concern about her project proposal? That “weird” headache she had last week is back? I guess I better answer, or I’m in for a guilt-trip next time I see her.

* * *

Like many things in life, our relationship with drama is a cultural paradox.

When we’re safely on the sidelines, drama queens can be funny or fascinating. We breathlessly track the on-screen exploits of the Real Housewives. Look for outrage in sensationalized headlines. Eagerly tune into the weatherman’s promise of a storm of a lifetime. We’ve got no problem with hyperbole and hysteria — as long as it’s not in our backyard.

But plant these tribulations in our own lives, and it’s not nearly so much fun. Sure, drama queens may reel us with their charisma and vulnerability — but the charm comes with a price. That’s because drama queens violate the primary rule of good relationships: A balance of give and take, nourished by mutual listening, empathy, interest, and respect. Drama queens crave admiration and attention, but can’t or won’t give it back.

Sound familiar? When we work with a drama queen, our days often consist of putting out their fires. If we live with one, exhaustion, recrimination, and threat negotiation are our daily bread. The result? We’re sucked dry, with less time, energy, and enthusiasm to fuel our own lives. And that’s a shame, because we’re putting ourselves second to other people’s demands.

Emotional vampires: 3 behaviors that can hurt you

Drama queens can wreak havoc in your life in so many different ways if you don’t guard against them. If a person you’re connected to shows signs of three or more of these behaviors, it might be a good idea to rethink the makeup of your relationship.

Hyperbole: Every molehill is a mountain — or a landslide that requires emergency assistance (yours).

What drama queens do:

  • Spin small anxieties (a delayed text) into outsize disasters (“he’s cheating on me!”).
  • Cry wolf at the slightest sign of trouble (might be a hypochondriac), and demanding support and/or rescue.
  • Obsess over unattainable ideals of beauty, wealth, fabulousness, etc.
  • Regularly top good/bad fortune in your life with a tale of their own.

What it does to you: You lose your sense of perspective, either adopting a skeptical outlook or assuming that disaster is around every corner.

Accusation: Because the world never grants them all they’re owed, drama queens are quick to point fingers rather than take responsibility.

What drama queens do:

  • Take minor provocations as personal affronts, whether they’re meant that way or not.
  • Find a scapegoat every time they screw up.
  • Throw others under the bus, including you, to get what they “deserve.”

What it does to you: You walk on eggshells around them, and feel guilty when good things happen to you.

Limelighting: When the spotlight slips from their self-serving interpretation of the world, they find ways to steal it back.

What drama queens do:

  • Display volatile mood shifts.
  • Cry hysterically or make other theatrical shows of vulnerability.
  • Eschew two-way conversation, but expect you to chime in on their monologue (i.e., “oh no!” or “then what?”).
  • Never remember what’s going on with you.
  • Dominate social gatherings with personal stories and demands.
  • Over-share, regardless of what’s socially appropriate.
  • Betray secrets.
  • Make threats, including self-harm.

What it does to you: You’re left in the wings with a diminished sense of self-worth.

Are you exhausted yet?



6 steps to free yourself from the drama

Psychiatrists say that drama queen behavior is wired into the brain, due to a varying combo of genetics, trauma, or other environmental factors. This person may even have a clinical personality disorder; so, short of training in cognitive psychology, there’s not much we can do to change them.

Instead, change your behavior so you can maintain your positive outlook and energy. Follow these six steps to keep yourself from being drained by a person who asks a lot without contributing back. The sixth step is optional, to be used as a last resort.

Step 1. Confront your own fascination with drama. If multiple people in your life leave you feeling harried and hounded, consider this: The common denominator is you. Ask yourself: Does a drama queen’s neediness make you feel important? Does being the sanest one in your crew ease your own sense of insecurity? Do you feel an unnecessary sense of responsibility for these people? Taking stock of your own contribution can help you shift away from them. After all, you can always get the same thrills from reality TV.

Step 2. Decode their language. You rush to the aid of your drama queen friend again and again, only to find there’s nothing wrong. When you interpret what they are really saying, you’re less likely to go over the edge with them. Download our printable tip card Decoding a drama queen’s language as a handy primer.

  • Hyperbole: “My boss hates me! I’m totally getting fired!” = They’re spinning into a vortex of negative thought because they didn’t get the positive reinforcement they crave.
  • Accusation: “You never believed in me anyway!” = They’re aggressively deflecting blame for a screw-up.
  • Limelighting: “He told me not to tell anyone, but I can tell you…” = Nothing is sacred. They’ll risk a relationship for the attention they seek.

Step 3. Set boundaries. Create some guardrails and don’t let them step over them. For example, if the person treats you as their personal 911 hotline, no matter the hour, lay out a strict schedule of your availability.

Step 4. Don’t reward their behavior. When they act out, don’t give them more attention. When they break something, don’t replace it. If they hurtle insults and threats and kick up commotion, don’t respond in kind. Take a deep breath, count your many blessings, and stay calm.

Step 5. Replenish yourself. To recharge after an encounter with a drama queen, go for a walk or meditate or put on your headphones and blast your favorite tunes. Don’t dwell on the drama because it will only keep you in the negative zone. Here’s more on self-care.

Step 6. When all else fails, distance yourself. If you’ve tried steps 1–5, and you’re still at the end of your rope, you might have to cut ties. Tell them that you need time alone to focus on you right now. Likely, their antics won’t end, so steel yourself to stop answering their demands. Yes, you’ll have to fight off guilt — especially if it’s a close relationship — but ultimately, if things are going to change, we can only change ourselves.

DOWNLOAD THIS PRINTABLE TIP CARD: Decoding a drama queen’s language




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