Human beings need attention. They need affirming recognition and meaningful engagement. Withhold these things from a newborn, and you can literally make the baby “go crazy.”
In the book “The Healing Spirit,” author Paul Fleischman calls this attention “witnessed significance.” Children need and deserve to hear from their caregivers an unequivocal message of welcome, belonging and recognition. It matters that you are here!
Yet, in addition to healthy, normal needs for attention, the human ego also wants, seeks and sometimes provokes undue attention. A not-always-healthy attention. We demand to be noticed.
So, the attention we need and the attention we sometimes demand are two different things. Subtract the latter from the former, and with the difference you enter a most intriguing discussion of psychology and culture: histrionics!
Histrionics are a particular strategy — conscious or unconscious — for garnering attention. A histrionic personality habitually infuses inordinate emotion and self-dramatization into interpersonal and social persona. Said more simply, you’re “over the top.” Larger than life. Self as caricature.
Now, some folks possess a type/temperament that is inherently enthusiastic. High energy. Extroverted. Very verbal. This is not the same as histrionic. Extroverted, enthusiastic type/temperament is an authentic identity. Histrionic refers to a psychological motive to garner attention through the use of exaggerated, dramatic personas that regularly and presumptively overestimate the level of intimacy in relationships.
Is it bad to be histrionic? That, for me, is the most fascinating part to observe! It depends almost entirely on the utter whimsy of culture and subcultural prejudice. We call some histrionic people “colorful.” Other histrionic people are pathologized. Certain cultural identities are virtually defined by histrionics.
Ever listen to adults talk to infants, toddlers, or, for that matter, their dogs? I come home from work and assume this ridiculous singsong voice to greet my Aussie shepherd, Kelly the Wonder Dog: “Kelly’s gooood girl! What a goooood girl! Hellllooo Kelly.” This is the same way I spoke to my children when they were still in bassinets. It’s a socially accepted histrionic.
It is expected that adolescence contains lots of histrionics. In the same way your children once learned to walk, they are now learning to take the first steps in having and managing emotions. They try on exaggerated identities as fast as someone removing his shirt and donning a different one.
Histrionics can make you a fortune if you’re a huckster for any “As Seen On Television” product. The late Billy Mays, for example, was SO DAMN EXCITED about OxiClean, you couldn’t help but be happy for him. This despite making the mental note that you would kill him with your bare hands if he was your roommate.
The evangelical and Pentecostal branches of the Christian family tree seem to adopt histrionics as membership credential, especially in the South, and especially in preaching. Jesus is a simple enough name to pronounce: Jee-zuss. But, in Christian histrionics, it contains four syllables pushed through punched breathing and extended lower jaw: Jee-EE-zuh-usssss. These histrionics are accepted, welcome, and in many ways expected.
The subculture of American gay men contains a “normalized” histrionic, at least often enough to notice as a phenomenon. I discussed this recently with a gay friend who shared with me the emerging term “straight gay,” meaning a gay man who does not present sexual identity as histrionic. Interesting.
Elaborate tattoos and fierce, mutilating piercings are a kind of histrionic. Anybody with tattoo sleeves on both arms and six or seven pins in his or her nose, eyebrows, tongue, cheeks and ears definitely has a need for me to notice him or her. Frankly, I think the same thing about the absurd breast augmentations so often paraded in Las Vegas. If your Designer Breasts enter the room four to five seconds before you do, then I’m thinking you want me to notice.
Hmm. Histrionic boobs. Never thought about it like that before.
Are extreme fashion statements good or bad? Neither, I guess. But, sometimes, some of these fashions feel to me like pathos. A desperate, brittle identity.
The truth is, everyone has some need to be noticed, recognized and affirmed. The trick is deciding whether your need is somewhere in a range of “manageable normal,” as opposed to perpetual, futile attempts to heal a clamoring, broken neediness.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Las Vegas Psychiatry. His columns appear on Sundays. Contact him at 227-4165 or firstname.lastname@example.org.