July 20, 2018

Dear Drama Observers,

If you’ve been reading this weekly missive for a while, surely you’ve noticed a recurring theme of mine—the confusion that surrounds Drama People.

I saw a client for the first time recently and she described her Drama Person in a way I’d never heard before. . . But I liked it.

“It’s like he’s too wide for my head to contain,” she said as she put her hands out about 8 inches from either side of her head. “If I move him over this way, I only see his good qualities. If I move him over that way, I only see his rotten qualities. But I can never get all of him to fit inside my head at the same time.”

I liked her illustration because it gets to the heart of what makes Drama People so baffling and bewildering. We grind our mental gears wondering, “How can they be so horrible on some occasions but so wonderful on others?” Those things just don’t go together. Perhaps Henry Wadsworth Longfellow struggled with a similar vexation when he penned the words,

There was a little girl,

Who had a little curl,

Right in the middle of her forehead.

When she was good,

She was very good indeed,

But when she was bad she was horrid.

The curl on the forehead of Longfellow’s girl represented the split point, with all the good being on one side of the split and all the bad being on the other. We sometimes use the word compartmentalized to describe such people.

My wife and I love historical stuff to the point where you’d be justified in calling us history nerds. We were working around the house this past weekend and pulled out an hours-long documentary on the Kennedys to watch while we did some other things.

Like many others, I’ve always found President Kennedy to be a fascinating figure. Indeed, there’s a certain intrigue surrounding the whole Kennedy clan. Whether or not one agrees with their politics, they make for a compelling story.

As we watched this documentary, I realized that at least part of my fascination with Kennedy has to do with his splits. He was this way on the one hand but that way on the other.

  • On the one hand, he was ruggedly handsome and the very essence of strength and virility. On the other hand, he was in poor health and constant pain and kept in his entourage a shadowy figure nicknamed “Dr. Feelgood” who gave him amphetamine injections several times a day.
  • On the one hand, he was a devoted family man. On the other hand, he was an inveterate womanizer.
  • On the one hand, he led us through the Cuban missile crisis with cool reserve and steadiness. On the other hand, his previous blunderings with Khrushchev may have helped precipitate the crisis.
  • On the one hand, he was a champion of civil rights. On the other hand, he was a latecomer to the civil rights movement, having previously shown little interest in the cause.

My purpose here is not to bash Kennedy; like I said, I’ve always found him somewhat mesmerizing. And though the documentary accurately chronicled both sides of his splits, it was pretty favorable to the Kennedy legacy.

At one point, a close family friend was interviewed who attempted to describe his contrasting features. She said, “I think he always lived his life in compartments.” There were the public compartments containing his laudable features alongside concealed compartments containing his despicable aspects.

Joe Kennedy, who had trained his sons well in the art of image-management, used to teach them, “It’s not who you are in life that’s important. It’s who people think you are that’s important.” From his earliest years, young John had learned to compartmentalize himself, openly displaying his positives while keeping his negatives under wraps. As I watched the documentary, it occurred to me that Kennedy was “too wide for my head to contain.”

Our brains aren’t wired to handle such incongruencies and when we encounter them, we’re left with a feeling of being discombobulated. In clinical terms, that discomfort is called cognitive dissonance—the uneasiness we experience when opposing sets of traits are simultaneously true. But since we’re wired to avoid discomfort, it’s very natural to slide one set of traits out of view so that only one set remains. This act reduces the dissonance.

That is precisely what Drama People count on their audience to do. To “get along,” we’re required to disregard their negatives and applaud their positives. As the Wizard says in the Judy Garland classic, The Wizard of Oz, “Pay no attention to the man behind the curtain.” Getting along requires participation in the pretense, thus bending reality in favor of their better traits. Every time we acquiesce to that obligation, it diminishes us just a little bit more. In short, we get along with liars by morphing into liars ourselves.

I have another client in similar circumstances to the one mentioned above. She’s a really kind person who gives others the benefit of the doubt . . . to a fault. The guy she’s been dating is “so sweet” and has “such a good heart.” Well, that’s in one compartment. In the other compartment is a self-serving creep who’s driven by his own needs to the exclusion of hers. She’s told me often, “I can’t stand what’s happened to me. I’ve become somebody I’ve never been.” By disregarding his negatives as a way of holding onto his positives, her corrupt boyfriend has corrupted her. But that matters not to him. It never does to Drama People.

To her great credit, she’s recently taken a courageous step—one that cuts against every fiber of her being. She’s stretched her head out to see both sides of his split and determined she’s no longer willing to overlook his negatives and the detrimental effects they’ve been having. She’s ended this toxic relationship, giving her a way to reclaim her previous self. In effect, her stance has become, “I’ll no longer give up me to be with you.”

These are the fork-in-the-road decisions required for those in relationships with Drama People. One road leads to Drama Person connection, but with it comes the loss of self. As the Eagles sang in Hotel California, “you can check out any time you like, but you can never leave.”

The other road may very well lead to Drama Person disconnection but enables you to keep your self, your beliefs, your principles, your integrity, and your honor.

It all sounds so easy but if you fail to take into account both sides of the split . . . not so much.

Here’s a good rule of thumb for life—Truth is our best ally.

Till next week.

6 replies
  1. Adele
    Adele says:

    It’s too bad their other side sometimes takes so long to appear. We end up mourning the loss of what we thought they were. They can steal our time and feelings being charming and sweet. Beware of too much charm and sweetness. I value honest people.

  2. survivor
    survivor says:

    I thoroughly enjoyed that explanation of cognitive dissonance. It is so confounding when you experience it. Your descriptive account through the eyes of your client, coupled with the example of the Kennedy family, helped to illustrate it to keenly. Thank you.

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Thanks so much for your feedback. I’m glad to hear that it helped. And you’re exactly right–it is indeed confounding when you experience it.

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