May 7, 2021

Dear Drama Observers,

Here’s another oldie but goodie. Or… maybe it’s just an oldie.


Drama people are nothing if not perplexing. Lundy Bancroft once wrote a book entitled Why Does He Do That? in which he attempts to explain the psyches of abusive men.

Indeed, most of us are bewildered by drama people. They dump sand into our mental transmissions and leave us stranded aside the relational road wondering:

  • What just happened?
  • How could she say that?
  • What’s wrong with him, anyway?
  • What goes on in between those two ears of hers?
  • Why does he do that?

It’d be nice, wouldn’t it, if we could strap that drama person into an MRI, scan his brain and say, “There it is, right there. Just as I suspected, his mental elevator actually doesn’t go all the way to the top.”

One of my favorite writers likes to say, “He fell out of the jackass tree and hit every branch on the way down.”

If you’re a reasonable person, you would never do or say the things the drama person does. So, why does he or she do or say them?

With that set up, it might sound like I’m about to give you a fully satisfying answer to that question. So, let me tamp down your expectations a bit. I’m not sure there is a fully satisfying answer because it may vary from drama person to drama person. We all yearn for simple answers to complex questions but simplicity here usually fails to capture the complexities involved.

But I would like to give you at least a partial answer, recognizing full well that there’s more to it than just this. Most of what I’m about to explain I learned from Greg Lester, a nationally-renowned psychologist whose expertise is in working with personality disordered individuals.

Greg says that drama people are impaired by what he calls a “failure of adaptation.” Here’s what he means by that.

As normal people (a generous assumption, I realize), we have the ability to adapt ourselves to the needs of the social environment. When we’re in one setting, we pick up certain traits that are appropriate to that setting. In the next setting, we lay those down and pick up others. And in the next setting, we lay those down and pick up others. And so forth and so on. For instance, you and I don’t look, sound, and act the same way at a funeral as we might at a football game—because we adapt ourselves to the needs of the social environment. That’s called normal.

Not so with drama people who are, what Greg says, confined to “one way to be.” The drama person’s defining trait is used everywhere he goes and as long as that trait matches the needs of the social environment, it’s a wonderful quality.

For example, let’s say the drama person’s defining trait is self-assured confidence. As the leader of an organization, his underlings love his confidence and draw inspiration from it.

But self-assured confidence is all he’s got. He’s confident all right but humility is in short supply. Should he find himself in a setting that requires humility or a base-level willingness to acknowledge that he’s not, in fact, God’s greatest gift to the world, he falls back on his only trait—confidence. He has one way to be.

Confidence where confidence is required is inspiring. Confidence where humility is required is irritating.

But then, it’s also perplexing.

Greg illustrates this failure of adaptation from the world of music. Let’s say that “normal” would be represented by the musician, Billy Joel (I know, it’s a dated illustration). One night, Billy Joel plays his music in a college stadium and the place just comes unglued. The next night he plays his music with a symphony orchestra and gets polite standing ovations all night long. The next night, he plays his music in the back of a smoke-filled honky tonk and rocks the house. We call that normal because he can flex, adapt, and adjust his music to the needs of the social environment.

Now, let’s contrast the normal person with the drama person. The drama person is a player piano which only plays one tune, and the tune it plays is the theme from Jaws. If we were to place the player piano playing Jaws into the lobby of a movie theater which featured a special showing of the old movie Jaws, people would exclaim, “That is so cool. Whoever thought of that was brilliant. It just enhances the whole environment.” But take the player piano playing Jaws to someone’s wedding in which the bride must walk down the aisle to the rhythmic beat of the Jaws theme. The player piano just wouldn’t work there because there’s a mismatch between the tune and the environment. The player piano has one way to be.

The Jaws theme played at a Jaws movie is cool.

The Jaws theme at a played at a wedding is creepy.

The drama person and the player piano are both impaired by having only one way to be.

People sometimes ask about a drama person, “How can he be so wonderful over there but so lousy over here? That question can be partially answered by failure of adaptation.

Greg also cites some recent brain scan research suggesting that drama people may literally be lacking some necessary neural connections.

So, I wonder if there’ll be a future news conference in which white-coated medical personnel stand at a podium and announce, “Imaging technology now definitively confirms that Mr. Smith is two tacos short of a combination platter.”

Till next week.

1 reply
  1. Jennifer Fournier
    Jennifer Fournier says:

    What about those people who DO make adaptations- with their friends, at their church, and at work? They can act humbly in those situations, but do not with their family and intimate partners? You would think this person was just abusive and not a drama person (or, at least not personality disordered) but when the abuser actually BELIEVES their lies and can SO easily twist and turn everything you say around….
    It would seem to me there would have to be a biochemical component in this case as well and that they, too, have a disorder of personality. Hopefully I’m making sense here.

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