The Drama Review (February 2, 2018)

Alan E. Godwin, Psy.D.
Licensed Psychologist

Dear confused-by-drama-people readers,

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.”

6 replies
  1. survivor
    survivor says:

    I was married to a drama individual for more than 25 years. Since I left, I have been researching “why did he do that” as you referenced and even, just last week, purchased Lundy’s book! This article very enlightening and rang absolutely true to me as I can recall some very inappropriate behavior at funerals (especially my brothers’) over the years.

  2. Susan Stewart
    Susan Stewart says:

    I have attended one of your presentations in Syracuse, NY several years ago. Since then, I have moved into a supervisory role and have three first year master’s students and four LMSW’s at our agency. I have worked for many years in different settings and I am using some of your statements in demonstrating to these people how to interact with clients with drama people and those who deal with drama people every day. Your book is inspiring and now dog-eared that I bought in Syracuse. Keep sending your gems.

    • Alan Godwin
      Alan Godwin says:

      Thanks so much for your nice comments, Susan. I appreciate your input and am glad the material is useful. Always nice to hear!

  3. B. B. Cragon
    B. B. Cragon says:

    Regarding this “failure of adaptation”, Jesus said, “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you”. At a young age in my professional life it was only after I came to realize that Jesus was not saying “provide to other people only the same things/life that you want” and/or “convince others of only your point of view”. Among other things, he was asking us to search long and hard for what other people want and need and try to give it to them as they would try to do for me. Adaptation = Love

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