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Always the Victim

A guide to people who live in their own soap opera.

Dean Drobot Shutterstock
Dean Drobot Shutterstock

Never afraid to be walking clichés, cast members of reality TV shows regularly say, “I don’t want any drama!” before hurling insults at their “friends” or calling out perceived slights against them. Of course, they have a financial incentive to stir up trouble—but what about the people in your life who are always in a conflict, a crisis, or a horribly unjust situation?

It could be that they have a personality type called “need for drama,” or NFD. A few years ago, Scott Frankowski, an assistant professor at Midwestern State University in Wichita Falls, Texas, and his colleagues developed and tested a scale to measure this quality. NFD has three components: “interpersonal manipulation,” which is a tendency to control or “mess with” other people; “impulsive outspokenness,” a habit of speaking out at inappropriate times; and “persistent perceived victimhood,” a propensity for believing one is a victim in situations that others would dismiss as benign. Unsurprisingly, there is also a moderate-to-strong correlation between NFD and endorsing gossip, Frankowski says.

While the description “drama queen” is—inherent to the expression—associated with women, Frankowski’s research showed that men are equally likely to have this penchant. He has more recently found, however, that when people are presented with descriptions of dramatic behaviors, they judge women who exhibit them as less fit for leadership positions than men who display the exact same characteristics. “Women are penalized for such tendencies much more than men are.”

The Dark Side of NFD

Frankowski sees NFD as part of a constellation of personality constructs that includes the so-called Dark Triad, a character cocktail of narcissism, Machiavellianism, and psychopathy. “Most interesting,” he says, “is the strong relationship between Machiavellianism and the persistent perceived victimization factor of NFD. Those who always feel they are the victim also tend to use cold and calculating manipulation to achieve their goals. Playing the victim could be one way to do so.”

Both these attributes and those of NFD are measured on a scale; despite similarities, many people who are high on the Dark Triad scale are undramatic, and many very dramatic people are certainly not sadistic or criminal. “The traits overlap largely on the impulsivity and manipulative facets of personality,” Frankowski concludes. NFD could present problems in work settings since those high in it could bully others or engage in damaging office gossip. Some might share disinformation and conspiracy theories, as a research project completed by Frankowski’s students found.

Those who are highest on the NFD scale might also meet the clinical criteria for borderline or histrionic personality disorders, but that assessment could not be made from the NFD measure alone. Those are pathological conditions that can be diagnosed only by a clinician.

Quitting Drama Club

Are drama fiends born or made? From a clinical perspective, “usually traits like these would evolve in our family of origin,” says Rachel Wiss, LMSW, a New York City–based therapist. “People may develop dysfunctional ways of behaving, such as creating drama in their lives, in an attempt to fill some emotional need that wasn’t met during their childhood.”

While creating havoc would seem to cause stress, Wiss says, it can feel comfortable and familiar to people who have learned that it’s the way to be seen and heard—even as it generates other problems.

Although people with these attributes risk exasperating or exhausting their loved ones, there is hope that they may outgrow this behavior—older people score lower on the measure than younger ones, Frankowski says.

But for those who want to curb their own NFD now, Wiss recommends group therapy, which “can help people understand these high-drama situations in a safe environment by slowing down the pace before the drama level gets too high. It’s a chance to notice their own intentions when interacting with others. There’s often a mismatch between the intention and what ends up getting communicated, which might leave those with a high need for drama feeling isolated and victimized.”

Wiss recalls a group therapy member who would often start sessions by declaring it would be his last time participating. He would insist that he was working harder than other group members and that he was wasting his time. While his announcement evoked fear and concern in some members at first, they began to show their irritation and anger when he continued to make this threat without acting on it. In time, he came to see that his behavior was counterproductive. Instead of reverting to his standard dramatic ploy, he learned to simply express that he was feeling left out—which got everyone’s attention in the right way.

Are you a spectacle-seeker or a cool cucumber?

Find your NFD score by taking this test.

Rate how much you agree with each statement on a scale from 1 to 7 (strongly disagree, disagree, somewhat disagree, neutral, somewhat agree, agree, strongly agree).

  • Sometimes it’s fun to get people riled up.
  • Sometimes I say something bad about someone with the hope that they find out what I said.
  • I say or do things just to see how others react.
  • Sometimes I play people against each other to get what I want.
  • I wait before speaking my mind.
  • I always speak my mind but pay for it later.
  • It’s hard for me to hold my opinion back.
  • People who act like my friends have stabbed me in the back.
  • People often talk about me behind my back.
  • I often wonder why such crazy things happen to me.
  • I feel like there are people in my life who are out to get me.
  • A lot of people have wronged me.

First, reverse-score the fifth question (count a 7 as a 1 and a 6 as a 2, for instance).

Then add up all the numbers and divide by 12. The average NFD score is about 3.40, Frankowski says. If your average is 5, you have a higher NFD score than about 95 percent of the population.

Source: Scott Frankowski

Facebook image: Dean Drobot/Shutterstock