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5 Things to Know When Dealing With Emotional Drama

What you need to realize when dealing with dark personalities in your life.

Key points

  • People with pathological personalities can engage with others in ways that cause relational harm.
  • These relationships may involve chronic upset, continual confusion, and ongoing conflict.
  • To manage such a relationship when one must interact, one must first realize that genuine relationship repair is likely not possible.

Personality disorders may be more common than previously thought by mental health professionals. The prevalence of such personalities (e,g., narcissistic, borderline, antisocial/psychopathic, etc.) ranges from 39 to 100 percent in mental health settings. Further, it may be as high as 15 to 19 percent of the general population, according to some estimates (Lester & Godwin, 2021). Thus, it's no surprise that some researchers suggest that most people meet at least one psychopath per day in everyday life (Babiak, O’Hare)—and it is more than likely that you have been affected by a person with a personality disorder.

According to the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5), there are 12 personality disorders. Those that tend to be the most problematic to others are in the Cluster B category (narcissistic, antisocial, histrionic, and borderline personality disorders). The terms sociopathy and psychopathy, while not formal DSM-5 diagnoses, are used to describe the antisocial personalities and behaviors in this category.

All of this can become confusing for clinicians and the general public alike because there is so much comorbidity, or overlap, between symptoms and behaviors of personality disorders. It is important not to label people unless you are a mental health professional—however, it can be helpful to recognize and acknowledge problematic personalities to be able to deal with them properly.

Individuals on this spectrum tend to display behaviors, attitudes, and beliefs that are different from those of the general population, mainly due to their biology and brain differences. Unfortunately, due to their inherent deficits and maladaptive ways of interacting, they can wreak havoc on those around them. Aside from mental health symptoms that occur in the patients themselves as a result of these negative interactions, other detrimental results may include defamation of character, turning people against others through chronic lying, or the loss of a job and/or financial troubles due to reckless or irresponsible behavior.

Pathological personalities can cause relational disruptions across cultures (Lester, 2021). They repeatedly cause upset, confusion, and conflict—also known as “drama”—in the systems and groups with whom they interact. They can cause problems at the workplace or within families, governments, or romantic relationships.

For example, therapist Sandra Brown of The Institute for Relational Harm Reduction & Public Pathology Education reported that victims of “pathological love relationships” (relationships with individuals with antisocial personality, psychopathy, etc.) may suffer from PTSD, cognitive dissonance, decreased ability to focus, anxiety, depression, and low self-esteem as a result of close and chronic exposure to a disturbed personality. The impact of having close relations can be devastating to mental health, psychological health, physical health, self-esteem, etc.

Signs of a Pathological Personality

Three common signs of the presence of a pathological personality in a relationship, family, or group are: (a) chronic upset, (b) continual confusion, and (c) ongoing conflict. These can be considered signs of dysfunctional relationships or workplaces. While there are always differences and conflicts within groups, work, and family, the signs of dysfunction reveal themselves in ongoing conflict and confusion, without resolution.

It is also important to pay attention to how you feel over time in these relationships. We know how we feel when we interact with someone with an unpleasant personality—drained, confused, worn out, or even “crazy." At times, we may start to question our own reality, often due to another person's gaslighting behaviors.

In my private practice, I work with clients who often devote a lot of time and energy—unknowingly—to people who “drain” them or cause emotional rollercoasters in their lives. Dealing with manipulative personalities is very challenging. Psychoeducation can provide the opportunity to acknowledge and accept who you are dealing with, so you may react in a different way to control your outcome.

These 5 tips can help you get started:

  1. Realize that relationship repair may ultimately not work. The other person may lack insight or refuse to take responsibility for their actions, or lack the ability to engage in self-corrective behavior. All of these, however, are needed for healthy conflict resolution. Tactics and strategies for healthy conflict resolution can only occur if the other party is emotionally mature. It is important to meet them at their level. Although you may not be able to repair the relationship at a genuine level, you can still manage the relationship with different expectations.
  2. Don’t attempt to reason with the unreasonable. The other person's emotional maturity may have been arrested at an earlier age (Gibson, 2015). Due in large part to genetic brain differences, pathological personalities may also lack adaptive personality “tool kits" (Lester, 2021). For example, their deficits may preclude them from being able to reason and repair relationships. They may lack insight, perspective-taking ("putting themselves in your shoes"), or the ability to self-correct behavior that gets them into trouble over and over again. You can’t expect someone to use something that they do not have, and so these relationships must be approached differently, if at all.
  3. Manage the relationship; do not engage. Since they may lack adaptive personality tool kits, they may automatically resort to manipulation and drama in their relationships. This can cause chaos and confusion, often with the recipient questioning their own reality. If you decide to interact with such an individual, managing the outcome is useful (Gibson, 2015). For example, if you have a family member with whom you need to interact, focus on the outcome: I would like to have a nice visit; therefore I will keep the topics light, or we can engage in a time-limited activity. Maintaining boundaries is key.
  4. Be strategic and plan responses well ahead of time. Planning your responses before interactions is an important and tactical way to avoid emotional dramas. If you plan your responses carefully ahead of time, this will minimize impulsive responses and help you avoid engaging in emotional drama. Planned responses can also help with maintaining boundaries. For example, if they are pushing your boundaries, responses can include, “I will have to think about that and get back to you,” or, “This is my decision. I appreciate your concern.”
  5. Accept limitations of the relationship. Whether you decide to maintain this relationship because it is someone you love or perhaps a co-worker you must work with, acknowledging the limitations of the relationship is useful (Godwin, 2021). These relationships will have limited depth and limited value. Cutting off contact, or estrangement, may in the end be the wiser choice, depending on the level of the abusive behavior.

This post was also published on my website.

Copyright 2022 Dr. Tracy Hutchinson


Gibson, P., & Gavin, M. (2016). Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents: How to Heal from Distant, Rejecting, or Self-Involved Parents. Tantor Media, Inc.

Godwin, A. & Lester, G. (2021). Demystifying personality disorders. Clinical Skills for working with drama and manipulation. (PESI).

Lester, G.W. (2018) Advanced Diagnosis, Treatment, and Management of DSM-5 Personality Disorders. Ashcroft Press.

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