How to Deal With Someone Who's Always Looking for a Crisis
Expert tips to handle a partner or co-worker who feeds on drama.
Posted Oct 07, 2014 | Reviewed by Devon Frye
Perhaps you know someone who constantly feels that the bottom is about to fall out of life. (Perhaps you're this type yourself.) Running from one emergency to another, these individuals carry out virtually all everyday tasks with a sense of high drama. They’re either late, almost late, or afraid of being late. Situations at work or home mushroom out of control, and they’re constantly letting everyone know just how bad it is. Lengthy phone calls, meetings, or exclamation-filled emails provide all the gory details.
Crisis-prone individuals don’t just like to live in a state of high alert—they seem to relish being called upon to fix all those problems that are causing the crisis. Call them “fixers." They may not be called upon to perform virtual CPRs on their company or friends, but they do seem to rise with unnatural enthusiasm to save the day.
Psychology’s take on the crisis-prone individual is that this combination of behaviors may represent one or more personality disorders. Specifically, according to a chapter in an edited academic book on crisis intervention, psychologists Gina Fusco and Arthur Freeman (2007) believe that people who become crisis-prone patients are in the so-called “Cluster B” of personality disorders, a designation meaning that they represent some combination of borderline, histrionic, psychopathic, and narcissistic trait designations. The crisis-prone person, Fusco and Freeman propose, finds that “waking in the morning and having to cope with life’s daily events is fraught with potential crises and the resulting angst.”
Cluster B personality disorders represent those people who seek—if not revel in—drama, become worked up over small problems, and tend to see themselves as the center of their all-too-frenetic universes. Perhaps less understandable is the psychopathic part of the crisis-prone profile. Not every crisis-prone individual is psychopathic, of course. But where being crisis-prone may overlap with being psychopathic is in the tendency to exaggerate, if not lie, about the gravity of an emergency. It’s also possible that the emergency becomes part of the justification that the psychopathic individual has to be ruthless or to take steps to assure that his or her leadership skills are in fact needed to resolve the crisis.
Assuming that we have the diagnosis behind the crisis-prone individual’s personality, the question then becomes one of managing the havoc in everyone else’s life that this such a person can cause. Following the steps that Fusco and Freeman recommend to reduce symptoms in crisis-prone patients, the best approach is one that works on both cognition and behavior. Each of the Cluster B personality disorders is potentially amenable to cognitive-behavior therapy, in which clients are helped to see their world in a new light and are reinforced when their behavior starts to change.
Much, of course, depends on the context in which you know this individual (or, indeed, if you are such an individual yourself). At work, you’ll face different scenarios than in the home. For crisis-prone co-workers, bosses, or employees, the key is to start by managing your own reactions. It’s all too easy to take on the “sky is falling” mentality of such individuals. They announce that the organization is about to dissolve, that warring factions will kill the company or institution, or that a coming deadline presents a mandate for emergency action.
To handle the crisis-prone individuals at work, instead of taking them at face value, look at the situation objectively and ask whether this is a real or manufactured crisis. If it’s real, then, by all means, action will be needed. If it’s manufactured to put this individual at center stage, then keeping your cool will help others see that the problem doesn’t require an immediate solution, and provide a disincentive for the individual to keep pursuing the emergency mentality.
One thing to keep in mind is that some people are drawn to occupations that require the crisis-prone approach. Obviously, if the individual is in emergency management, hedge fund investment, or the news media, for example, responses to crises are part and parcel of the job. Even if this is the case, having insight into the crisis-prone personality can still be of value, and learning some time-management skills might also come in handy.
The sense of self-importance that these occupations reinforce becomes problematic when people carry that entitlement into other contexts, such as close relationships or the family. People in these types of jobs need support and understanding but they also need to learn how to compartmentalize. Carrying your sense of self-importance from the job into your personal life can get old very quickly for a spouse, family member, or friend who can only put up with so much self-absorption.
Being crisis-prone in relationships means that you’re constantly creating drama with your significant other. People with these tendencies tend to look for arguments just to create diversion or stimulation, or perhaps to allow themselves to come to the rescue when things go wrong. The crisis-prone can also become addicted to makeup sex. They thrive on emotional highs and lows and get turned on by any emotions—but sex seems a whole lot better to them when it follows an argument.
Dealing with a crisis-prone partner, then, means that you need to be prepared for storm clouds in an otherwise calm sky. When you see a conflict start to take shape, don’t get drawn in. Try to figure out what’s going on with your partner to see if something’s really wrong or if it’s just boredom provoking a need for stimulation. Addressing those needs can subvert the argument altogether. And if it’s you who tends to seek crisis, similarly, try to gain insight into what needs this conflict might fulfill. Makeup sex may be exciting, but it’s better for your relationship if there’s nothing to make up for in the first place.
Whether at work or in relationships, the crisis-prone benefit from an approach that helps them restructure their thoughts and realign their reinforcements. This involves helping to distinguish a real crisis from a manufactured one and finding rewards from equanimity rather than upheaval.
You may not always have a choice about which experiences become crises, but you can choose how you respond. Even individuals whose personality predisposes them to seek the adrenaline rush or sense of power from a crisis can gain learn to gain fulfillment from a life that’s less emotionally charged but more rewarding in the long run.
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Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D., 2014
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Fusco, G. M., & Freeman, A. (2007). The crisis-prone patient: The high-arousal cluster B personality disorders. In F. M. Dattilio, A. Freeman (Eds.) , Cognitive-behavioral strategies in crisis intervention (3rd ed.) (pp. 122-148). New York, NY, US: Guilford Press.