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8 Signs of Histrionic Personality Disorder

8. Seeing their relationships as more intimate than they actually are.

Key points

  • Histrionic Personality Disorder affects approximately 2% of the population.
  • HPD shares some characteristics of Narcissistic Personality Disorder but there are distinct differences.
  • Connections with people with HPD can be disappointing due to the uneven emotional investments in relationships

Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD) affects approximately 2 percent of the population.1 While it is diagnosed across genders, females are diagnosed with this disorder more often. Some of the “tells” that indicate a person may have HPD include excessive flamboyance in behavior, appearance, attire, and responses to those around them. Those with HPD thrive on the attention of others and go out of their way to attain it. They may embrace the role of “damsel/victim in distress” even in the most benign conditions.

Ironically, while their emotions may be unusually shallow, they tend to be “emotional exhibitionists,” acting out feelings that they can’t truly experience. Their behavior reflects powerfully charged emotional states, from one end of the spectrum to the other. They may sob uncontrollably or exhibit disproportionately strong levels of glee or high spirits. There is no in-between and they will play to an audience with unbounded enthusiasm. Individuals with HPD can reach heights of elation but then rapidly sink to depths of despair. Because they are “acting out” emotions, rather than “feeling” them, they can shift from one intense display to another. When they respond to events, it is likely to be from an internal playbook.

Because their energy is devoted to gaining the attention, and often the sympathy, of others, they learn how to project an image of themselves that grabs the spotlight they crave. Depending on their audience, they may rely on well-developed powers of seduction and sexual attraction to get noticed and capture the gaze and interest of those around them.

Career Disruption

Because individuals with HPD tend to bore easily, they may quickly tire of routines, jobs, friends, and romantic partners. Their careers may reflect multiple zig-zags and abrupt stops-and-starts as they tend to move from job to job with little regret over lost opportunities. Being fired, in fact, may be more fodder for their attention-seeking behaviors. Ditching a job, leaving co-workers, and just moving on doesn’t cause them the same concern as it might for others, due to their inability to authentically experience their lives.

Relationships Risks

Maintaining authentic relationships is challenging for people living with HPD as they have spent a lifetime “playacting” their feelings. This diminishes their ability to form intimate relationships: They are typically incapable of being honest with others since they cannot be honest with themselves. Sadly, their lack of care for deep connections can leave friends and partners feeling frozen out and empty.

The histrionic paradox is that these individuals often assume their relationships with others are much deeper and more intimate than they truly are. Because they have a limited understanding of self-intimacy or authenticity, they assume that even casual friends are “besties” or that all romantic partners or hook-ups are “soulmates.” Yet these relationships often lack substance.

Sending out sexually charged signals and dressing in sexually provocative ways may be part of the pattern for individuals with HPD. Not unexpectedly, such overt efforts to attract the sexual gaze of others can be experienced as a threat to friends whose partners may be the target of these efforts. This perceived threat can lead these friends to “break up” with the person displaying histrionic behaviors, as an act of both self-preservation and relationship protection.

Histrionic individuals tend to burn bridges in relationships, but they don’t necessarily mourn these losses the same way others might. Family members, including partners, may experience symptoms of depression or suffer from grief and isolation as they try to cope with this person's behavior. For friends and partners who have formed close relationships that they assumed were reciprocated may be baffled by the behavior of the person with HPD as they fall out of focus with that person. Histrionic individuals are able to let go of past failures and keep their eyes trained on their next potential conquest.

Kind of Narcissistic, Kind of Not

While histrionic people may crave the same level of attention that narcissists do, the type of attention that satisfies them is markedly different from what narcissists seek. Narcissists have inflated self-images which are maintained through shows of admiration and praise from others. Individuals with HPD often have low self-esteem, and their hunger for attention is satisfied whether they receive positive or negative attention. They may willingly make fools of themselves if it will get them the attention they crave; a narcissist, however, will do everything possible to avoid losing face as their self-image is everything to them.

8 Symptoms of Histrionic Personality Disorder

Individuals with these characteristics consistently engage in behaviors designed to attract the attention of others, whether they are viewed as a hero who deserves exaltation or a victim who needs rescue. To that end, they exhibit elevated levels of emotional dysregulation and use emotional displays to attract the audience, and attention, they crave. According to the DSM-5, histrionic personality disorder is typically first exhibited in early adulthood and may be diagnosed when five of these eight symptoms are exhibited:

  1. Uncomfortable when they are not the center of attention.
  2. Engages in inappropriate sexually seductive or provocative behavior to gain attention.
  3. Displays rapidly shifting and superficial expression of emotions.
  4. Consistently uses their physical appearance to draw attention to self.
  5. Uses an excessively vague style of speech that lacks detail.
  6. Engages in theatrical, performative behaviors and exaggerated expressions of emotion.
  7. Is suggestible and easily influenced by others around them.
  8. Considers relationships to be more intimate than they actually are.

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