Drama Queens and the Brain

I spoke this week at a Kiwanis meeting and thought what I shared with them might be of interest to you as well. I began by illustrating that while we are all so different, we are also, in many ways so much alike. To prove my point I asked them to draw a big 6 with their right hand, and then a big 9 with their right foot. Most were easily able to accomplish these tasks. Then I asked them to do both at the same time and that is when their human frailty and inability came to the forefront. Not a person in the room could summon the mental and physical coordination required to do both at once.

I know you’re going to want to see if you’re the one who can do it, so I’ll wait. Please be seated for this exercise to minimize the damage when you fail. I don’t mind if you fail, I just don’t want you to fall.

To further prove my point that we share commonalities I asked them to hold up their right thumb and then extend only their left forefinger. Again, most were able to comply with my request. I then asked them to switch hands and hold up their left thumb and extend their right forefinger. Again, success was prevalent throughout the room. But then I asked them to continuously switch back and forth as rapidly as they could – and that’s when the laughter began, and feelings of clutziness began to appear.

Another way we are all so similar is that we all have basic human needs beyond those of food, clothing, and shelter. We have certain relational needs which must be met if we are to do life well and to function at our optimal potential. Among the most common relational needs are Acceptance, Affection, Appreciation, Approval, Attention, Comfort, Encouragement, Respect, Security and Support.

For most of us, three of these ten will carry more weight than the others. Often this is because we got these needs met in our childhood and they contribute to our mental and emotional well-being. It is also true that we might need them because they were not met in our past and their absence is problematic.

If you and your mate would like to know each other’s top three emotional needs, send me an email to ron@productiveoutcomes.com, and I’ll send you the link to an inventory which will help you identify them and determine how to best meet those needs in your relationship.

While all ten are important, today I want to focus on one particular need we all share, but one which if taken to the extreme can be problematic to the person and to those connected to him or her. The need to which I refer is Attention. Again, we all have a basic need for attention. Babies who receive sufficient amounts of food, clothing, and shelter, but are denied human contact and attention suffer what is known as Failure-to-thrive Syndrome, an ailment so severe it often results in death.

People who crave and seek out excessive attention are often called Drama Queens who, by the way, can be of either gender. Pause for a moment and consider if you know anyone who you feel falls into this category. I’m curious, do you consider these folks to be people who can brighten up any room just by entering it, or are they more likely able to brighten any room just by leaving it? Most of us would likely say the latter.

Drama Queens, for quite apparent reasons, are not typically people we want to hang out with. Most rational people would consider an inordinate need for attention to be a character flaw, yet this may not be the case.

Now, before we go any further, let’s make sure we all share the same, or at least similar, concept of what a Drama Queen is. Here is an eight-question test to determine one’s DQ or Drama quotient. I got this information from a post by Suzanne Degges-White Ph.D. titled Relationship Threats: Are You a Drama Queen?

Ready? Here we go:

  1. When you are listening to a friend recount some recent triumph or sorrow, are you already flipping through your own mental roster of “Great Moments in the Life of Me” to find just the right “I can top that!” vignette?
  2. When something relatively minor in life doesn’t go your way – the elevator door closes just as you walk into the lobby, the last “best seat” is taken at the movies, or the featured special of the day is sold out at the café – do you take it as a personal insult or attack on your dignity?
  3. When something relatively minor in life doesn’t go your way, do you feel compelled to make sure everyone within earshot- at that moment or three hours or even three weeks later! – hears about what happened and how unjust the world can be to you?
  4. When something wonderful happens to you – you win the lottery, you get that promotion, or you ace that class – do you feel the need not only to brag on your success, but pick apart the good fortune you just enjoyed to point out how things could have been even better, if the world was truly a just place?
  5. Do you often feel like you are “playing to an audience,” rather than sharing with your friends?
  6. Do you believe that there can only be one star in any relationship or gathering?
  7. Does it seem like your personal “drama in three acts” production is losing audience members even before the first intermission?
  8. If you were in the middle of a conversation with a friend, and you were asked point blank, “What did your companion just share with you?” would you be able to answer correctly? Or would you have been so lost in our own head thinking of how you can divert the attention back to you?

Dr. White goes on to write ”If you answered yes to any of the questions above it might be time to rethink your perspectives on self-important and two-way relationships.” I would be a bit more generous and say if you answered yes to three or more, but that’s just because I’m such a nice guy.

Again, more than being a character flaw, the cause for most Drama Queens acting as they do is more a function of their brain. The human brain is an amazing invention. It starts working the moment you wake up in the morning and doesn’t quit until you get to the office or job site, or sometimes to noontime Kiwanis meetings.

To simplify our discussion today, I will limit the brain to just two major areas which serve entirely different functions. The Frontal Lobe, which works closely with the Pre-Frontal Cortex and, the Anterior Cingulate Cortex, is located behind the forehead. This area of the brain is responsible for thought, rationale, logical thinking, etc. By the way, the Frontal Lobe is where we get the expression “I would rather have a bottle in front of me than a frontal lobotomy.” I’m sorry, I just couldn’t help myself. I wonder if rather than being a Drama Queen I’m more of a Comedy Queen? Oh well, that’s a subject for another time.

The second part of the brain I want to highlight is the Limbic System, sometimes referred to as the Deep Limbic System, which I believe is located in the inner portion of the brain. Components of the Limbic System include the Hypothalamus, the Hippocampus, and the Amygdala. This is the portion of the brain where emotions are centered. It is also where memories of everything we have ever experienced are stored – both pleasant and painful.

If a child is deprived of appropriate and adequate attention, this area of the brain will be the most deeply impacted. An infant being denied attention will go to any means possible to rectify the situation, much as he or she would if food, clothing or shelter were being withheld.

Drama, or acting out, is a very common response to attention deprivation. I’ve read that drama causes the Pituitary gland and the Hypothalamus to secrete endorphins which are pain suppressing and pleasure-inducing compounds. Heroin and other opiates mimic the natural production of endorphins, so attention seeking may be thought of in similar terms to drug addiction.

Early childhood neglect can cause the Hypothalamus to shrink or be stunted thus limiting the number of receptors for Seratonin and other neurochemicals which are vital to one’s overall sense of peace, comfort, and life satisfaction.

So, while it is easy to observe the behavior of drama queens and make negative evaluations of their character or personality, we should be very careful in doing so.

As humans, it is so easy to judge others and to label them when we have no clue about what is causing the outward behavior we see.

What’s that saying that before you judge someone, you should first “walk a mile in their shoes?” Actually that is excellent advice because you will then be a mile away from them and you will have their shoes.

Ok, bad joke, but the truth remains we can never be assured that we would not resort to the same coping mechanisms and life practices had we been subjected to the same situations they faced.

Often times excessive drama is harmless and easy to ignore. Other times it could be an indication of more serious mental-emotional distress such as Histrionic Personality disorder or Borderline Personality disorder or perhaps an aspect of Bi-Polar disorder.

While jokes abound about people with these conditions, they are no laughing matter for them or for people who care about them.

So what you may ask should you do when confronted with a Drama Queen? I’m so glad you asked.

For one, you can do your best to not take anything they say personally or take offense. This may be easier said than done, but only you can control your reactions and responses to others.

Come up with a name for such individuals that is courteous and not derogatory. Giving them a name can help to remind you that they are doing what they are doing for reasons even they might not fully understand. I would never suggest you feel sorry for them for that is anything but respectful, but pity is likely a better option than anger or resentment.

You must do whatever it takes to remain in the thinking portion of your brain, and if possible help them get back to the thinking portion of their brain. Drama queens will often cease their behavior if it is not getting them the results they seek. By remaining calm and not getting sucked into the drama you might just bring it to a quicker final scene.

It could be helpful to ask them questions. I don’t mean asking “what the blank is the matter with you.” That’s not likely going to gain you a positive reply. But keep a calm and friendly tone as you ask them questions about what has them so upset, or ask them to help you understand where they are coming from, etc.

One technique I write about in my book is to grab your thumb, look at your fingers and think about how you should respond to the situation. There is a big difference between reacting, which involves little or no forethought, and responding which is calculated and planned.


In conclusion, let me just say you will have Drama Queens in your life at times. Learning how to treat them with decency and respect could be a worthwhile experience for both you and them.