Is Rachel Dolezal Just Another Histrionic Personality?
Recent articles in print and online have suggested any number of explanations for Rachel Dolezal’s “ethnic fraud,” ranging from a naive assumption that she ‘just appreciates black culture’ to claims that she is mentally ill or a huckster or whatever. I think that those that point to her as someone with a Histrionic Personality Disorder may be correct. She is not insane, in the legal definition, for she knew she was doing something wrong and took great pains to conceal her true history. But what ‘sane’ person would co-opt the black experience of suffering? To get attention? To claim victimhood to conceal her white privilege? To take advantage of a system meant to assist those who were historically oppressed for her own selfish desires?
The American Psychiatric Association defines Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD) as one characterized by excessive attention-seeking emotions, usually beginning in early adulthood, including inappropriately seductive behavior and an excessive need for approval. Histrionic people are lively, dramatic, vivacious, enthusiastic, and flirtatious. HPD affects four times as many women as men and has a prevalence of 2–3% in the general population and 10–15% in mental health institutions. People with HPD have a high need for attention, make loud and inappropriate appearances, exaggerate their behaviors and emotions, and crave stimulation. Associated features include egocentrism, self-indulgence, continuous longing for appreciation and recognition, and persistent manipulative behavior to achieve their own needs/desires. People with HPD are often high-functioning, socially and professionally. They have good social skills, despite a tendency to use them to manipulate others into making them the center of attention. HPD may also affect a person’s social and romantic relationships, as well as their ability to cope with loss or failure. They may seek treatment for clinical depression when romantic or other close personal relationships end. Individuals with HPD lack self-awareness, failing to see their personal situation realistically, instead dramatizing and exaggerating their difficulties. They may change jobs frequently, as they become easily bored, preferring to withdraw from frustration instead of facing it. Because they crave novelty and excitement, they may place themselves in risky situations, leading to a greater risk of developing clinical depression. Additional characteristics may include:
- Exhibitionism (Wearing revealing clothing or removing clothing in public)
- Constant seeking of reassurance or approval (Am I doing this right? Aren’t I great?)
- Excessive sensitivity to criticism or disapproval (If you question or criticize my actions, you’re attacking me as a person)
- Pride of own personality and unwillingness to change, viewing change as a personal threat (I’m always right!)
- Inappropriately seductive appearance or behavior (Low-cut tops, inappropriate touching, too-tight clothing)
- Using somatic symptoms (of physical illness) to garner attention (hypochondria)
- A need to be the center of attention (look at me!)
- Low tolerance for frustration or delayed gratification (I want it now)
- Rapidly shifting emotional states that appear superficial or exaggerated (If I don’t get this, I’ll just die!)
- Tendency to believe that relationships are more intimate than they actually are (Celebrity Stalkers)
- Making rash decisions (Let’s buy a jet!)
- Blaming personal failures or disappointments on others (Everyone hates me because I’m so popular!)
- Being easily influenced by others, especially those who treat them approvingly (I believe you when you say I’m perfect)
- Being overly dramatic and emotional (I’ll never fall in love again; I’ll shrivel up and die alone…)
A review of Dolezal’s appearance(s), statements, and behaviors, as well as a survey of articles about her fraud are revelatory, I think, of HPD, with, perhaps, other mental-health issues. Everyone seems to be asking the same question—why did she do this? In the wake of a scandalous exposure, why does she refuse to apologize or explain, offering instead ridiculous excuses not based on fact or science? All of this leads to more questions of causation—why do HPDs exist? Theories abound, but no known cause has been established. Psychoanalysis based on Freud’s theories of childhood suggests that losing a family member through death or divorce may trigger the need to cling, to be the center of attention, etc. but also makes the person unable to establish real social and emotional connections with other people. If the child had a controlling, authoritarian parent (especially the mother) who also exhibited conditional love traits, the child learns that performance yields positive reinforcements. And so a star is born (if only in her own mind).
Another theory argues that histrionic personality disorder and antisocial personality disorder may have a connection. Researchers discovered that 2/3 of patients diagnosed with HPD also meet criteria for APD, suggesting that the sexual expressions of both may have similar triggers. Women are hyper-sexualized in the media, so that girls learn early that to gain attention, they must exploit themselves, and if seductiveness doesn’t work, they move on to theatrical behavior to gain attention. Men can be just as flirtatious with no empathy or compassion for their prey, as exhibited in the common Don Juan complex. Family history studies do indicate that HPD, APD, and borderline personality disorder (BPD) tend to run in families, but whether this is due to genetically inherited traits or to environmental factors is not clear.
Histrionic Personality Disorder has a colorful and infamous history. It begins with the term hysteria, from ‘hystero’ for uterus or womb (Greek). In Ancient Egypt and Greece, physicians thought that hysteria—exaggerated, uncontrollable emotions—were caused by movement of the uterus in the female body (see the oldest medical document, “Ebers Papyrus,” and 5th century BC Hippocrates, who claimed that it was caused by sexual deprivation). From the beginning of ‘scientific theorizing,’ then, women were seen as more prone to odd illnesses and as more fragile mentally and emotionally than men. By the earliest definitions, men were immune to hysteria, since they had no uteri. I suppose when they felt the beginnings of ‘hysteria,’ they started a war so they could rape and pillage and return home to great acclaim. Men were viewed as macho Don Juan, while women were called the Whore of Babylon.
In Medieval times, the 11th century writings of Trotula de Ruggiero (the first female doctor in Europe) still emulate Hippocrates, and this tendency does not advance much, even during the Renaissance. My theory of the witchcraft insanity and the Spanish Inquisition which lasted several centuries and sanctioned the rape, mutilation, torture, and murder of hundreds of thousands of innocent women came about because of superstitious fear of the female and the belief that women were inferior to men, and thus susceptible to Satan’s antics. The histrionics of the accusers in the Salem Witchcraft Trials offer substantial evidence of the need for societal attention and approval of the powerless females subject to strict religious and political controls.
Only Thomas Willis, writing in the 17th century, believed that ‘hysteria’ was linked to the brain and nervous system, not the uterus. His Age of Reason viewpoint began to succeed in scientific circles, as thinking men (and women) finally realized that the witchcraft and sorcery insanity was, itself, hysteria, and that men could be as hysterical as women once they accepted absurd ideas and superstitious nonsense. By the 18th century, Franz Mesmer was practicing “mesmerism,” or “animal magnetism,” on hysterical patients, an early form of hypnosis used to modify the thoughts and behaviors of those who would come to be known as histrionic personalities. Jean-Martin Charcot’s experiments with hypnosis had great effect on Freud’s early theories as well. Freud and Breuer believed that hysteria was caused, not by absence of sexual activity, as Hippocrates suggested, but rather by a lack of “libidinal evolution.” In other words, Freud thought that hysterics (soon to be histrionic personalities) fixated in childhood on certain events, feelings, and behaviors, and failed to evolve emotionally and sexually to ‘proper’ adult functioning.
Freud’s psychoanalytic studies led to two distinctly different concepts of ‘hysteria’–one called “hysterical neurosis” or “conversion disorder,” and the other “hysterical character,” which is now called “histrionic personality disorder.” We still have much confusion about the social implications of this disorder and those who are diagnosed as having HPD, with little understanding of how much effect culturally constructed ideas may be a cause or an explanation of the disorder. This article scratches the surface of a convoluted area of psychological analysis, so I leave it to readers to draw your own conclusions. For me, explaining a woman like Rachel Dolezal might be as simple as “She is bat-shit crazy.”
Mnemonic to remember characteristics of histrionic personality disorder is “PRAISE ME”:
- Provocative (seductive) behavior
- Relationships are considered more intimate than they actually are
- Influenced easily
- Speech style to impress, lacking in detail
- Emotional lability, shallowness of affect
- Make-up, physical appearance used to draw attention to self
- Exaggerated emotions, theatrical performances
©2015 Linda L Labin, PhD (my analysis based on multiple studies and sources)