The Histrionic Female and the Narcissistic Female
I am often asked what the differences are between a histrionic person and a narcissistic one. Since Histrionic Personality Disorder tends to be diagnosed more commonly among females than males, I will be focusing on histrionic females for the purposes of this article. While they share similarities, the histrionic female’s dramatic theatricality, excessive emotionality, and overreliance on their sexuality and appearance as points of power can be distinguishing factors from the narcissistic female.
At first glance, it can be difficult to differentiate between a narcissistic female and a histrionic one. Both narcissists and those with HPD can be interpersonally exploitative (narcissists need supply; histrionic crave validation and constant reassurance), manipulating scenarios to draw the focus back to themselves and their agendas. Both can be self-absorbed (narcissists are obsessed with maintaining their superiority and status, histrionics moreso with their appearance and sexuality). Both can appear charismatic and vivacious, naturally persuasive and charming to others. Both can demonstrate a sense of entitlement; yet while narcissists feel entitled to belittle, abuse and exploit, histrionic people feel entitled to be the center of attention at all times.
The histrionic female absolutely requires this; narcissists thrive off of attention but can live without being the center of attention so long as they are still meeting an agenda. In fact, during the ‘love-bombing’ phases of an abusive relationship with a narcissist, the narcissist is all too happy to make their victims the center of attention in order to lure them into the abuse cycle.
Histrionic females may have more of an emotional capacity for empathy than their narcissistic counterparts, but their passive-aggressive behavior and sabotage of those who pose a threat to their grandiosity can be just as destructive to their loved ones.
The histrionic female can also present a conundrum because her traits can overlap with traits of Narcissistic Personality Disorder, Antisocial Personality Disorder as well as Bipolar Disorder (Burgess, 1992; Hamburger et. al, 1996; Ghouse et. al, 2013). In our image-obsessed world, the histrionic female can also be mistaken for simply a “vain” person in an age saturated with validation-seeking. Her vivacious, energetic and bubbly personality along with her impulsivity can also resemble mania in many aspects.
Yet the histrionic female’s vanity goes beyond the occasional self-absorption. It escalates into a pathological desire to perpetually be in the spotlight. This can be alienating to her loved ones, leaving her unable to forge healthy friendships and relationships. Here are some signs you might be dealing with a histrionic female:
(1) The histrionic female is impressionistic and dramatic in her speech. Her rapidly shifting moods and emotions are over the top, but ultimately shallow. She may believe that her relationships are more intimate than they actually are. She is also empty in her promises.
The histrionic female may present strong values and opinions initially, as well as great potential as a reliable friend or relationship partner. However, in the long run, she fails to live up to her so-called morals, standards or beliefs when presented with the opportunity to uphold them. For example, she may compliment her female friends in an exaggerated manner, but compete with them for attention. She might call out what is morally wrong to appear self-important and superior, but her actions suggest an underlying hypocrisy and failure to see beyond her own nose and take actions to improve in her own behavior.
She is amplified in her gestures, her tone of voice, her expression of emotions, but beneath the shallow veneer, there is a constant need to “feed” on people as sources of attention. While she may feel she has close relationships with people, those same people may be perturbed at the amount of attention she requires on a daily basis, especially if they have not established a sense of emotional intimacy or rapport with her. This is the type of friend who may bombard you with phone calls and texts about her personal problems right after first meeting you, or asks you to change your schedule to meet her demands, often without showing you the same courtesy. She is dependent upon other people to feel worthy and feels entitled to their time, their energy and their efforts.
(2) She needs to be the center of attention in every situation and experiences great discomfort when she isn’t.
This is perhaps one of the most damaging traits the histrionic female possesses in her interpersonal relationships. She is contemptuous or dismissive towards those who detract from her spotlight and continually turns the conversation back to her. If a friend receives any male (or female) attention, she will quickly jump in and mention how five men flirted with her just this morning. If another friend experiences great success, she will be disappointed and envious, despite wanting recognition of what she perceives to be her own “accomplishments” (usually involving some act of sexual prowess or having a doting significant other). Should a friend or family member face medical problems, she will immediately exaggerate her own health issues to drive the focus back to herself.
She also consistently uses her physical appearance to draw attention to herself. This is why you will often see histrionic females surround themselves with friends who they do not perceive as a threat, or undermining friends who do pose a threat. Their “best friends” tend to be ones that are less conventionally attractive, or may be the more attractive ones she lures in closer in order to “weed out” the competition.
Should another female ever “dare” to get the attention that the histrionic female is so accustomed to getting, there will inevitably be a dramatic attempt to redirect the attention back to her. This can come in the form of a hysterical display of emotions, a sexually provocative gesture or attitude, or a blatant expression of disrespect to provoke rage. Any attention, whether positive or negative, is welcome because it provides the histrionic female with the “stimulation” and validation she desperately craves.
The histrionic female with co-existing malignant narcissistic traits may even engage in smear campaigns or other forms of relational aggression to destroy friendships so she can appear to be the most ‘valued’ friend of the group. This enables her to hog the limelight and be the most well-liked out of her friends.
(3) She alienates her female friends because she sexualizes every interaction and flirts with their significant others.
The histrionic female lives in the delusion that everyone wishes to have sex with her – and if she is conventionally attractive, she will receive feedback that is aligned with that belief. She dresses sexually even in situations where it is not warranted or inappropriate (ex. wearing a low-cut dress to a funeral).
According to Christine Hammond, LMHC (2015), while a female narcissist dresses seductively to achieve a certain agenda or goal, a histrionic female will don revealing clothing across any and all situations. Her provocative clothing, combined with overly seductive behavior, manufactures scenarios where she is indeed put into the spotlight, often to the detriment of her loved ones.
As Dr. Bressert (2017) writes:
“Individuals with this disorder often have impaired relationships with same-sex friends because their sexually provocative interpersonal style may seem a threat to their friends’ relationships. These individuals may also alienate friends with demands for constant attention. They often become depressed and upset when they are not the center of attention.”
This is the friend who will wear white to your wedding and flirt with all the groomsmen (maybe even the groom!). It is the same friend who will cheat on their own boyfriends and will also try to seduce your boyfriend. Their insatiable need for attention is prioritized over the wellbeing of their relationships.
Histrionic females often cheat on their significant others (whether emotionally and/or physically) and flirt with anyone who might give them the attention they so desperately desire, even in innocuous ways. For example, they may pretend they’re asking for ‘help’ from a waiter, when really, they’re just looking for validation and an interaction that will “fulfill” their need to be in the spotlight temporarily.
Heterosexual histrionic females also tend to prioritize males over females, glorifying the actions of males and justifying their unsavory behavior while putting down any females who “dare” to engage in similar behaviors. They are often the first to talk about how “other girls just cause too much drama” and put any and all males on a pedestal. This is because males provide a source of sexual attention that they cannot get from other females, so in order to get their attention, they feel they must stand out from other women by devaluing other women and being “different” from them.
If you are dealing with a histrionic person, the best thing to do is to not give them the attention they desire and to set healthy boundaries to protect yourself.
Depending on how these symptoms present themselves, relationships and interactions with histrionic personalities can feel draining. Histrionic females are accustomed to getting attention with their absurd antics and exaggerated ploys.
Find constructive ways to ignore their hysterical sob stories, sudden stripteases at brunch, and rants about how every man wants them and what an impossible situation that is for them to be in. Redirect the attention and focus to your own self-care. Do not take their actions personally; they are doing what they can for the goal of obtaining attention – not because of anything defective or lacking in you.
Balance any empathy you might have for the histrionic friend with clarity: remain firm and grounded in your own truth. Understand that their insatiable need for attention is not your responsibility and that you do not have to coddle them or tolerate any disrespectful behavior. Never continue a friendship with someone who flirts with or tries to seduce your significant other, or tries to sabotage your accomplishments – this is not someone you can ever trust.
Over time and with the help of therapy should she seek it, the histrionic female (provided that she does not also have co-existing malignant narcissistic tendencies) may realize that her attention-grabbing antics will eventually lose the glamour that they once had. Her inability to engage in meaningful relationships will cost her far more in the long run than she could ever imagine. This is her own journey to self-discovery to take, and you cannot take it for her.
In the meantime, assess the level of destructiveness your histrionic friend, partner or co-worker may pose and plan accordingly. Remember that the less empathy she possesses for others, the less likely it is that she will change. Know what you can or cannot tolerate and how much contact, realistically, you feel you can have with such a person without compromising your own self-care and peace of mind.
Remember that any type of relationship you have with an extremely histrionic person is likely to be a non-reciprocal one and an emotionally shallow one, designed to give the histrionic person much of the attention. You deserve healthy relationships and to also have a healthy amount of attention and recognition. Never lower your own standards for the sake of maintaining a toxic friendship or relationship that will inevitably deplete you in the long run.
Bressert, S. (2017, August 02). Histrionic Personality Disorder Symptoms. Retrieved August 7, 2017, from https://psychcentral.com/disorders/histrionic-personality-disorder-symptoms/
Burgess, J. (1992). Neurocognitive impairment in dramatic personalities: Histrionic, narcissistic, borderline, and antisocial disorders. Psychiatry Research, 42(3), 283-290. doi:10.1016/0165-1781(92)90120-r
Ghouse, A. A., Sanches, M., Zunta-Soares, G., Swann, A. C., & Soares, J. C. (2013). Overdiagnosis of Bipolar Disorder: A Critical Analysis of the Literature. The Scientific World Journal, 2013, 1-5. doi:10.1155/2013/297087
Hamburger, M. E., Lilienfeld, S. O., & Hogben, M. (1996). Psychopathy, Gender, and Gender Roles: Implications for Antisocial and Histrionic Personality Disorders. Journal of Personality Disorders, 10(1), 41-55. doi:10.1521/pedi.1922.214.171.124
Hammond, C. (2015, July 21). The Difference Between Male and Female Narcissists. Retrieved August 7, 2017, from https://pro.psychcentral.com/exhausted-woman/2015/07/the-difference-between-male-and-female-narcissists/