For the person in crisis or recovering from trauma, the accusation of being a drama queen is an experience of being kicked when you’re down. From the outside, it can be hard to see what you’re dealing with – especially where old wounds, hidden traumas and invisible triggers are concerned. That it would not be a crisis for you is not a measure of a thing. Context can also play a big part, with poverty, ill health and other such problems turning what might be mole hills for the well resourced, into impossible mountains.
How do you tell what to do when you can’t tell what’s really going on?
I think the first question to ask is about your own resources. If you have time, energy and comfort, if you are well resourced then you can certainly afford to spend some time acting with sympathy in response to a problem. If you aren’t well enough resourced to help much, you have to take those limits into account.
The person who is in crisis is unlikely to try and burden you further if it looks like you too cannot cope. People in crisis know about being pushed towards the edge. However, people interested in being centre stage and wanting there to be a drama that revolves around them are much more likely to demand your help even if you’ve been clear that you can’t do much.
Poverty, debt and illness can lead you into vicious circles and downward spirals and create one crisis after another. Frequency of crisis is not therefore a sign that someone is definitely doing drama. However, people who don’t enjoy drama are often awkward and embarrassed about asking for help. They are more likely also to feel responsible for what’s happened to them even if it isn’t in any way their fault. Drama enthusiasts, on the other hand, seldom feel responsible even when they are.
People in crisis do what they can to get out of the crisis. They may do it badly, they may make bad choices along the way, or be too proud to get help when they could have done, and that doesn’t always look great from the outside, but it isn’t drama. People who like drama can be remarkably good at not finding solutions or getting things fixed and keeping things in drama mode for far longer than necessary. They also tend to want the solutions to come from somewhere other than themselves. The desire for attention is more important than the desire to get things sorted out.
Of course often it isn’t this binary. Drama llamas can have real crises. People dealing with relentless, grinding challenges can become very hungry for care and attention in a way that also blurs the edges. There’s also the factor that the would-be helper isn’t neutral in all of this. If you could help and don’t want to, that doesn’t make the person asking for help a drama queen. If the problems aren’t solvable – as with chronic illness – it doesn’t mean the person is less deserving of what help can be given. If you resent the attention someone else is getting for being in crisis, that might be about you, and not them at all.