Being More Oneself - A Theme for Everyone

An Excerpt from the Existential Analysis Seminar by Dr. Alfried Laengle (Vancouver, BC, Canada)

Being More Oneself - A Theme for Everyone


It is human nature to strive for an understanding of our essential self. Who am I? We all ask this question of ourselves. However, it may not always be easy to know the answer. When beginning to answer this question, we usually describe the things we enjoy doing, the interests we have, or the roles we play in our lives. However, while it is true that some of who we are is reflected in the things we like and participate in, they are descriptions of ourselves to the external world. These descriptions may help us to become more knowledgeable about who we are in relation to the external “I”. We do identify with these reflections and they locate us externally. But they do not fully answer the question of “who am I”.


When I talk about me, I am talking of a person internally who is me. I am there. I refer to myself. We know we have a person, a "me", because existentially we make decisions. We have a will, feelings, and inner dialogue. All of these are evidence of our internal world, our person. It is a rich and valuable relationship with which we are entrusted. It is the source of our inner consent, our authenticity and our uniqueness. We depend on this internal person to have genuine and meaningful encounters with others.


When beginning to answer this question, we usually describe the things we enjoy doing, the interests we have, or the roles we play in our lives. However, while it is true that some of who we are is reflected in the things we like and participate in, they are descriptions of ourselves to the external world. These descriptions may help us to become more knowledgeable about who we are in relation to the external “I”. We do identify with these reflections and they locate us externally. But they do not fully answer the question of “who am I”.


When I talk about me, I am talking of a person internally who is me. I am there. I refer to myself. We know we have a person, a "me", because existentially we make decisions. We have a will, feelings, and inner dialogue. All of these are evidence of our internal world, our person. It is a rich and valuable relationship with which we are entrusted. It is the source of our inner consent, our authenticity and our uniqueness. We depend on this internal person to have genuine and meaningful encounters with others.


Sometimes it becomes difficult to be oneself when we are occupied by a problem, when we are blocked, when we feel forced, or when we are confused. Anxiety, depression and other problems can make it difficult to be in dialogue with oneself. As a result, we are not present with ourselves, or able to be in meaningful contact with others. With time, we can typically process and integrate our experiences to re-orient ourselves to connection back with our inner selves.


However, there is a specific kind of suffering that arises when relationship to one’s inner person cannot be found. The theme of hysteria/histrionic personality is about the undiscovered “personal being”.


Intro to Histrionic Disorder

Histrionic stems from the term/condition called Hysteria. In common speech, we tend to see it as negative: “don’t be so hysterical”. We reduce it to refer to someone being unpleasantly over-dramatic. We have prejudice against it. Existentially, hysteria is a real suffering. It can be as painful and as severe as anxiety or depression can be.


In Existential Analysis (EA), we understand hysteria as a common experience that to a degree all people experience (just like anxiety and depression). However, when it becomes fixed or rigid it forms the basis for personality disorders. We understand it as the root for Borderline, Narcissism, and Anti-Social Personality Disorders.


Basic Existential Theme of Hysteria

Hysteria is related to the existential theme of being a person. The development of a person is about finding oneself and being oneself, about learning how to be I-with-oneself and I-with-others. It is concerned with setting one’s boundaries, but still needing the encounter with others. Finding and being oneself is conceivable only in a social context. It is about how one can be oneself as an individual, in a community and in a society.


The location of hysteria is in this interchange with others. Unlike anxiety or depression, histrionic expression always happens with others. It is expressed publicly. Existentially, the theme of a histrionic person is one who cannot find their inner person, their true self. They feel, rightly, that they need the other, but they cannot really be reached by the other. The suffering is, therefore, from a blocked development to becoming oneself. Hysteria is a futile, ineffective attempt to overcome this.


Description of Hysteria

Characteristics of the Histrionic Personality (our experiences in these relationships):


- Hysteria is like a tornado. The center is empty, but on the outside there is a lot of activity.


- Attractiveness – Chameleon-like. Show themselves in what is fashionable; what is attractive in each situation. Having a great appearance. They do not say the truth, but rather what impacts the listener (not what they really like or think but what will please or entertain or be shocking or fashionable). Whatever has the greatest effect.


- Over Activity - Never sticking to one theme, jumping from one thing to another, starting to say something and then losing their way because they are following another track now. There are lots of words to try to be interesting, but really saying nothing. Keeping the other at a distance where they cannot understand. They use many words, but say nothing graspable. It is very hard to follow them, as it has the appearance of being interesting, enlivening, and entertaining, but leads to numbness.


- Mightiness - We can feel overpowered as listeners. No borders/boundaries. We can feel pressure, manipulated. They know how to make their ideas override. Always judging, always having strong opinions.


- Extremes – Laughing one minute and crying the next; exaggerating for impression.


Two Main Traits:


1) Paradoxical (double bind):

The hysterical person draws attention to themselves with all kinds of tactics, but at the same time distracts from themselves (look to me, but do not see me - give me attention, but do not look at me) as they are afraid that people will see that nothing is there. Fear of being hurt or rejected. This double message (see me, but do not see me) only confuses, but what remains is the unheard message of hysteria...the quiet cry of desperation.


2) Two Poles:

The hysterical personality changes all the time from being easy-going, likable, entertaining, inspiring, stimulating, and adaptive. To the other side of them where they are asserting power, and being overruling, oppressive, subjecting, manipulating, blackmailing, and suffocating. They can be lecturing, accusatory, pressuring, suggestive, and overly expressive. The person goes back and forth between these two poles.


Central Motif of Histrionic Behavior

In all this over-activity, the central motif of Histrionic Behavior is they want freedom. This is a search for their person-hood, their essence, so their desire for freedom is in the right direction (we all want to be free). However, theirs is a boundless desire for freedom, wanting to be completely unhindered, independent, with almost an instinctive compulsion to be free at any price (a seeming freedom). The dynamic is all about having an unrestricted life; it is not about values or contents.


Typical Responses to a Histrionic Person

The hysterical personality will always lead us to our limits. If we do not know how to create a safe environment for ourselves, we will be brought to our borders of being able to bear it. It is very important to get a feel for the many ways we may react to someone with hysteria.


In the beginning:


- We may feel charmed and amazed by them. Drawn in and attracted.


- We may feel a part of a competition needing to be stronger and better.


- Another form is to let it go/let it run, not want to challenge; we get caught in it.


After a time and with more experience:


- Response would be to fight, or to defend. Anger is growing here.


- One may come off strong and may be confrontational.


As a stronger reaction:


- We may keep a distance and cut ourselves off from the relationship out of fear or hurt (which happens regularly to them and reinforces the abandonment that is a common theme underlying their suffering).


The Healing Response to a Histrionic Person

There is an attitude that breaks the cycle of the histrionic dynamic and that is the attitude of personal dialogue with oneself. When we run into this tornado of activity, instead of following it or succumbing to it, we pay careful attention to ourselves. What do I want to do or say? How do I feel? Implement my values and speak up about it. When I encounter their behavior, to stay with myself and my inner person. Make use of my own center, my authenticity as the other needs it. If we do not, they will override and get lost (we get lost with them!). A histrionic person needs me, who I really am.


The essential challenge is to remain your own “person” in their presence. It is talking and living from your center, and being at peace with yourself. You can let the person “be” as they are while continuing to relate to yourself. One existential question to help us with this: How well anchored am I in myself?


To learn more about our Diploma in Existential Analysis Psychotherapy, click here

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Dr Laengle is the founder of Existential Analysis. He is the organiser and is responsible for the training students will undertake in EA. He is assisted in the UK by Julia Morozova and Aleksandra Kupavskaya. Both are trained psychotherapists and assist Dr Laengle in the running of Existential Analysis in the UK.

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