Early Historical Forerunners

The histrionic personality was first officially recognized in DSM-III, published in 1980, replacing the psychoanalytic school's older, gender-biased hysterical personality. No longer an officially recognized term, hysteria nevertheless remains in widespread currency. Its several meanings refer to a state of intense emotional overexcitement, the neurosis that presumably eventuates in such states, and the conversion of emotional conflicts into physical symptoms (also known simply as conversion hysteria). In psychodynamic thought, these ideas are intimately connected. Historically, the relief of hysterical conversion symptoms through hypnosis by Charcot eventually led Freud to the discovery of the unconscious. Ironically, the evolution of early ideas on hysteria holds some similarity to the evolution of psychoanalysis itself. In the beginning, both the psychosexual stages of early analysis and the hysteria of the Greeks were directly connected to the functioning of sexual organs. Eventually, however, both were interpreted more broadly. Hysteria detached itself from the uterus and grew into a collection of traits and symptoms. Classical psychoanalysis detached itself from psychosexual stages and the determinism of the libido, growing into ego psychology and object relations.

Hippocrates, the famous Greek physician, believed hysteria was caused by a wandering uterus that traveled the body and took up residence in the brain, exciting its neural tissues during menstruation. More sophisticated views did not become established until nearly the second half of the nineteenth century. Gradually, the interpretation of the syndrome shifted away from female anatomy and toward a collection of co-occurring symptoms. Ernst von Feuchtersleben (1847) depicted women disposed to hysterical symptoms as being sexually heightened, selfish, and "overprivileged with satiety and boredom." Attributing such traits to the nature of female education, he argued that the disorder "combines everything that can heighten sensibility, weaken spontaneity, give a preponderance to the sexual sphere, and sanction the feelings and impulse that relate to it." Griesinger (1845/1867) described hysterics as notable for their volatile humor, senseless caprices, and inclination to deception, prevarication, jealousy, and malice. Briquet (1859) wrote that any number of painful emotions might produce the disorder, including sadness, jealously, fear, and even boredom or disappointment (Stone, 1993). By 1875, Charcot had established that hypnosis was effective in relieving hysterical physical problems.

The famous descriptive psychiatrists of the early 1900s also recorded the existence of hysterical syndromes. Kraepelin (1904, p. 253), for example, noted that such an individual delights in novelty, enthusiasm, vivid imagination, great excitability, mood lability, romantic preoccupation, capriciousness, and impulsiveness and tries "ruthlessly to extort the most careful attention of those around her." Presaging the shift from hysterical to histrionic, Schneider (1923/1950) chose the label attention-seeking for such individuals, claiming that the hysterical was too broad and vague and implied a moral judgment. Schneider's account highlighted histrionics' proclivity to exaggeration and pathological lying employed to make themselves seem more interesting and attractive to others. Finally, Kretschmer (1926, p. 26) strongly echoed contemporary positions, viewing these persons as having a preference for the theatrical and preferring the "loud and lively," but also as disposed to threaten suicide as a means of manipulating others. All three psychiatrists were contemporaries of a still young but emerging psychoanalytic movement.

Focus on Feminist Psychology

Why No Wandering Penis? Effects of a One-Gender Dominated Field of Psychology

The origins of hysteria reach deeply into both history and human nature. As all women and most men know, men do not understand women. Worse, men cannot understand why they cannot understand women. Rather than keep trying, men have instead created diagnostic syndromes to contain aspects of female behavior they find particularly perplexing. Because the history of humankind has thus far been dominated by males, perhaps it is not surprising that hysteria was one of the first mental disorders to be discussed. For the ancient Greeks, hysteria was caused by a wandering uterus that could become detached, tour the body, and settle in the brain, thus producing the behavioral excesses that most men naturally fear, such as wild emotion and female lust. Hysteria thus embodies the male belief that all women are crazy or at least constitute subthreshold cases easily exacerbated into a frenzy by some stray comment or unintended oversight. The "bad hair day" crystallizes this notion.

Eventually, the glory of ancient Greece and Rome disappeared. In the Middle Ages, the world was viewed through a religious paradigm. Faith in God offset hard times for humanity, including mass starvation, disease, pestilence, and war. By some estimates, a third of the population of Europe was killed by the Black Death alone. Humans naturally sought explanations to such paradoxical calamities. How could such horrors occur if God were just and loving? Again, women were to blame. Those who ran afoul of social standards became natural scapegoats, being "diagnosed" according to the standard of the times as witches, in league with Satan. Through their sorcery, these evil beings could summon famine, plague, bad luck, and worst of all, impotence. Eventually, the widespread dread of witches found religious sanction in the Malleus Maleficarum, or Witches' Hammer, written by two German monks in 1496, a kind of Stephen King version of our modern DSM, complete with its own form of therapy: burning at the stake.

Though the witch hunts would eventually subside, it seems that every era unveils some new syndrome for which only women are at risk. The contemporary premenstrual dysphoric disorder may be seen as a modern parallel, the idea that women's natural cycles naturally cause them psychological problems. Although many would admit to emotional and behavioral changes related to their period, women might also argue that these changes occupy only a few days a month, whereas a penis distorts behavior most of the time. Strangely, history holds no such wandering member that might become detached, take up residence in the brain, and distort perception in order to explain antisocial behavior among males.

Power Of Hypnosis

Power Of Hypnosis

Hypnosis is something most people see as being some kind of new age mumbo jumbo, but it's actually been scientifically to be effective in many people. Learn more within this guide.

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