Breaking up with drama (Episode 53)

If you’ve ever had to live or work with somebody who is constantly stirring up drama, you know how exhausting it can be. How do you manage to stop the drama so it doesn’t control you? That’s what Kay Coughlin talks about in this podcast episode.

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Transcript of episode is below.

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Transcript: Breaking up with drama (Episode 53)

Hi there. I’m your host Kay Coughlin and you’re listening to From One Caregiver to Another. I am a sandwich family caregiver. That means I have kids at home and I am the primary caregiver for my own mother. And you know what? I don’t believe the old stories and traditions about being a caregiver have to be true for us. I believe we, as caregivers can have dreams. Yes, even when we have caregiver responsibilities, we have value as individuals. We deserve to say no and to have our own lives. Nobody can do it all of course, but we can decide what’s okay with us, what’s not okay with us, and we can dare to be ourselves. This is episode 53.

Just a reminder before I dive into today’s topic on breaking up with drama. If you’re new to the podcast, or if you just haven’t had the chance yet to click the button to register. My new workshop on boundaries and the holidays begins next Tuesday, October 19. If you register before midnight Eastern time this Friday, and that’s October 15th, the cost is only $29. And that is for a four-week workshop. I know that’s kind of crazy low, but it’s what I’m doing, but the cost does go up if you wait to register after this.

How do you know if this workshop is for you? Well, if you feel any dread about any holidays or celebrations coming up in the near future, this workshop could be really good for you. It is online and you’ll get to be part of a great community of people who also want to learn about boundaries. Some of what I’m going to be doing will be live and most, especially there will be live coaching calls. But you can join, even if you can’t be on the live calls because it’s all going to be recorded so that you can replay it whenever you want. And you will get lifetime access to the whole thing. So if you are feeling some anxiety or if you are fed up with the way you’re expected to be part of Thanksgiving or some of the winter holidays, like Christmas or new year. Or maybe there’s a wedding that’s coming up that you’re not excited about, or maybe for you, the celebration that’s a real pain in the neck is super bowl Sunday. You do not want to miss this workshop. There is a link for that in the show notes.

All right. So I already mentioned that the topic for today is breaking up with drama. I think that means I really need to start with what I mean by drama. And in this case, I’m referring to drama in relationships and situations, but what exactly is drama?

Well, I love my thesaurus, so I looked up dramatic and here are some of the synonyms that popped up: theatrical, conflicting, vivid, larger than life, thrilling and tragic. But the favorite one that I saw has to be the word melodramatic, which itself means exaggerated or sensationalized. So for my purposes, and especially here for today, I’ve created this short working definition of drama, which is this. It’s when someone behaves in a way to draw a lot of attention to themselves or make a scene or cause a spectacle that puts them at the center.

Now, of course, everybody has done this from time to time this business of creating drama in our lives. If I think about it, the most common example that probably most of us have seen is that when you see a little kid at a store causing a ruckus to get something they want causing drama. All children do this, but it is something that adults can grow out of and maybe even are supposed to grow out of.

But, you know, I want to admit that I can think of one very specific and embarrassing time that I created drama back when I was in college. So I was probably, I don’t know, 20 years old at the time. And I have to tell you, I’m sure there have been many times I’ve created drama since then.

 But the time that I’m thinking about I was working a part-time job and I just didn’t want to do what my supervisor wanted me to do. So I really did cause this big scene and it was across a couple of days and oh my gosh, my cheeks get hot just thinking about it now, how embarrassing! My poor supervisor just did not know what to do with me.

So I was a kid then of course, I hope that I never actually got into the habit of doing it on a regular basis, but I don’t know. I don’t think I’m a good judge of it for myself necessarily, at least not what I was doing in the past. So maybe I did do a lot of it and I’m just blocking it out. I don’t know. Anyway, I try not to do it now.

There are many, many adults who have learned to use drama on a regular basis to manipulate their circumstances and the people around them.

I’m sure that you know people who do this. But let me just tell you about someone I knew a long time ago who used drama all the time to get attention. And in this case, I’m not actually talking about myself. This really is a story about somebody else. And I mean, this person did this across several years that we worked together in the same unit.

The person I’m thinking of was a good colleague and a very skilled and a valuable colleague to us. They had this habit of making every mistake or question or, you know, change in a process, they made it into a personal vendetta against them or against their friends. I can’t even begin to remember the number of times this person, when they weren’t getting enough attention anymore, really kind of artfully reached out to people who were way above our pay grade to start trouble rolling down the hill.

It was if they just could not manage unless they were the center of every issue. And it didn’t matter to them if the fallout was good or bad.

And I’ve got one more illustration of this for you. And this actually comes from American history. There was a woman who was named Margaret Brown and after her death, she came to be known as Molly Brown. And she had this to say about this very topic way back in 1920. Here’s what she said: AAs long as they’re talking about me, I don’t care what they say.” So this is the very same Molly Brown who survived the sinking of the Titanic and on whom the musical, “The Unsinkable Molly Brown,” is based. And yes, she led a very dramatic life. That was what she wanted.

All right. So let’s get into this. Let me say now that I think drama is, when you get right down to it, a tool that’s used to direct power and attention. It’s about drawing or redirecting power away from one person and focusing it toward a single person or maybe a circumstance or a situation. Drama makes for great TV and movies and books. So it’s really great for storytelling, but it can be truly exhausting in real life.

Here’s one of the biggest problems with drama. Since it is the formula that makes for good storytelling and we humans love a good story, our brains react to drama in the same way, whether it’s a story, someone is telling like a fictional story or whether it’s an actual drama, an actual story that’s being stirred up in your family.

Our brains get hooked. We get drawn in. We have been getting drawn into drama for thousands of years because it works for us, it feels exciting. It gets our energy up. It gives us something to focus on. And, you know, really we get drawn in because we believe there’s a hero and a villain. In fact, drama works best, stories work best when there is a villain, because then those of us listening to the story or living through it, if it’s real life, we have an enemy and we can rise up against our enemies. We can rise up against those villains and we can create a better world or save the innocent person who is at the center of the drama.

And I bet you can see where I’m going with this. Drama is artificial, whether it’s used to tell an amazing fictional story or even an amazing real story that happened to somebody else, or whether it’s being used to manipulate people in a relationship or a situation.

If it happens in real life once or twice, it’s maybe not such a big deal, you can handle that. It’s not like you’re going to get hooked on that or maybe it’s not going to affect you that much. But if there is someone in your life who is always manufacturing drama, it can really, really drain you. Especially if someone is close to you, if the person doing it is close to you.

Now, what if the person who is creating the drama happens to be you. Please let me tell you that I am not judging you. In a couple of minutes I’m going to talk about how you can break up with drama, even if you’re the one doing it.

So how do you break up with drama. Before anything else I’d like to offer that you consider the possibility that drama is a choice. Not a fact, it’s not written in stone that someone has to be dramatic. So when someone is dramatic, that’s a behavior they are choosing every time. It might seem automatic because it happens so fast for them. But what you’re really seeing is a behavior pattern that’s become easy and natural for that person.

I know that drama is a choice because it’s been something I’ve seen and I’ve helped people deal with it for years because of my work. But here’s the catch. You have to be willing to entertain that possibility for yourself, that drama is a behavior choice, or you’re never going to be able to wrap your head around this next part.

Once you can believe the idea that drama isn’t a given. And I know that’s hard to believe, but just try to believe it for right now, that drama is not a fact, but that it’s a choice. What do you do then to stop the drama?

There are two things that you can do any time and every time that will work. Number one, you stop participating. The truth is you can only stop the drama as it relates to you and affects your life. You can’t stop somebody else from doing it. There is no way that you or I will ever have that kind of mind control over somebody, and I’m really glad about that.

But you can control whether or not their dramatic behavior has any power over you. This works because in order for drama to thrive, there has to be a creator and a consumer. So a giver and a receiver. If the drama creator can’t get you to react, if they aren’t getting that rush, that thrill of energy back from you when you react, they move on.

Drama cannot exist if there is only one person involved trying to create it and get it to stick to other people. Now, some people have a lot of stamina and they’re very persistent and they will keep going until they get somebody to react. But you still don’t have to participate in it.

The surest way to break up with drama is to stop giving it your oxygen. Stop giving it your attention. So, what does that look like? It means you stop taking their dramatic statements and actions at face value. You can try to calmly question what’s going on by saying something like, “Hmm, you know, Sarah, that’s interesting. I think we might be missing something here. Is there another way to look at this?”

Or you could ask a question like, “gosh, I wonder what else could be going on here?” Or actually, you might be able to ignore what’s going on all together, but if you do have to engage, engaging with a question that’s designed to bring the energy down to de-escalate that drama, that’s a really good approach.

If someone else confronts you with another person’s drama, let’s say as an example here, because we are caregivers and we are in family relationships that can be dramatic, let’s use this example, your sister calls to rake you over the coals because your father is mad about something. Well, you don’t have to react like that’s an emergency.

Either you can respond calmly and rationally and you can ask your sister those same questions I mentioned before, or you can simply say, “I’m not actually in the middle of whatever’s going on here. Do you want to find out some more information and maybe call me back?”

So number one here was pretty simple and straightforward, as far as things go, because you can learn to be in control of your own response. I’m not saying it’s easy, that would not be true at all, but wow is it effective at getting you out of the cycle of reacting and participating. You can learn to respond instead.

The second thing you can do then always is encourage holding people accountable for their dramatic actions. Now, this one is far more complicated because it’s going to involve more people and it might involve systems.

But interestingly, again, the best way to do this is to respond to the drama with clear and, I would say, direct questions. Questions like, “what are all the facts here?” or “who is going to be responsible for deciding this?” and even something like, “I’m not sure I agree that there is a problem. Are there some consequences I need to know about?”

And one thing you can always say is, “I think we need to slow down here. Do we even need to act on that?” And those are all questions that put the accountability for the problem, for the drama, right back on the person who is trying to create it.

Right. So I said that I would talk about what to do if you’re the one creating the drama. I want to say that if you are the one creating the drama, you are totally human, nothing has gone wrong. We have all done this from time to time. We have all been drama creators. But if it’s become a habit for you, if you find yourself kind of addicted to drama, trying to create drama to keep some kind of a reaction going so that there’s just something going on around you, well, that’s still nothing more than a behavior pattern that you’ve picked up and here’s the good news. You can change it if you want to.

I use a three step process that works to change anything. I use it with myself and with my clients all the time. I talk a lot about it in the book I wrote. So if you’re really curious, there’s a link for that in the show notes, you’re going to want to take a look at my book.

The first step is to notice what’s going on without judging yourself for it. And in the case of drama, it’s really important to learn, to take the judgment out of it because judging is an action that feeds drama. It’s like food for the drama. Even when you are the one judging yourself, it still feeds your drama.

Step two then is to process what you’ve noticed. Or some people would say to sit with it. And this is something that you really might want to get help with from a therapist or a life coach like me, I’m a life coach, or maybe a real-time support group. Then it’s only at step three that you can make an informed decision about what you want to do instead, if you don’t like the drama you’ve been creating, or if you just don’t like that habit about yourself. Once you get to step three, then you can figure out what to do about it.

I’m not trying to be casual about this three-step process or throw it away. It’s another thing that’s simple and it’s straightforward, but it is not at all easy. It’s really hard work. I mean, it’s about self-awareness and that’s hard, but it is worth it, but it is not the focus of this particular episode. And, you know, I did write a whole book about it. So take a look at that if you want to know more. And this three-step process is something I talk a lot about in real life and on my podcast, so you will hear about it in other podcast episodes also.

Now, if you’re asking yourself won’t it be hard to break up with the drama, whether it’s coming from somebody else or coming from yourself, maybe it will be hard to break up with. And that would be okay because like many things in this human life, because we’re human.

These things are difficult. But if you’re not tackling it right now because you already believe it’s going to be too hard or too painful, I want you to know that’s just a thought that you’ve got in your head. Now it’s a thought that’s got a lot of power over you, but that doesn’t make it true. And that doesn’t make it absolute.

You can choose another thought to try out. If you want to, you can try thinking, “I’m allowed to stop participating in drama and my life won’t fall apart.” Or maybe you want to start with thinking something like, “I wonder if this is drama I’m seeing here. This is interesting. Does it have to mean anything?”

In other words, if you can even begin to question the behavior and your participation in it, even if you ask this question silently in your own head, you are going to make progress for yourself.

Look, you probably won’t ever change the person who is creating the drama, because that is not how this works. It’s not about changing other people. But at the very least you’re going to find that they will stop dragging you into it quite so much because you don’t participate. And if you are in a relationship or family or a work situation that relies on drama, well, that’s another piece of information that you’ve got to just really think about.

You can do an experiment. You can look at this whole thing like an experiment and you can stop participating in the drama once or twice. Or you can stop creating the drama if it’s you and just see what happens. And then you’ll have more information, then you’ll have more data too. And you get to ask yourself if you want to be in that situation or that relationship that is built on drama, and you’ll get to make a decision, but look, that’s way far down the road.

You have to start with noticing it and probably being willing to try doing something else about it. Like stop participating. No matter what, I’d like to remind you that you can break up with drama. If you want to, you are allowed, you can give yourself permission to do that. And you can even still love somebody who is dramatic and choose not to participate in their drama. It’s your choice and it’s in your control because breaking up with drama is only ever about you and your own behavior.

Thank you so much for listening today. You can learn more about me and about all of this work at Facilitator On Fire dot net. And that is And, you know, there’s a lot of really good stuff there, including links to my book. And, oh, this is a good one, a link to my online community about boundaries. That’s free and if you haven’t joined it yet, you might want to, and there are links to learn more about human giver syndrome as well.

If you want almost daily doses of healthy support messages for family caregivers and for sandwich family caregivers who want to dare to live their own lives, please follow me on Instagram. And there’s a link for that in the show notes.

If you liked this episode, please leave a review and think about two people you could tell about it. If they’re new to podcasts, please show them how to subscribe. Word of mouth is the very best way to help podcasts grow. And if this podcast grows, I’m going to be able to help more caregivers find their way here to get the help they really need to live their own life. I can’t wait to be here with you again in the next episode, From One Caregiver to Another.

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your guide

Kay Coughlin, CEO of Facilitator On Fire, is a business coach for the non-profit sector and social justice businesses. She is also well-known for being an advocate for family caregivers.

In every forum she can find, she shouts that it's OK for every human to earn a living, set and enforce boundaries around their bodies, thoughts, feelings and actions. You can join Kay's free, private online community to talk about boundaries here.

Kay also teaches about emotional labor, how to rest, and Human Giver Syndrome, and is the host of the "From One Caregiver to Another" podcast and author of "From One Caregiver to Another - Overcoming Your Emotional Grind."

Kay is well-known for her public speaking on boundaries and self-care. 

Facilitator on Fire is a subsidiary of Donor Relations Mindset LLC, which Kay founded in 2015. She lives with her husband and children in central Ohio, and is the primary caregiver for her own mother, who lives right next door. Kay can be found on LinkedIn and Instagram.

Copyright 2024. All rights reserved, Julia Kay Coughlin and Facilitator On Fire.

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