Navigating Difficult Behaviours: The Girl Who Cried Wolf

[5-minute read + video] I've always struggled to interact with this particular personality type. This week, I decided to research why people do it, and how I am best to respond.

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Navigating Difficult Behaviours: The Girl Who Cried Wolf

I’ve always struggled to interact with this particular personality type. This week, I decided it was high time for me to research exactly what the behavioural pattern is called, why people do it, and how I am best to respond.

A few weeks ago, I wrote about performative gratitude. Well, this week, I learned that performative vulnerability is also a hot trend on social media. Called “sadfishing”, it has escalated among teens with devastating consequences [1][3]. Folks who are faking their emotional issues to draw attention are mudding the waters for those in real need.

Of course, our current wave of digital natives didn’t invent this behaviour. Aesop wrote about it in 1867 in his fable The Boy Who Cried Wolf, which he based on a Greek legend that dates back through the millennia.

But with all that history behind it, I still find it challenging to know the best way to respond to people I think are crying wolf. It’s a complex scenario because there is a chance they are genuine, and my wrong response could deepen their suffering. But if they are faking it, I don’t want to add fuel to their attention-seeking fire.

What am I meant to do? Listen to their cries or ignore them?

The girl who cried wolf.

The behaviour of a colleague is still vivid in my memory some 25 years later. She was prone to acting like a damsel in distress to manipulate our male workmates into doing whatever she required. I know that sounds like an episode from The Bold and The Beautiful, but that’s pretty much how it felt working next to her.

I’ve always struggled to interact with this particular personality type. Confront them head-on, and you risk being branded a bully, heartless and intimidating. I also refuse to become part of the show, to “play along,” because it’s dishonest and ultimately unproductive.

A post I read online recently triggered my memory of that colleague. As those old feelings surged, I decided it was high time for me to research exactly what the behavioural pattern is called, why people do it, and how I am best to respond.

Boy, oh, boy, did that prove to be a rabbit warren of discovery.

IMAGE: The Boy Who Cried Wolf illustration by Francis Barlow [4]

These days, they call it sadfishing.

Have you heard of catfishing? It’s an online phenomenon where a perpetrator lures their victim into a relationship using a false persona, usually intending to steal money.

Sadfishing refers to a similar practice where the perpetrator uses false emotion to gain attention and manipulate their victims.

The term emerged after celebrity Kendell Jenner was exposed for lying about her emotional trauma induced by acne to sell skincare products.

“While there are much bigger problems happening in the world, suffering from acne for me was debilitating. It’s something that I’ve dealt with since I was a young teen and has caused me to feel anxious, helpless and insecure. As humans, I don’t think we share our insecurities enough because we live in a time where being “perfect” is the standard.”

extract from Jenner’s post, she later admitted to sadfishing her fans.

Since then, sadfishing has become a major trend on social media, which is having devastating effects on teen mental health.[1][3]

Habitual sadfishing can indicate the presence of a broader mental issue – Histrionic Personality Disorder (HPD). Most people are familiar with Narcissistic Personality Disorder (NPD). HPD and NPD sit within the same cluster of personality disorders, but there are distinct differences.

A person with NPD will only seek attention that reinforces the positive aspects of their self-image. They will steal the spotlight if it makes them look good but step into the shadows when things turn sour.

Those with HPD seek any form of attention, both positive and negative, and they freely use emotional dramatisation to gain that attention.

But what if it’s not an act?

A few months ago, a teenager approached me about a problem she was having at school. A girl in her school group was repeatedly threatening self-harm and spreading rumours as a means of controlling the behaviour of other people.

“[The girl] has been dating someone who is really nice, but he just can’t cope with her behaviour anymore.”, she shared.

“He broke it off, and now she is crying every day at school and says she will hurt herself if he doesn’t get back with her. She has been saying all sorts of things about him online.

We’ve locked her out of our Snapchat group and stopped inviting her places because she’s just too much hard work. She makes everything about her. Now she’s spreading horrible rumours about us.

The more we ignore her, the worse she gets. We don’t know what to do.”

What am I meant to do? Listen to their cries or ignore them?

As the teen spoke, I pondered my response from two perspectives:

  1. What if [the girl] is genuine?
  2. What if [the girl] is crying wolf?

Both questions arrived at the same answer because we can never really know what’s happening in another human’s mind. It’s almost impossible to tell what’s genuine and what’s not. In the presence of such high-stakes ambiguity, I always err on the side of caution.

I offered, “This girl needs professional help. Her behaviour is far beyond anything you should try to fix on your own.”

“She’s already seeing a psychologist.” the teen responded.

“That’s excellent news. That’s where you need to direct her energy. Whenever she is escalating, take her to a private place and say something like;

I see how you might feel that way. Have you talked to your psychologist about it? or

That is a big problem. I don’t have the skills to help you with that, so let’s talk to the school counsellor about it.

Use a neutral tone of voice, like the one I’m using to talk with you now. My voice is relaxed; I’m not responding with emotion but not being cold, either. Just use your everyday voice.”

We talked through a few scenarios to explore the idea further.

My rationale was that if [the girl] was genuine, then they needed to acknowledge her pain and ensure she received the best possible support. If she were indeed crying wolf, she would eventually cease her behaviour because it wasn’t getting the emotional response she craved.

What do the experts say?

I researched a range of expert perspectives on responding to HPD and sadfishing, and my rationale and response were well-founded.

The common themes:

Stay calm: Resist being pulled onto their emotional rollercoaster.

Communicate with integrity: Exemplify the behaviour that you believe to be ideal. Lead by example.

Set boundaries: Don’t accept poor behaviour or its impact on you. Self-care is vital.

Reinforce that you care: Habitual attention-seeking is a response to low self-esteem, so letting the person know they are loved without buying into the poor behaviour is essential.

Support them in thinking through their actions: People in highly emotive states find it difficult to think through consequences and next steps.

And if I had to work with that colleague again?

I would do a few things differently.

I often felt angry and frustrated by her behaviour. As women carving out careers in the 1990s, we had to thrash our way through a jungle of discrimination that tried to hold us back. Her behaviour reinforced all the gender stereotypes that we were trying to destroy.

If I had to work with that colleague, I would respond differently to her performances. I’d relax and disconnect from the scene of her drama. That would allow me to think more clearly. Then once calmness returned, I would support her to get the practical help she needed while we all kept moving toward our shared goals.

References

[1] Sally Weale, Young people who seek support online being accused of ‘sadfishing’, https://www.theguardian.com/society/2019/oct/01/young-people-seeking-support-online-accused-sadfishing-bullying-report

[2] Ceballos NA, Petrofes C, Bitney C, Graham R, Howard K. Denial, Attention-Seeking, and Posting Online While Intoxicated: Three Key Predictors of Collegiate Sadfishing. Cyberpsychol Behav Soc Netw. 2024 Mar;27(3):202-207. doi: 10.1089/cyber.2023.0268. Epub 2024 Feb 19. PMID: 38377603; PMCID: PMC10924112. https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/38377603/

[3] Pamela B. Rutledge Ph.D., Sadfishing: Attention-Getting or Genuine Calls for Help? , https://www.psychologytoday.com/au/blog/positively-media/202102/sadfishing-attention-getting-or-genuine-calls-for-help

[4] Sketch By Francis Barlow – http://mythfolklore.net/aesopica/barlow/59.htm, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=14476836

[5] Newport Academy What Is Sadfishing, and Why Are Teens Doing It? https://www.newportacademy.com/resources/empowering-teens/sadfishing/

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