Understanding Avoidant Personality Disorder
And what to do if you have it, or someone close to you does.
Before I begin…
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Did you know that is onAvoidant Personality Disorder (AVPD) is of the most commonly diagnosed disorders? It’s one of the Cluster C personality disorders characterized by anxious, fearful thinking or behavior. They include avoidant personality disorder, dependent personality disorder, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. According to PubMed, it’s present in about 2.5% to as much as 9% of the population. Women appear to be at a higher risk than men, but there is remarkably little data and not very many good quality studies on the subject. Go figure.
I can hear people asking me, “What’s the difference between Avoidant Personality Disorder and avoidant attachment style?” It sounds the same, and they are related, but not the same thing. The best way I can explain it to you is that a person could have an avoidant attachment style when it comes to relationships but not have a personality disorder. In contrast, pretty much everyone with the AVPD has the avoidant attachment style.
If you need a refresher on attachment styles and how they affect your relationships, check out my post from a few months ago.
How do you know if you have it?
Look at the DSM-5, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (5th ed.) Or, don’t look at it because you are likely to recognize yourself in at least a dozen mental disorders. Trust me on that! Let the professionals handle this. Call a therapist!
According to the DSM-5, a person must present four out of the seven symptoms listed below.
In your job, you avoid tasks that involve other people due to fears of rejection, criticism, or disapproval.
You don’t want to approach or talk with someone unless you’re 100% sure they like you.
You hold back in close relationships out of fear of being shamed or made fun of.
You’re often worried about being criticized or rejected.
You hold back in social settings due to feelings of inadequacy.
You feel socially awkward or less-than compared to others.
You avoid risks or doing new things out of fear of being embarrassed.
Here’s what these are like in more detail.
You miss meetings and find excuses not to interact with people in your job. It may not get you in trouble for absence if you are clever with your excuses, but it will still affect your performance. You also avoid collaborative efforts, brainstorming sessions, office parties, team-building exercises, etc. These things cause you great anxiety. You are oversensitive and easily hurt by criticism or disapproval from others.
You don’t want to talk to strangers. You make assumptions about what other people think of you, how they see you, and whether they like you. Because this disorder ties to low self-esteem and high self-criticism, you are likely to make the wrong assumptions, projecting your feelings about yourself onto others.
You hold back in personal relationships because you worry that if people really get to know you, they will reject you, dislike you, or shame you. Because of this, you may be quiet and distant with high anxiety, or you may be trying to say and do what you think the other person wants you to, but awkwardly and unenthusiastically. Unfortunately, this means you also have a few, if any, close friends.
You feel anxious, nervous, shy, and awkward in social situations, worried about being disliked, feeling inadequate, incompetent, judged, not good enough, and rejected.
You avoid taking risks because of the possibilities of failure and embarrassing yourself. You avoid taking up responsibilities and getting involved. You generally do not want to do anything unless you feel that you can do a good job, feel competent, or feel qualified. But even then, you likely prefer not to get involved, mind your own business, not explain yourself, not be accountable, and not be relied on.
You tend to exaggerate potential problems, feel self-conscious and inadequate, think you are doing something wrong, apologize a lot, and consider yourself inferior.
You are definitely NOT the life of the party. You are also difficult to be in a relationship with. You will do better with someone similar to you because if you end up with a person who is more open about themselves and their feelings, you will feel pressure to reciprocate, together with the anxiety that makes you want to hide. Your very avoidant nature will cause the other person to badger you, which will supercharge your feelings of inadequacy, fear of failing the relationship, and self-criticism. It will be a mess that you will internalize and walk away thinking it was all your fault, further encoding the disorder's characteristics in your psyche.
From the opposite perspective, the person in a relationship with someone with an Avoidant Personality Disorder will feel confused and even rejected. They will want to fix it by talking and reassuring the other person and coaxing them to talk. They will feel coldness coming from the other person. May blame the other person for not reciprocating. May think the other person is boring or not being adventurous and willing to go deep into experiences and sharing.
Expect a lot of drama between mismatched temperaments who do not know and understand the psychological inappropriateness of their relationship.
Sadly, a person with AVPD can easily become isolated and actually avoided by others who can’t figure them out or get tired of them. As a result, they are at greater risk for depression.
People with AVPD say it’s like dying in slow motion, watching your life go by, wanting to do have intimacy and friends but feeling paralyzed by your feelings of inadequacy and shame, continuing to stay alone and sabotage your relationship potential with others. They say that they feel afraid of having friendships and relationships, avoid interacting on the phone, and then feel deeply guilty about the social experiences they’ve missed out on.
This is not your garden variety nervousness and anxiety around strangers or being the center of attention, or your britches trembling when you look into the eyes of someone you really like. Even if you have some of these characteristics, the degree to which they are present may not be severe enough for you to self-diagnose as AVPD. However, if you suspect that you may be a clinical case, you better see a professional.
Even if you are not a clinical case and have some of these characteristics get in the way of your social, work, and love life, there are things you can do to transcend these limitations.
Start by educating yourself about the science and about your past. Some self-reflection will help you identify specific situations that cause your distress. You may be able to identify where it’s all coming from and work to get over the humps. Mindfulness does wonder for identifying self-defeating and deflating beliefs and cognitive distortions and eliminating habitual behavior that comes from them.
What are some of the beliefs and cognitive distortions:
You are inadequate.
People don’t like you, disapprove of you, and want to criticize you.
If someone gets to know you, they won’t like you.
Others will mock your feelings.
Learn some skills: how to talk to people, how to ask questions, how to talk about yourself, how to listen, how to carry yourself in public, and how to nurture a relationship. You can also work on improving your self-esteem.
Learning how not to be avoidant will be hard! But resolve to deal with it anyway.
It’s worth it.
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