Avoidant Personality Disorder (AVPD) is characterized by three primary elements: social inhibition and awkwardness, feelings of inadequacy, and a great fear that others have a negative view of them.
In addition to the traits above, individuals with this disorder will also identify with at least four of the following:
- avoids occupational activities that require dealing with people (because they greatly fear criticism, rejection, or simply that others won’t like them)
- resists getting involved with people unless they are certain they will be liked and accepted
- hesitant to open up to others for fear of being ridiculed or shamed
- constantly worries about rejection, criticism, and what others think of them
- feels uncomfortable in new social situations due to feelings of inadequacy
- has a negative self-image and worries that they are inferior to others, unattractive, or unappealing
- reluctant to try new activities due to fear of being embarrassed or humiliated
The Internal Conflict That Fuels This Disorder
There are times when we all worry, to an extent, about what others will think of us. This is normal. Unfortunately, individuals with Avoidant Personality Disorder worry about this constantly. They live with a gigantic, nagging fear of being disliked, rejected, embarrassed, or criticized. This fear permeates every area of life that involves interacting with other people in any way — at school, at work, in friendships and dating relationships, and even within their own family units.
Individuals with AVPD do not have a positive self-image. Instead, there is an ongoing fear that others are always better than them — they compare themselves to others and always worry that they are somehow inferior. They feel completely incompetent and awkward when it comes to handling social situations.
Their negative beliefs about themselves, combined with their fear of what others think of them, creates a tremendous amount of anxiety (and sometimes panic) when they interact with other people. They react strongly to the slightest hint of mockery or negativity, and often feel that whatever they do or say will be perceived as “wrong” by everyone else. They struggle with feeling like they don’t fit in. Individuals with this disorder may abruptly exit a social gathering because it becomes overwhelming for them, and others may not understand what happened or why they left.
Individuals with Avoidant Personality Disorder want to have relationships. They want to have friends, intimate relationships, and good connections with their family, colleagues, and neighbors. However, this personality disorder causes this to be very challenging. They struggle with creating new relationships as well as with maintaining existing ones.
Due to a tremendous fear of rejection, folks with this disorder are extremely uncomfortable when meeting new people, starting a new job, or going on a first date. They will often appear shy or timid in these situations because they tend to separate themselves from others a bit until they have studied the people and begin to feel safe. This makes it difficult to create new friendships or to initiate dating relationships. The idea of approaching someone and asking them for a date or even to hang out as friends is absolutely terrifying! But yet, they want these relationships very much.
Existing relationships are a challenge as well because of the ongoing fear of upsetting, irritating, or annoying the other person. Individuals with AVPD always worry about what others are thinking, and they tend to read into comments, body language, and situations, questioning what the other person “really meant by that.” This can become overwhelming at family gatherings, parties, and other group settings because the individual with this disorder is trying to decipher cues and comments from many sources simultaneously.
When they find someone they feel safe with, they may become very attached and cling to them a bit too tightly. Individuals with Avoidant Personality Disorder need a lot of reassurance, and if they don’t receive it, they will either: 1) make desperate attempts to please the person (by repeatedly apologizing, buying them gifts, etc.), or 2) they will panic and put distance between them (they may ignore them, block them, or ghost them) in an attempt to escape the relationship before the other person can hurt them. Many individuals with Avoidant Personality Disorder are also diagnosed with Dependent Personality Disorder, which means that they often become codependent. This can lead to very toxic relationships and can cause the individual to be an easy target for abusers. Others feel smothered by the codependency and end the relationship, which leaves the individual with AVPD viewing this as proof or confirmation of their fear that they are inferior.
Because individuals with this disorder struggle with relationships, they often do not have a large social support network. This can be a problem during trying times when they need a lot of support. They may express that they feel lonely and wish they had more friends.
Going to a job interview makes individuals with Avoidant Personality Disorder exceedingly nervous. They worry about making a negative impression, not being good enough, or being rejected. If hired, meeting new co-workers is also stressful for the very same reasons.
Dealing with customers can be challenging as well. For example, they may takes things personally if a customer is upset about a company policy or has a complaint about a product. While no one enjoys handling angry customers, it is especially challenging for folks with AVPD.
They may also have difficulty handling feedback from their boss or co-workers about their performance — instructions may feel like harsh criticism or even a personal attack. Dealing with the constant worry about what others think can become overwhelming throughout the workday, and they may feel exhausted when their shift is over.
They may call in sick or abruptly quit a job due to feeling that someone dislikes them. This is something that they often regret later, but in that moment, feeling rejected or judged may cause them to panic and want to escape the situation. Others may view them as overly sensitive, but it would be helpful for us all to understand that situations like this are intensely distressful for someone with this disorder.
Avoidant Personality Disorder occurs equally in males and females. Individuals with this disorder are also frequently diagnosed with anxiety disorders (especially social anxiety), agoraphobia, depression, bipolar disorder, and dependent personality disorder (also called “codependency”).
Both genetics and environmental factors can play a part in the development of AVPD. Research points to the possibility that there is an increased risk for this disorder among children who have a parent or caregiver who rejects them or does not provide adequate encouragement and affection.
The best treatment for Avoidant Personality Disorder is psychotherapy, especially cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT). This is a form of individual counseling that helps by addressing problematic thought patterns called “cognitive distortions,” which impact how the person feels and acts. When the individual is able to replace these problematic ways of thinking with healthier thought processes, they will experience a reduction in negative feelings and behaviors. Therapy can also help the individual develop improved social skills and coping skills. Sometimes individuals in therapy are able to overcome their fear of social situations or at least make them much more manageable. This often leads to the much-desired end result of being able to develop and maintain healthy relationships. Prognosis is good, so don’t hesitate to reach out to a mental health professional to begin your healing journey.
Diagnostic criteria for Avoidant Personality Disorder is taken from the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, fifth edition, published by the American Psychiatric Association. For more information on personality disorders, please visit: What is a Personality Disorder? – Navigating Life (juliebailey.net) and Get Help With Personality Disorders (psychiatry.org)