Dependent Personality Disorder is characterized by an ongoing, excessive desire to be taken care of, which results in clingy behavior, unreasonable submissiveness, and an intense fear of separation.
In addition to the characteristics listed above, individuals diagnosed with Dependent Personality Disorder will also meet at least five of the following symptoms:
- Has difficulty making everyday decisions without an excessive amount of advice and reassurance from others
- Avoids taking personal responsibility for things; wants others to assume responsibility for major areas of their life
- Goes along with what others say because they fear that disagreeing might cause them to lose that person’s approval or support
- Has difficulty doing things on their own due to lack of self-confidence
- Craves an excessive level of nurturance and support from others, and will go to great lengths to obtain it, including volunteering for things that are unpleasant
- When alone, they may feel helpless and anxious and may have exaggerated fears about not being taken care of by someone.
- If a relationship ends, they will immediately and urgently seek a new relationship with someone else who they believe will provide the care and support they desperately want.
- May have unrealistic fears of abandonment, being alone, or having no one to take care of them
The Need that Drives the Behaviors
Individuals with Dependent Personality Disorder believe that they are unable to take care of themselves or function well on their own. Therefore, they seek out relationships with people who will take charge and do things for them. Often, they behave as if they are helpless in order to elicit attention from someone who will do things for them; because of this, they are often viewed as “needy.” They might also behave submissively in order to attract a dominant partner or friend.
Legitimate Caregiving Needs Versus Personality Disorder
It’s important to understand that a personality disorder diagnosis does not apply to individuals who have legitimate physical or mental limitations or illnesses that create a realistic need for a caregiver. It is perfectly normal to need help from others when sick, recovering from surgery, recuperating from an accident, or dealing with Alzheimer’s Disease, for example. This is also not an appropriate diagnosis for children or adolescents who are merely exhibiting age-appropriate needs for care. This diagnosis is only appropriate for individuals who have an unrealistic belief that they are unable to do things for themselves.
Challenges in Daily Life
Decision-making is a major problem for individuals with Dependent Personality Disorder. They struggle to even make simple daily choices such as what to wear or what to eat. They much prefer for someone else to tell them what to do in every aspect of their existence. If they are forced to make a decision on their own, they will ask for advice (often from multiple people) and, if given different advice from different people, they will struggle a great deal to decide whose guidance to follow. Once they’ve made a choice, they will usually second-guess their decision and will seek repeated reassurances that they made the right choice.
They are extremely passive and allow others to dictate where they live, how they spend their time, who they can and can’t talk to, what kind of job to take, how they spend their money, and so on. Although they would sometimes rather do something else, they don’t argue, because it’s more important to them to keep the other person happy (and therefore, keep that relationship intact) than it is to get their own way. For example, an individual with this disorder might prefer to go out for pizza, but if the other person wants Chinese, they will give in and eat Chinese without an argument (even if they don’t like Chinese food), because they are extremely scared of upsetting and losing that person. For this reason, they rarely disagree with the people they depend on. They will even agree with things they believe are wrong. They also don’t let others know when they are angry, even if it is for a valid reason, because they don’t want to lose that person’s support.
Individuals with Dependent Personality Disorder lack self-confidence, and therefore, they don’t do very many things by themselves. They believe that they are incapable and that someone else would do a better job. They also worry that they will mess something up if they try. So, they appear helpless or clueless or fearful so that someone else will do it for them. They constantly want assistance from others and don’t feel comfortable doing things independently. They fear failure, but they fear success even more — because if they prove themselves to be competent, they might lose that person who assists them with everything.
Because they prefer to be submissive and passive, individuals with Dependent Personality Disorder often tether themselves to dominant individuals who prefer to call all the shots. This is not always a bad thing, because some dominant individuals genuinely just want to help and are comfortable with taking charge as needed. But sometimes, the submissiveness makes these individuals a target for abusive partners or friends who will mistreat them or take advantage of them– and they tolerate it because of their fear of abandonment.
They are willing to submit to what others want, even if it is unreasonable or unfair. These distorted, imbalanced relationships are toxic. Some individuals with Dependent Personality Disorder will make extraordinary self-sacrifices and tolerate verbal and emotional abuse, insults, gaslighting, name-calling, blaming, and shaming. Some will even choose to stay with someone who physically or sexually abuses or exploits them because that seems more bearable than losing that person and their “support.”
Individuals with this personality disorder have an intense fear of being alone. They often ask to go along on outings for things they have zero interest in, just to avoid being alone. They want to spend all of their time with their partner or special friend. To other people, this can feel smothering and clingy, and they may eventually end the relationship because it is just “too much.” They grow tired of the individual with DPD wanting to be with them nonstop and that they text or call relentlessly when they’re apart. If the relationship ends, it feels life-shattering to someone with this personality disorder, and they will immediately begin to frantically seek a new person to replace the one they lost. Individuals with this disorder feel that they cannot function without being in a close relationship. Because of this, they often jump quickly from one toxic relationship to another.
Individuals with Dependent Personality Disorder struggle with feelings of inferiority. Their self-esteem is poor and they are very hard on themselves, often calling themselves names like “stupid.” They are often very pessimistic and critical of themselves, so when others say negative things about them, they believe them and consider it proof of their worthlessness. They often believe they deserve any mistreatment they receive. They struggle with self-doubt and often have no faith in themselves or their abilities. As a result, they seek relationships with people who will protect, dominate, and direct their lives for them.
Their lack of self-confidence can cause issues for them in their careers. They generally avoid applying for leadership positions because they doubt their abilities and fear the responsibilities involved, especially if the role requires making decisions.
Individuals with Dependent Personality Disorder often struggle with depression, anxiety, substance use problems, and adjustment disorders. They may also have additional personality disorders — borderline, avoidant, and histrionic personality disorders are especially common in individuals with Dependent Personality Disorder.
Is this the Same as Codependency?
Codependency and Dependent Personality Disorder are similar but are not the same thing. Codependency is a behavior that occurs in a relationship, making it very one-sided, intense, and unhealthy. Someone who is codependent goes to unreasonable lengths to please their partner, often by sacrificing their own needs, and greatly desires to be needed in return. In fact, they only feel happy when they feel needed. Individuals with Dependent Personality Disorder do not have that same desire to be needed — instead, they are needy and desire to be taken care of at all times by someone else.
What Causes Dependent Personality Disorder?
People who have been in abusive relationships or experienced childhood trauma are more likely than others to develop Dependent Personality Disorder. Having a history of verbal abuse, neglect, or a life-threatening illness during childhood also increase the likelihood of developing this disorder.
Help is available for individuals struggling with Dependent Personality Disorder. The best treatment is psychotherapy with a mental health therapist. Cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT) has proven to be helpful by addressing problematic thought patterns and helping increase self-confidence. Some treatment agencies also provide Healthy Relationships groups to provide education and support which are also very effective.
Diagnostic criteria for Dependent 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)