Avoidant personality disorder (AVPD) is a condition characterized by social inhibition. Individuals diagnosed with avoidant personality are typically hypersensitive to criticism and fixate on what others think of them. As a result, they withdraw from situations in which they may be judged.
It is not uncommon for someone to be concerned about how others perceive them. Yet individuals with avoidant personality dread being labeled as inadequate. This fear manifests in a variety of social and professional contexts.
Although they may desire intimacy and affection, people with avoidant personality often have trouble maintaining meaningful relationships. Their fear of rejection prevents them from opening up and meeting new people. Intimate relationships can be especially difficult for individuals with avoidant personality, who may constantly worry about saying something wrong or embarrassing themselves. This worry leads them to withdraw. Since individuals with avoidant personality are sensitive to criticism, they may be more easily hurt by others.
The Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5) characterizes avoidant personality as a personality disorder. This means it is a long-standing and pervasive pattern of personality. To be diagnosed with avoidant personality, an individual must exhibit at least four of the following symptoms:
- Avoidance of work activities that involve significant contact with others
- Unwillingness to get involved in relationships unless they know they will be accepted
- Restraint in intimate relationships because they fear ridicule
- Preoccupation with criticism and rejection
- Inhibition in new relationships due to feelings of inadequacy
- A self-image of being socially incompetent, undesirable, or inferior
- Avoidance of risks or new activities for fear of embarrassment
Individuals with avoidant personality are likely to be quiet and shy. They may seek to be "invisible" in order to avoid criticism. Although they want to engage with others, their fears tend to make it difficult for them to do so.
Experts believe avoidant personality is caused by a combination of one’s biology and environment. The condition occurs more commonly among family members, suggesting a genetic component is at play. Rejection by peers or parents may also have a role in avoidant personality.
Anywhere from about 0.5% to 2.4% of people meet the criteria for avoidant personality. The condition typically develops by early adulthood and appears at similar rates in individuals of all genders, although women may be slightly more likely to meet criteria. People with anxiety-related diagnoses are far more likely to have avoidant personality. It may affect up to 50% of people with agoraphobia and up to 40% of those who experience social anxiety, for instance.
In one study, AVPD was found to be positively correlated with pessimism, having had more negative childhood experiences, and being highly sensitive.
One common side effect of avoidant personality disorder is a lack of intimate relationships or emotional connection with others. A study in the Journal of Personality Disorders found avoidant personality to be negatively associated with success in intimate relationships. But why does it make close relationships difficult, and how can these obstacles be overcome?
Avoidant personality often makes people feel inferior to others. Furthermore, the emotional disconnect between the person with avoidant personality and others that often results can cause the person with AVPD to feel like an outsider. Both of these factors can make it more difficult to establish close platonic and romantic relationships.
Even when someone who experiences avoidant personality does become involved in an intimate relationship, maintaining a strong emotional bond may be challenging. In order to protect themselves from rejection, people with AVPD may not open up as easily to a romantic partner; this may even cause some partners who don’t understand to feel rejected themselves. Fearing judgement of who they really are, the avoidant partner may continue to wall off parts of themselves even to those they are closest to. Partners of those with avoidant personality may feel their relationship lacks depth or emotional connection.
Although avoidant personality disorder cannot be “cured,” it is still possible for people with AVPD to maintain fulfilling intimate relationships. Often, it may be helpful for the individual with AVPD to attend individual therapy with a professional they trust in order to learn skills that will help them be open, authentic, and communicative with their partner. In some cases, the couple may seek therapy for their relationship together. In couples counseling, the partner without AVPD may gain a deeper understanding of how avoidant personality may affect their partner, and the individual with AVPD may learn how their behavior affects their partner and how to help bridge the gap.
Individuals with avoidant personality are usually aware of even the subtlest of reactions. They often perceive rejection in social interactions, even when the person’s intent was neutral. If someone happens to criticize their anxious demeanor, this criticism may confirm the individual's feelings of inadequacy and perpetuate a cycle of avoidant behavior.
An avoidant personality is likely to hinder a person's job as well as their social life. People with this condition may decline job promotions or increased responsibilities at work because they worry about failure. They often isolate themselves, reducing the size of their support network.
Individuals with avoidant personality can be prone to depression, bipolar, and anxiety. Social anxiety is particularly associated with avoidant personality. They may also meet criteria for a diagnosis of dependent personality, because they can become overly reliant upon a small number of trusted people.
- American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Arlington, VA: American Psychiatric Publishing.
- Avoidant personality disorder. (2017, November 20). Cleveland Clinic. Retrieved from https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/avoidant-personality-disorder
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- Ekern, J. (2013, April 15). Avoidant personality disorder causes, statistics, signs, symptoms, & side effects. Retrieved from https://www.addictionhope.com/mood-disorder/avoidant-personality
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- Meyer, B., & Carver, C. S. (2000). Negative childhood accounts, sensitivity, and pessimism: A study of avoidant personality disorder features in college students. Journal of Personality Disorders, 14(3), 233-248. Retrieved from https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/pedi.2000.14.3.233
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- Ullrich, S., Farrington, D. P., & Coid, J. W. (2007). Dimensions of DSM-IV personality disorders and life-success. Journal of Personality Disorders, 21(6), 657-663. Retrieved from https://guilfordjournals.com/doi/abs/10.1521/pedi.2007.21.6.657