What is Dependent Personality Disorder?

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dependent personality disorder

Infants enter the world completely dependent on others.  They cannot feed, soothe, or protect themselves and crying is their only recourse to garner attention from those around them.  They have no tools in their proverbial toolbox and are hopelessly defenseless against the world’s prey.  They are physically, psychologically, and emotionally dependent on their caregivers, whom they become desperate to form secure attachments with.  Eventually, these infants grow into children and along the way, develop an insatiable hunger to explore their surroundings and figure out where they belong.  The majority of children will eagerly strive for independence and in doing so; will gradually become less dependent on their caregivers.  However, some children will deviate from this process, fail to become autonomous, and eventually develop dependent personality disorder

A personality disorder is characterized by a fixed and persistent pattern of thought and action that triggers difficulties across multiple areas of one’s life.  Dependent personality disorder is a Cluster C personality disorder, meaning that it is typified by extreme fright and apprehension.  Dependent personality disorder is diagnosed in early adulthood and exemplified by a persistent dependence on other people to meet their emotive, cognitive, and physical needs.

Individuals with Dependent Personality Disorder have difficulty making decisions, even minor, insignificant ones, and need continuous endorsement and support from others.  They lack assertiveness and fail to have confidence, thus holding the opinions of others in higher regard than their own.  One with dependent personality disorder adheres themselves tightly to others and harbors anxiety about being abandoned or left alone.  Commonly, those with this personality disorder are negative, pessimistic, and always anticipate that the worst scenario will occur.  They tend to disparage and demean their skills, achievements, and talents and take the disparagement of others as proof of their insignificance.  These individuals are not social and gear most of their interactions with the small number of people that they are dependent on.  Individuals are hypersensitive, avoid responsibilities, and are fearful of being rejected.  Individuals with this disorder often engage in subservient behaviors with calculated intent to extract care from others.  People with this disorder truly fear that they cannot function in everyday life without the assistance of others.

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There are several risk factors that can make an individual more susceptible to dependent personality disorder.  Individuals that have domineering, strict, and controlling parents are more prone to developing the disorder, as authoritarian parenting can restrict a child’s ability to becoming independent.  Those that have grown up in neglectful households, engaged in abusive relationships, or who have experienced significant trauma may also be more prone to a dependent personality disorder diagnosis.  Finally, recurring physical illness, genetics, or a family history of anxiety may also precipitate diagnosis.

Dependent Personality Disorder is diagnosed within a cognitive, motivational, behavioral, and emotional framework.  An individual needs to cognitively deem themselves incapable and unsuccessful and be motivated to link themselves with protective caregivers for survival.  Behaviorally, a person needs to diminish the prospect of isolation or desertion and emotionally, needs to possess anxiety of abandonment.

Psychotherapeutic interventions are targeted towards helping people to become autonomous and to raising self-worth and confidence.  Treatment seeks to educate and assist individuals in forming well-rounded, optimistic, and healthy interpersonal relationships.  Pharmacological interventions are sometimes used in conjunction with therapy to treat symptoms of anxiety and depression that may result from the condition.  However, medication cannot address characteristics of the personality disorder itself.

Infants are born immediately dependent on those around them.  Ideally, all caregivers would always be eager to tend to their infant’s needs and to foster their emotional and physical independence.  Unfortunately, this is not always the case and some may go on to develop Dependent Personality Disorder.  Thankfully, people with this disorder commonly improve with intervention and symptoms often dissipate as treatment progresses.

Tracy is a Licensed Professional Counselor and is a clinical supervisor for the Community YMCA, Counseling & Social Services branch. Tracy has over 12 years of experience working in many settings including partial care hospitalization and intensive outpatient programs, community agencies, group practice, and school-based programs. Tracy works with clients of all ages, but especially enjoys working with the adolescents. Tracy  facilitates groups using art therapy, sand play and psychodrama.