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Afraid to be Alone

Topic:  Dependent Personality Disorder

Question:  I struggle when it comes to relationships and have made poor choices in the past because I can't stand being alone.  I have been researching this and wonder if I have a dependent personality?

Michelle's Take:  Always in a relationship or looking to be in one, an individual suffering from dependent personality disorder (DPD) is terrified of being alone.  While actual behaviors vary, there are some common patterns associated with dependent personality disorder.  Individuals exhibiting five or more of the following eight indicators potentially meet diagnostic criteria:

1)  Has difficulty making decisions without advice and reassurance

2)  Needs others to assume responsibility for major areas of their life

3)  Has difficulty expressing disagreement because of fear of losing approval

4)  Has difficulty initiating projects or doing things on their own

5)  Goes to excessive lengths to gain support from others

6)  Feels uncomfortable and helpless when alone

7)  Urgently seeks out a new relationship when an old relationship ends

8) Is preoccupied with fear of being left to take care of themselves 

As a case example, a client I will call Susie was in her third marriage when she came to counseling.  Her new husband was making all the parenting decisions for her two teenage children from a previous marriage.  Upset by this, she felt helpless to express her own parenting opinions for fear of ruining her new marriage.  Work and friendships created additional challenges for Susie.  She avoided applying for promotions for fear of working in a new department and had few friends due to what she referred to as "being clingy".  One night at the end of a session, Susie asked for advice over what she should cook for dinner and commented, "I know you must think I am so stupid. I can't even come up with dinner on my own. Why is it so hard for me to make simple decisions?"

Susie wasn't stupid but she was dealing with dependent personality disorder. 

What causes dependent personality disorder?

Researchers and clinicians do not conclusively know.  What is interesting, however, is the variability found among children growing up in the same family.  Not exclusive to DPD, it is common to find that siblings raised in the same household often are not similar.  Many reasons including birth order, personality type, relationship with parent(s) and even self beliefs are likely factors that account for these differences.  

One theory specific to DPD is that both overprotective and authoritative parenting styles can contribute to the development of this disorder.  The logic is something along the lines that overprotective parenting leaves a child feeling incapable of making decisions and caring for themselves. With authoritative parenting, a child is trained to respond to authority figures without developing independent thinking skills.  In either case, developing dependent traits is understandable given the environment.

How do you treat dependent personality disorder?

Here are three steps to consider:

Step 1:  Accurately Assess.  Schedule an appointment with a physician to rule out physical illness.  Follow this up by locating a mental health specialist to visit and talk to about concerns. While temping to self diagnosis, a licensed professional has objectivity and training to help you arrive at a valid assessment.

Step 2:  Consider Therapy.  Therapy is an excellent starting point for an individual and their family to begin understanding this disorder.  A good therapist can help a client identify behaviors and thoughts that are feeding the disorder.  

Step 3:  Make Small Changes.  For Susie's treatment, she was encouraged to practice verbally communicating when she had a differing opinion.  She started this activity with people she felt safe around and then expanded her comfort zone.  She began charting the number of times she asked for validation and reduced the frequency of this behavior.  She protected alone time every week even though it initially created incredible discomfort.  And I am happy to report, she even became better at making dinner decisions.  

If you think you suffer from dependent personality disorder, know that it is treatable.

Warm regards, 


P.S.  Your comment can positively add to this discussion.  Please share how dependent personality disorder has effected your life and any tips you have learned.


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