You want to feel accepted by others and be successful, but an underlying fear of rejection holds you back.
If you have avoidant personality disorder, you likely experience two conflicting desires.
On the one hand, you want to have productive life experiences, feel affection and acceptance, and bond in close relationships. Yet, since you’re also hyperaware of the potential for negative feedback, you might instinctively do everything you can to avoid criticism or embarrassment.
This deep-seated fear of rejection can create a barrier that seems impossible to overcome, but change is possible — intimacy and productivity lies within your reach.
Below, we’ll explore symptoms, potential causes, treatments and life scenarios, plus offer some guidance on finding professional support.
Avoidant personality disorder is characterized by a long-standing pattern of restraint and avoidance in situations that are social or involving completion and achievement.
Folks with this condition may not feel anxious but rely on angst due to a habitual belief that it helps you avoid catastrophe.
This condition may manifest that way, or fill someone with intense and overwhelming fears around negative feedback and rejection that can lead you to avoid social situations.
Avoidant personality disorder can seem similar to shyness or social anxiety, but there’s more to it than relationships and uneasiness around unfamiliar settings.
Avoidant personality disorder makes relationships of all degrees more difficult than they already are, for all of us.
A day in the life
You might fixate on how people will react when they notice your inadequacies for themselves.
Or, you might self-sabotage efforts to perform well on projects for school or work, because the idea of making personal decisions or completing tasks subpar and being graded with poor performance is unbearable.
Fearing the judgment and criticism you foresee as inevitable, you might keep to yourself and hesitate to pursue friendships or relationships. At the same time, you may yearn to socialize or form connections easily, and hence, this internal conflict can cause distress.
A few quick facts:
researchsuggests avoidant personality disorder appears to occur in approximately 1.5-2.5% of the population. For the U.S. population, that’s about 8 million of us.
- Females may have a
slightly higher chanceof developing the condition.
- Clinicians usually diagnose avoidant personality disorder in adults.
It’s not the same as shyness or social anxiety
If you live with avoidant personality disorder, others might think of you as shy, reserved, or private.
This condition goes beyond being bashful, although early signs often include childhood timidness. Shy people might have trouble connecting with new people at first but gradually feel more comfortable as time goes on.
A day in the life
With avoidant personality disorder, you might feel so concerned that others will notice what you consider your flaws or inadequacies that you may not feel safe or relaxed in their company.
Social anxiety and avoidant personality disorder share so many similarities that some
Avoidant personality disorder is also noteworthy because it’s not limited to social interactions. Fear of being judged harshly may also affect someone’s productivity and life success. Think of that saying: “If I don’t try, then I won’t fail.”
One key difference between the two lies in the fact that people living with anxiety often recognize their responses as anxiety.
If you have social anxiety, you might have a lot of fear around going to a party. You may know the things you worry about — spilling your drink down your shirt or saying the wrong thing — are pretty unlikely, but you still can’t help worrying about them.
With avoidant personality disorder, folks often lack that same awareness. Instead, you may feel convinced you’ll say or do something to earn negative judgment from others.
It doesn’t mean antisocial, either
Antisocial, by definition, means unsocial. Antisocial people avoid others because they are content with their own company above anything else anyone could offer.
Fearing rejection from others and not wanting their company at all are two different things.
What does it feel like to live with avoidant personality disorder?
Researchers interviewed 15 people living with avoidant personality disorder to get more insight into their day-to-day experience of the condition.
They noticed several key themes in how the participants described their experiences:
- struggling to be a person
- fear and longing
- longing for connection
- dreading to get close
- being alone, for better or for worse
- a doubting self
- feeling insecure
- searching for a sense of self
In a follow-up report, researchers also noted that participants shared similar goals for treatment:
- establishing self-confidence
- finding inner strength to cope with challenges
- feeling included and valued in society
- getting to know themselves better
- living freely without considering the possibility of rejection
If you have avoidant personality disorder, your symptoms might include:
- avoiding social situations, or hold back when you can’t steer clear of them
- considering yourself inferior to others
- being very sensitive to judgment or negative feedback
These traits can show up in different ways. You might:
- avoid activities where you have to spend time with people
- keep personal information to yourself
- frequently worry about the impression you have on others
- believe others find you unappealing or awkward
- regularly imagine the relationships you’d like to have
- find it difficult to share feelings, even with loved ones
- avoid trying new things because you don’t want to embarrass yourself
- consider everyday situations difficult or mortifying
- feel as if you have an undefined or incomplete sense of self
- avoid places, people, and situations you aren’t familiar with
Your concern over potential criticism can lead to constantly play back other people’s words and actions in your head. You might take neutral remarks, such as “I just saw your work,” or “Could you please look this over one more time?” as judgmental or critical.
Avoidant personality disorder doesn’t necessarily mean you completely isolate yourself.
You might feel able to form relationships with people who convince you of their affection for you. Still, you might need a lot of reassurance to trust they really do accept you without judgment.
While experts have yet to determine a clear cause of avoidant personality disorder, most believe it develops from a combination of factors:
- early childhood environment and relationships
- life experiences that shape your personality
- genetics or a family history of the condition
A note on genetic predisposition
“Our family just has ____ disorder.”
Genetics play a hand in developing some health or mental conditions, but that’s not the end of the story.
Epigenetics is the study of how inherited differences in your DNA have — or have not — manifested in you. That means predispositions that run in your family line can stay inactive within you, or if they have shown early signs, possibly be reversible.
Many experts believe personality disorders develop as an adaptive response to challenging or traumatic situations.
In other words, these specific traits and behaviors can serve as defense mechanisms. They help you cope with stress and protect you from emotional pain.
Perhaps, instead of providing encouragement and support, your parent:
- neglected or ignored you
- offered harsh criticism
- mocked, demeaned, or devalued you
Bonds with childhood caregivers typically lay the foundation for the relationships you develop later in life. If you absorb their criticism, you might grow up with a negative self-image and have trouble trusting others.
This fearful or avoidant attachment mode can make it difficult to form relationships. Despite your desire for intimacy, you might not be able to shake the underlying conviction that you’ll eventually face the same rejection and disdain.
Only trained mental health professionals can diagnose avoidant personality disorder.
Experts don’t often diagnose the condition in children and teens. A pattern of shyness or reticence often begins in childhood or adolescence, but this can happen as a typical part of development.
Before diagnosing avoidant personality disorder, mental health professionals will ask questions about the signs and symptoms you’ve noticed, including:
- How long have you experienced them?
- In what setting do the recurring feelings arise? For example, at school, work, or home.
- How do they affect your life?
Clinicians also may observe how those being screened for avoidant personality disorder respond to them directly. Sometimes folks will show avoidant or extremely acquiescent reactions in assessment or therapy.
Traits of personality disorders persist over time and appear in most areas of folks’ life.
A day in the life
Maybe you tell the clinician during the assessment you feel extremely hesitant to open up at work since your co-workers all seem much more experienced and professional. You’re sure they’ll laugh at your suggestions.
You may also let a clinician know — on the contrary — that with close friends and loved ones, you have no trouble saying what you think. You never worry that they’ll laugh at you, either.
With that information, an expert likely wouldn’t diagnose avoidant personality disorder.
A diagnosing professional could diagnose avoidant personality disorder if you explain it feels impossible to pursue friendships and relationships or finish projects you start because you fear mockery or rejection.
You might also describe continually taking pains to avoid or escape any possibility for rejection. This symptom could play out in these everyday scenarios below.
A day in the life
- turning down an interview for your dream job because you worry you won’t make a good impression
- never sharing in class even though participation makes up a significant part of your grade
- refusing invitations from neighbors because you’re sure they don’t really want to get to know you
Over time, avoidant personality disorder can begin to have a deep impact on your day-to-day experience if not managed.
You might notice some of the following:
Isolation and loneliness
Not everyone desires a large social circle, and it’s perfectly fine to have only one or two close friends — as long as you feel satisfied with those relationships.
With avoidant personality disorder, you might hesitate to make friends or date because you feel strongly that prospects will reject you. This belief can get in the way of forming fulfilling relationships.
Challenges at school and work
Fear of negative feedback and trouble connecting with others can eventually affect your performance at work or school.
A day in the life
Your professor explains a new concept during a class lecture, but you don’t quite understand it. You want to ask them to clarify, but you worry you’re the only one who doesn’t get it.
“Everyone will realize how ignorant I am,” you might think, and say nothing.
When the concept shows up later on your exam, you get that question wrong.
A day in the life
Once a week, your team meets to discuss highlights from the past week and talk through new ideas for projects. Your supervisor calls on everyone to share, and participation is expected.
You know it’s just a matter of time before someone points out just how terrible your ideas are. Each week, you feel so nervous about sharing that you start going home early and skipping the meeting.
After a few weeks, your supervisor calls you in to remind you that meetings aren’t optional, leaving you so terrified of being fired that you wonder if you should just quit and get it over with.
Co-occurring health concerns
Social support can be a fringe benefit when it comes to ordinary life stress. If you don’t have that support, you might end up struggling to manage any difficulties that come up and end up feeling more overwhelmed.
For some, there’s a perception substance use mighthelp your symptoms feel more bearable, but that’s temporary. Science tells us symptoms will return once sober again. In fact, substances are known to intensify feelings of depression, and both mental illness and substance use feed each other’s perpetuating condition.
Sharing your concerns with a therapist might seem like a ghastly prospect if you have avoidant personality disorder. Even when you think therapy could help relieve some of your distress, the fear of criticism and judgment might outweigh your desire for support.
Consider, though, that mental health professionals specialize in compassionate care that meets you where you are. They understand you didn’t choose to have a personality disorder.
A therapist will offer empathy and kindness as they validate your experience, help you identify and address symptoms, and explore helpful coping methods.
It’s always worth reaching out for support when your symptoms lead to thoughts of self-harm or suicide.
Signs of suicide risk
There are some things we should all know: how to perform CPR, the Heimlich maneuver, basic first aid. How to identify suicide risk needs to be one of those things, too.
Signs of suicide risk include:
- withdrawing from loved ones and self-isolating
- wavering between not wanting to live and undecided about wanting to die
- talking or writing about death or suicide
- putting personal affairs in order, such as giving away prized possessions
- previous suicide attempts
Our FAQs about suicide offer more details.
Treatment for avoidant personality disorder
Though no medication is specific to avoidant personality disorder itself, treatment generally involves talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy.
Treatment doesn’t mean changing your disposition or personality. Rather, overcoming and addressing your fears of rejection could help you establish stronger connections with yourself as well as others. Therapy, then, can help you establish a complete sense of self.
Psychotherapy for avoidant personality disorder
When it comes to therapy for this condition, it’s generally most helpful to connect with a therapist who specializes in treating personality disorders, particularly since avoidant personality disorder symptoms can resemble social anxiety symptoms.
- schema therapy
- cognitive behavioral therapy
- exposure therapy
- psychodynamic therapy
- supportive therapy
- acceptance and commitment therapy
- emotion-focused therapy
metacognitive interpersonal therapy
Your therapist might also recommend group therapy to help you practice interacting in a safe space.
No matter which type of therapy you choose, a mental health professional can offer guidance with:
- identifying and navigating fears of rejection and criticism
- reframing unhelpful beliefs
- practicing social skills
- learning coping strategies to manage distress
- exploring potential factors contributing to avoidant personality disorder
- addressing any other mental health symptoms, including anxiety, stress, or depression
You can dive here into a more in-depth look at treatment for avoidant personality disorder.
Medication for avoidant personality disorder
Overwhelming feelings of anxiety and depression aren’t always manageable alone. They can make day-to-day life more difficult and complicate the therapy process.
Some people report medication offers enough space from distressing thoughts and feelings that daily life becomes more manageable.
Medication can help ease distress, but it won’t treat the underlying causes. Mental health professionals typically recommend a combination of medication and therapy rather than medication alone.
Experts haven’t yet found a cure for avoidant personality disorder or any other personality disorder, but support from a trained therapist can make a difference.
Therapy won’t change your personality completely, so you might still hesitate before interacting with new people or situations.
That said, therapy offers a safe, nonjudgmental space to address and challenge distressing thoughts, which can make it easier to overcome self-doubt and build fulfilling relationships.
Ready to find the right therapist? These resources can help: