Fear of “going it alone,” always second-guessing yourself, and depending on reassurance. Understand how to overcome the symptoms of this condition.

Dependent personality disorder is defined as a very intense and overwhelming need to be cared for — often accompanied by fears of being alone, abandoned, or disappointing others.

Folks with this condition might’ve been described as “clingy” or “needy.” But others may just not understand the persistent self-doubt experienced, or that you’re just trying to feel comfort or get direction on what to do.

Signs of this personality disorder usually start to appear in early adulthood.

Symptoms of dependent personality disorder may include:

  • difficulty making everyday decisions without outside advice
  • needing others to take charge of major areas of your life
  • instinctively agreeing with others
  • lacking confidence to start things on your own
  • need for continual reassurance and support from others
  • feeling uncomfortable, anxious, bored, or helpless when alone
  • an urgent need to find someone new when a relationship ends
  • separation anxiety

Dependent personality disorder may look a little different, person to person.

Many people believe the negative thoughts they have about themselves are true — “I’m unlovable. I’m too much. I just can’t.

But these are thoughts— not truth. Yet, these feelings can lead someone with dependent personality disorder to subconsciously seek out more care from others.

If the person you depend on for guidance gets frustrated or overwhelmed by your needs, you might think “Ah, I was right,” and negative thoughts might now be validated for you. The cycle then continues as you may insctinctively try to shop for the same kind of comfort from others.

Some other examples of what dependent personality disorder might look like in daily life include:

  • Self-criticizing and self-doubt. You might, for example, refer to yourself as “stupid” over a mistake that you’d easily forgive in someone else.
  • Dodging responsibility at work. Staying away from big projects — or even just your basic duties — to avoid disappointing others could be a sign that your self-esteem might be affected by dependent personality disorder.
  • Steering away from social situations. You might sometimes decline invitations to hang out with those who aren’t in your “inner council.”
  • Complete lack of autonomy. You could be the life of the party when you’re out with people you love, but you feel empty as soon as you’re by yourself.
  • Masking insecurity. Even if people see you as outwardly confident, you might feel a disconnect between the person you show the world and how you feel inside. You might even feel like people who like and care about you don’t actually feel that way.

Is dependent personality disorder the same as codependency?

While they might look similar, the key difference is in the nature of their interpersonal relationships.

Dependent personality disorder is a condition defined by a constant need to be taken care of; some say it’s largely one-sided. Codependency, on the other hand, involves the compulsion to be needed by another, among other maladaptive coping behaviors.

With that said, it’s possible for them to overlap.

Is dependent personality disorder genetic?

The answer isn’t clear. Personality disorders, in general, aren’t fully understood yet. But it’s usually thought that personality disorders like dependent personality disorder are caused by one or a combination of factors:

  • Genetics. Some experts believe that having a family history of personality disorders predisposes someone to have one, as well.
  • Environment. Our experiences shape us. This is why some people believe that traumatic experiences in our lives are a cause of personality disorders.
  • All the above. Another school of thought is that trauma and stress can influence the development of a personality disorder in people who are genetically predisposed.

A note on genetic predisposition

Genetics can play a role in developing some mental or physical health conditions, but that’s not the end of the story.

Epigenetics is the study of how the DNA you inherit does or does not manifest in you.

This means predispositions that run in your family can stay inactive within you, or can even be reversible when signs show up early.

You can learn more about childhood abuse, complex trauma, and epigenetics here.

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Personality disorders are diagnosed by a mental health professional. They’ll compare the criteria for a diagnosis with your:

  • symptoms
  • life experiences
  • age

Since personality disorders are usually defined by long-standing patterns of behavior, they’re usually diagnosed in adulthood.

Dependent personality disorder is a long-term condition that can be lived with, by making diligent use of therapy and medication. You can stand on your own and enjoy a fulfilling life while managing the condition.

If you’re diagnosed with dependent personality disorder, your treatment might include:

There are no medications that have been approved for the specific treatment of dependent personality disorder. But common psychiatric medications are sometimes used to address some of dependent personality disorder’s effects on mood in combination with talk therapy.

Therapy, with or without medication, may be the best route to explore for the time being. According to one 2020 study, personality disorders among people with health-related anxiety — especially those with dependent traits — were found to benefit from CBT.

What you can try on your own

Beyond what your treatment plan includes therapeutically, there are a number of other things you can do on your own to help you manage dependent personality disorder.

These might include:

  • Introspective activities like meditation or journaling
  • Support groups where people understand your perspective
  • Practicing autonomy, bit by bit, a step in a healthful direction each day

Steps to build up your emotional intelligence and autonomous self include practical strategies like sleeping on decisions, so you can get a fresh take the next morning. This helps overcome second-guessing yourself or nagging indecisiveness.

To encourage autonomy in students, developmental psychologists cultivate these specific skills:

  • Expanding comprehensive thinking by becoming cognizant of the fact that you control what and how you think. Personal agency is bred from reflective self awareness and learning to express emotions healthily
  • Stretching your perceptions of your own competence
  • Asking your “inner circle” to hold you accountable for your own life choices and endeavors. The next time you come to them for guidance and reassurance, give them license to warmly put the onus back on you to make a choice for yourself

Like other personality disorders, dependent personality disorder can affect every aspect of your life.

Research from 2020 indicates that folks living with personality disorders have a higher rate of disabilities, healthcare use, and medical co-occuring medical conditions.

It’s possible to lead a fulfilling life with dependent personality disorder if it’s treated and managed. But those with untreated personality disorders are likelier to experience:

  • continued or worsened symptoms
  • sleep disorders
  • substance use disorders
  • chronic health conditions or chronic pain
  • obesity
  • suicide

If you or someone you know is thinking about suicide, contact the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline at 800-273-8255.

If you believe you’re living with dependent personality disorder, you could benefit from reaching out to a mental health professional.

If you think someone you know may have it, you can gently encourage them to seek treatment — but make sure to come from a loving, nonjudgmental place.

Need a little more guidance? You can bookmark our guide for how to talk about mental illness.

If you need help finding someone who can provide a diagnosis and get you started on treatment, you can check out the American Psychiatric Association’s Find a Psychiatrist tool. Talk therapy, also known as psychotherapy, is one of the key ways to start learning how to cope.

Dependent personality disorder can be anxiety inducing, fear filling, and fill you with indecision and insecurity. For your loved ones and those among your “inner circle,” it can be taxing. But it is treatable.

With talk therapies, mindfulness, and educating yourself and your support group on the condition,you can live well.

If you’re diagnosed, while your treatment team arranges a therapeutic program, you can make some emotional intelligence changes to manage dependent personality disorder while also staying true to yourself.

It’s possible to still value closeness without letting dependent personality disorder take over your life. Recognizing how it affects you is an important step forward.