The symptoms of dependent personality disorder primarily include a long-standing need for the person to be taken care of and a fear of being abandoned or separated from important individuals in his or her life. This leads the person to engage in dependent and submissive behaviors that are designed to elicit care-giving behaviors in others. The dependent behavior may be seen as being “clingy” or “clinging on” to others, because the person fears they can’t live their lives without the help of others.
Individuals with dependent personality disorder are often characterized by pessimism and self-doubt, tend to belittle their abilities and assets, and may constantly refer to themselves as “stupid.” They take criticism and disapproval as proof of their worthlessness and lose faith in themselves. They may seek overprotection and dominance from others. Regular activities of daily life may be impaired if independent initiative is required. They may avoid positions of responsibility and become anxious when faced with decisions. Social relations tend to be limited to those few people on whom the individual is dependent.
Chronic physical illness or separation anxiety disorder in childhood or adolescence may predispose an individual to the development of dependent personality disorder.
A personality disorder is an enduring pattern of inner experience and behavior that deviates from the norm of the individual’s culture. The pattern is seen in two or more of the following areas: cognition; affect; interpersonal functioning; or impulse control. The enduring pattern is inflexible and pervasive across a broad range of personal and social situations. It typically leads to significant distress or impairment in social, work, or other areas of functioning. The pattern is stable and of long duration, and its onset can be traced back to early adulthood or adolescence.
Symptoms of Dependent Personality Disorder
Dependent personality disorder is characterized by a pervasive fear that leads to “clinging behavior” and usually manifests itself by early adulthood. It includes a majority of the following symptoms:
- Has difficulty making everyday decisions without an excessive amount of advice and reassurance from others
- Needs others to assume responsibility for most major areas of his or her life
- Has difficulty expressing disagreement with others because of fear of loss of support or approval
- Has difficulty initiating projects or doing things on his or her own (because of a lack of self-confidence in judgment or abilities rather than a lack of motivation or energy)
- Goes to excessive lengths to obtain nurturance and support from others, to the point of volunteering to do things that are unpleasant
- Feels uncomfortable or helpless when alone because of exaggerated fears of being unable to care for himself or herself
- Urgently seeks another relationship as a source of care and support when a close relationship ends
- Is unrealistically preoccupied with fears of being left to take care of himself or herself
Because personality disorders describe long-standing and enduring patterns of behavior, they are most often diagnosed in adulthood. It is uncommon for them to be diagnosed in childhood or adolescence, because a child or teen is under constant development, personality changes, and maturation. However, if it is diagnosed in a child or teen, the features must have been present for at least 1 year.
Dependent personality disorder is diagnosed in 0.5 to 0.6 percent of the general population, according to the American Psychiatric Association (2013).
Like most personality disorders, dependent personality disorder typically will decrease in intensity with age, with many people experiencing few of the most extreme symptoms by the time they are in their 40s or 50s.
How is Dependent Personality Disorder Diagnosed?
Personality disorders such as dependent personality disorder are typically diagnosed by a trained mental health professional, such as a psychologist or psychiatrist. Family physicians and general practitioners are generally not trained or well-equipped to make this type of psychological diagnosis. So while you can initially consult a family physician about this problem, they should refer you to a mental health professional for diagnosis and treatment. There are no laboratory, blood, or genetic tests that are used to diagnose dependent personality disorder.
Many people with dependent personality disorder don’t seek out treatment. People with personality disorders, in general, do not often seek out treatment until the disorder starts to significantly interfere or otherwise impact a person’s life. This most often happens when a person’s coping resources are stretched too thin to deal with stress or other life events.
A diagnosis for dependent personality disorder is made by a mental health professional comparing your symptoms and life history with those listed here. They will make a determination whether your symptoms meet the criteria necessary for a personality disorder diagnosis.
American Psychiatric Association. (2013). Diagnostic and statistical manual of mental disorders (5th ed.). Washington, DC: Author.