You or someone you know may be shy, but it's on another level when that shyness causes you to avoid social situations. The American Psychiatric Association describes avoidant personality disorder as having significant impairments in how someone sees themselves — which leads to low self-esteem, extreme sensitivity to criticism, and reluctance to get involved with people unless they know that they will be liked. And while it's not a totally common condition, it does impact around one percent to two percent of the population.
This condition certainly doesn't make someone "weird" or any less amazing than anyone else! But there are some things to know about it so that you can feel more comfortable and live your best life. We talked to Maria Shifrin, PhD, a psychologist at SelfWorks Group in New York City, to give you the answers you need to do just that.
The most important thing to know about personality disorders in general, Shifrin said, is that there is a pervasive pattern. Unlike other medical disorders, personality disorders are constant and don't have flare-ups. When it comes to avoidant personality disorder, "A person sees themselves as inadequate in most major areas of life — at work, with family, with friends," she said. "At the same time, they also deeply want a connection."
There are various theories out there, but one that Shifrin noted is generally believed is that people develop avoidant personality disorder in childhood. Double-bind communication from family — like receiving love coupled with mockery or emotional abandonment — causes mixed messages. This can make people think of themselves as inadequate or fear judgment, which becomes problematic as they get older.
People with avoidant personality disorder have so much fear of being rejected by others that they choose to isolate themselves. The most prominent feeling people with the condition have is anxiety, Shifrin said. They also experience extreme fear and nervousness, which causes them to avoid relationships. This is difficult because people with the condition actually want connections and contact. They may have a few close relationships, however, oftentimes they still need a lot of reassurance from those people.
"I think the key for people with avoidant personalities is to establish a relationship with a therapist," Shifrin said. That way, they can build a connection and trust and don't have the fear that they will be rejected. "If it's severe enough to prohibit daily functioning, often a combination of medications [such as antidepressants] and talk therapy is used," she continued.
Avoidant personality disorder is a lifelong condition that needs attention, and treatment can help someone go through life more comfortably and happy in their relationships.