Think of avoidant personality disorder as shyness taken up a notch. It’s a condition that’s present in almost 1% of the general population, and its consequences on ones social life are debilitating.
As a communication coach, I deal with individuals with avoidant personality disorder quite often. The seriousness of their situation makes them keen on finding solutions to become more outgoing. So this article is my comprehensive intro to avoidant personality disorder and its treatment.
What It Is and What It’s Not
According to the forth edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-IV), avoidant personality disorder (AvPD) is a psychological condition characterized by a pervasive pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and hypersensitivity to negative evaluation.
It’s important to note that avoidant personality disorder is not a mental disorder. Also, be aware that if you have AvPD, there is nothing physically wrong with your brain or the way it’s functioning.
Any chemical imbalance that may exist in your brain is not the root cause of avoidant personality disorder, but a mere symptom of it. This is why medication, although it can improve the mood, does little to actually overcome avoidant personality disorder. It addresses the symptoms, not the causes.
AvPD is considered a psychological disorder. I even use this term lightly, because it often reinforces the belief people with avoidant personality disorder have that they are somehow broken, which they are not.
Overall, I think the best mode to look at avoidant personality disorder is as a learned way of thinking, feeling and behaving that doesn’t create results, sometimes based on certain predispositions. And the best news is that anything you’ve learned, you can also unlearn.
Avoidant Personality Disorder Symptoms
You can recognize avoidant personality disorder correctly by understanding its symptoms and taking note of them. The following are the most important symptoms visible in people with AvPD:
- Avoiding social activities and spending huge amounts of time alone;
- Having a very small social circle and only carrying brief interactions with the people in it;
- A major reluctance to meeting new people and a strong feeling of inadequacy when dealing with them;
- Being generally reserved and quiet when interacting with others, due to fear of saying something improper and being shamed;
- Being over-preoccupied with how they are seen by others, due to fear of being disliked or rejected;
- Frequently fantasizing about having social interactions that turn out the way they want them to;
- Not rising up to their potential in their career, due to running away from opportunities that require them to be social;
- Seeing themselves as socially unskilled, awkward or inferior to others.
Avoidant Personality Disorder Treatment
Although ‘treatment’ is the conventional word, it may not be the best one. Remember we’re not talking about killing a virus; we’re talking about learning a new way of thinking, feeling and behaving.
I’ll start off with what you probably want to know most: yes, avoidant personality disorder can be ‘treated’. It does take time and perseverance, and it does require using the proper methods, but it is doable and there are hundreds of documented cases that point this out.
Successfully getting rid of AvPD typically involves a three folded process:
1) Challenging and changing dysfunctional thinking. People with avoidant personality disorder tend to have a lot of limiting beliefs, plus an unrealistic view of social standards and of themselves. These need to be corrected by consciously changing the way they think.
2) Gradual exposure. People with avoidant personality disorder need to gradually face those exact situations they’re afraid of and they typically avoid. Systemic exposure, combined with combating unrealistic thinking will set their mind and emotions on the right path.
3) Improving people skills. Since individuals with AvPD avoid social situations as much as they can, their people skills have often atrophied or they’ve never truly developed at all. Thus, training key people skills and learning how to start a conversation, how to keep it going or how to connect with people is crucial.
The methods of intervention that have been proven to work best for overcoming avoidant personality disorder are cognitive-behavioral therapy and coaching. There is a raft of research that confirms the success of these methods. No other methods even come close to the elegance and effectiveness of cognitive-behavioral methods.
If you have avoidant personality disorder, the first essential step is to recognize it without making a big deal out of it.
The second step is to realize that there is hope for you and to fully commit to overcoming this condition. This can be tricky particularly because people with avoidant personality disorder will sometimes tend to avoid the very things that will lead to overcoming their condition.
Using cognitive-behavioral principles and techniques on your own, you will see progress. However, given the seriousness of the condition, initially working one-on-one with a competent coach or a therapist is a good idea.
You will make much faster progress, you’ll successfully get passed those first hurdles and get the wheels spinning in the right direction.
One more thing: If you want to learn more about building social confidence and overcoming your insecurities, then check out this presentation I created, in which I share some of my top advice on this topic. I’m sure you’ll find it very useful.
A rich and fulfilling social life doesn’t have to exist only in your daydreams. Pick the best tools to use, put them into practice and keep moving forward despite the struggles, and you will make it real.
Image courtesy of NicoleAbalde