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Do You Have Dependent Personality Disorder? Here’s How to Tell.

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WE ALL DEPEND on people in our lives to help us out from time to time. We might need advice to make an important decision and enjoy having the people we love around us as much as possible.

But, when someone has so much self-doubt that they’re incapable of making any decision without others, feels helpless, or fears being alone, these could be signs of dependent personality disorder (DPD).

DPD is a personality disorder that’s characterized by a “pattern of passively allowing others to take responsibility for major areas of life,” according to the American Psychological Association (APA). Someone with DPD usually relies on others for their emotional and physical needs or may need others to take care of them—believing that can’t take care of themselves. And, they may have trouble making decisions without reassurance from others, according to Cleveland Clinic.

“Dependent personality disorder can feel very clingy,” says Jennifer Dragonette, PsyD, clinical services instructor at Newport Healthcare.

DPD is a diagnosable condition that’s said to affect less than 1 percent of the population. “Because it’s a personality disorder, that means it’s gotten to the point where this person’s life is unmanageable,” Dragonette says, adding that people with the disorder tend to struggle with relationships, friendships, and aspects of their daily lives, like their career or financial situation.

“They’re not making their way,” she says. “Maybe they can’t have a job because they have to go out alone in order to do that. Or maybe they’re in a relationship where they depend on someone to drive them everywhere, not because they have a fear of driving but because they can’t be alone in the world.”

Personality disorders, including DPD, can be difficult to diagnose, since people with the conditions don’t always realize there’s a problem with their behaviors. But, once someone seeks treatment, individuals can gain confidence and improve their lives.

What is Dependent Personality Disorder?

DPD is one of several personality disorders, and it’s usually diagnosed in childhood or before age 29, according to Cleveland Clinic. It’s characterized by anxious or nervous behavior, and people may display symptoms to varying degrees, including:

  • Avoiding personal responsibility
  • Fear of abandonment
  • Helplessness
  • Trouble being alone
  • Oversensitivity, especially to criticism
  • Lack of self-confidence
  • Pessimism
  • Struggles with decision-making

“They have an overwhelming need to be taken care of,” says Judith Zackson, Ph.D., licensed clinical psychologist and founder and clinical director of Zackson Psychology Group. “They also have a submissive attitude because that will encourage another person to need to take care of them. So, there is this cycle that keeps going.”

Experts aren’t sure what causes DPD, but most believe it’s a combination of genetics, environment, and development. According to Cleveland Clinic, mental health experts say the disorder is more common for people who’ve experienced abusive relationships, a serious illness, or childhood trauma, or who have a family history of the condition.

“In my practice, I see very smart, capable, independent human beings, but because they have a dependent personality, they will step down, make themselves dumber than they are, not try at all, just so they have this dependent dyad with the other person because they’re so afraid to let go,” Zackson says.

Signs of Dependent Personality Disorder

Mental health professionals diagnose DPD according to criteria listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-5). Some signs of the disorder include:

  • All-encompassing, unrealistic fear of abandonment
  • Feeling anxious or helpless being alone
  • Lacking the ability to manage life’s responsibilities without others’ help
  • Avoiding sharing opinions out of fear that you’ll lose support or approval
  • Needing support from others—even if it means doing things you don’t enjoy
  • Having trouble making decisions without reassurance or advice
  • Struggling to start or complete projects
  • Lacking self-confidence
  • Seeking new relationships to receive support and approval, once a relationship ends

“People go to excessive lengths to obtain support,” Zackson says. “They will do anything, degrade themselves, whatever it takes to get what they need. They’re very preoccupied and fearful of not being taken care of.”

Dependency Isn’t the Same as Codependency

The terms “dependent” and “codependent” are often linked, but they’re not the same.

For one, DPD is a diagnosable personality disorder listed in the DSM-5. A codependent personality is a behavior type, not a diagnosable condition, Dragonette explains.

The APA defines codependency as “being mutually reliant,” where people in relationships are emotionally dependent on one another. It’s a “dysfunctional relationship,” with one person assuming responsibility for meeting the other person’s needs while excluding their own needs.

“Codependent personality is needing to be needed by that person,” Dragonette says. “Dependent personality disorder is more like, ‘I can’t function without other people.’”

DPD Takes a Toll on Relationships

When one person in a relationship has DPD, it creates an imbalance. One partner ends up being responsible for taking care of the other person.

Someone might need to choose what their partner wears or how they spend their free time. They might need to manage the finances and make all the decisions. This causes problems in the relationship.

DPD often stems from childhood trauma, where Zackson says someone might not have been parented properly or were required to take care of others before they were emotionally mature enough to do so.

“What happens is when you get older, you regress back into a younger self,” she says. “Then, you take that younger self into a relationship that is very needy because you’re that kid that never got what you needed, and you feel this hunger and thirst.”

But, the other person isn’t able to have a reciprocal relationship, Zackson explains. “Therefore, that typically causes a lot of havoc in relationships.”

Treatments for Dependent Personality Disorder

People with DPD often seek treatment at the request of others, such as a spouse, partner, or another family member, Dragonette says. Individuals also often wait to seek treatment when “life is so bad that they can’t take it,” Zackson says.

Individuals might be so used to living and feeling a certain way that treatment may be terrifying. Initially, therapists work with patients to understand how treatment will make their lives better.

“What’s hard with personality disorders is that they’re very ingrained,” Dragonette explains. “It may have been going on for decades. So, you really first have to increase a person’s motivation to even want treatment.”

Cognitive behavioral therapy (CBT) can help people build self-confidence and work to become more self-reliant and find positive, meaningful relationships. Dragonette says exposure and response prevention therapy, a type of CBT that exposes someone to an anxiety trigger, can also help.

“Going on an excursion alone and then talking with a therapist about how that felt and being able to try bigger and bigger things on your own,” she says. “You can gently start to differentiate from the people around you.”

Acceptance and commitment therapy (ACT) also helps people learn to tolerate having negative emotions and challenging thoughts, and not avoid them.

“We try to build self-confidence with assertiveness training and clarifying boundaries,” Zackson says. “I always try to make the person feel safe, that they can tell me anything. I let them know that they’re valued, and they feel that inherent value. That’s how they’re able to slowly test it between us and then take that out elsewhere.

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