A 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 comfortable or get direction on what to do. In this article, we shall discuss the signs and symptoms of dependent personality disorder.
It is a Cluster C personality disorder and as well, a mental health condition that can cause a person to be overly dependent on other people for their physical and emotional needs.
People with dependent personality disorder often have trouble making decisions for themselves and feel helpless when they’re alone because they feel incapable of taking care of themselves. They tend to have an overwhelming need for someone else to take care of them instead.
The American Psychiatric Association notes that this condition is marked by a pattern of needy, clingy, and submissive behavior, rather than independent or self-sufficient behaviors.
This article explores the symptoms, causes, and diagnosis of dependent personality disorder, as well as some treatment options and coping strategies that may be helpful.
Table of Contents
Symptoms of Dependent Personality Disorder
These are some of the symptoms of dependent personality disorder, according to Aimee Daramus, PsyD, a licensed clinical psychologist and author of “Understanding Bipolar Disorder.”
- Being uncomfortable when alone
- Having a major fear of being abandoned
- Feeling incapable of handling responsibility
- Needing a lot of advice, assurance, and emotional support
- Having trouble making even ordinary decisions independently, such as what to eat or wear
- Being more comfortable when someone else is in charge and making decisions
- Being overly sensitive to others’ criticism or disapproval
- Being unable to disagree with anyone for fear of losing their approval
- Feeling helpless and despaired when relationships come to an end
- Being reluctant to try anything new or challenging
- Lacking self-confidence and having a pessimistic outlook
The symptoms of dependent personality disorder usually begin in childhood or early adulthood, often before the age of 30.
Causes of Dependent Personality Disorder
The exact causes of dependent personality disorder are unknown.2 However, certain factors can contribute to the risk of developing this condition:
- Abusive relationships: People who have been in abusive relationships may have a greater risk of developing dependent personality disorder. A 2017 study notes that people with this condition may be more likely to be in unhealthy relationships that involve physical abuse and partner infidelity.
- Childhood experiences: Experiencing a life-threatening illness in childhood, being neglected as a child, or experiencing child abuse—whether physical, sexual, or emotional—can contribute to the risk of developing a dependent personality disorder.
- Genetics: Genetic factors can play a role in the development of this condition. Having a family member with a dependent personality disorder or another anxiety disorder can increase your chances of having this condition. Personality traits that characterize this condition, such as agreeability and low-risk tolerance are often hereditary, says Dr. Daramus.
- Cultural practices: Certain social, religious, and cultural practices emphasize subservience and reliance on authority. However, it’s important to note that politeness or passivity alone is not a symptom of dependent personality disorder.
Diagnosing Dependent Personality Disorder
Dependent personality disorder can be diagnosed by a mental healthcare provider based on a psychological evaluation.7 If you suspect you or a loved one might have this condition, make an appointment with a mental healthcare provider or ask your primary care doctor for a referral.
According to Dr. Daramus, the diagnostic process might involve:
- Medical history: Your healthcare provider will ask you questions about your personal and family medical history. They will likely cover any medication you take, any health conditions you currently have or have had in the past, and any conditions your family members have experienced, to the best of your knowledge.
- Personality tests: There are personality tests that have been validated by research that can be very helpful in identifying a personality disorder.
- Clinical interview: Your healthcare provider will conduct a detailed clinical interview that will likely cover the duration and severity of your symptoms. They will also try to understand your thoughts, feelings, and motivations. With personality disorders, it’s not just the behavior that matters, but the motivation for it, as people with dependent personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder can all need a lot of praise and validation, but for completely different reasons.
- Other tests: Your healthcare provider may need to conduct a physical examination or other physical or psychological tests, to rule out other health conditions that may be causing your symptoms.
- Evaluation: Based on these factors, your healthcare provider will evaluate whether your symptoms meet the criteria for dependent personality disorder listed in the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), a guiding manual for healthcare professionals.
Substance use, depression, thoughts of suicide, or abuse are complications that may exist alongside dependent personality disorder.7 It’s important for healthcare providers to identify and treat these conditions in parallel.
Treating Dependent Personality Disorder
Below, Dr. Daramus outlines some of the treatment options for dependent personality disorder:
- Individual therapy: Psychotherapy options such as psychodynamic therapy, dialectical behavior therapy (DBT), or cognitive behavior therapy (CBT) can be very effective. They can help you replace problematic thought patterns with healthier ones and encourage you to be more independent and self-reliant.
- Group therapy: Participating in group therapy can also be helpful, as people’s patterns become more evident in a group setting, making them easier to identify and work on. Everyone from the group can benefit from the shared experiences, discussions, and learnings.
- Medication: Your healthcare provider may prescribe antidepressant or anti-anxiety medication if you have also been diagnosed with depression or anxiety.
Treatment for personality disorders doesn’t aim to turn anyone into a totally different person, but rather to help them become a healthier, more moderate, and less extreme version of who they naturally are.
Coping With Dependent Personality Disorder
If you are living with dependent personality disorder, Dr. Daramus shares some strategies that can help you cope:
- Start doing things alone: It’s useful to slowly challenge yourself to do things alone, starting with easier challenges and moving to difficult ones. For instance, you can start by going grocery shopping alone and work your way up to eating a meal in a restaurant by yourself.
- Get some physical activity: It can be helpful to start exercising and push yourself to do a little bit more every day. Learning that you can push your physical and mental limits can help you feel stronger and more capable.
- Work on becoming independent: Examine your relationships with your loved ones and identify ways in which you are dependent on others. Start learning to be independent without their support, one step at a time. Try taking over one task that someone else does for you every week or every month.
- Learn to trust yourself: Start listening to your thoughts, feelings, and instincts. Before you seek others’ opinions while making a decision, reflect on them and pay attention to how you feel. Trust your gut and have faith in your ability to handle the outcome, no matter what it is.
- Examine your need for approval: Remember that liking approval and enjoying it is very different from needing others’ approval to function.
In summary, a dependent personality disorder can cause you to experience anxiety at the prospect of making decisions or being alone. This can be difficult and uncomfortable to live with. However, treatment can help you develop more confidence and trust in yourself, which in turn can help you become more independent and self-sufficient.
I hope you find this article helpful as well as interesting.