Avoidant Personality Disorder: Social Isolation as a Refuge

· January 10, 2018

They have an extreme desire for escape, and they’re incapable of processing their fears and anxiety about life. So, they end up constructing the walls of their own fortress where they’ll hide.

This disorder was defined at the beginning of the 20th century by the psychiatrists and eugenicists Bleuler and Kretschmer.  But, it’s not very well-known. Not nearly as much as obsessive compulsive disorder, or dependent personality disorder, for example.

Historians and experts in this psychiatric condition give the same example. They say the best example of avoidant personality disorder is Emily Dickinson. 

Doctor Laurencie Miller explains it a little in her book, “From Difficult to Disturbed.” The celebrated poet progressively distanced herself from the world until she retreated entirely into her room.

Many of her verses, like “but morn–didn’t want me–now–so–goodnight–day!” reflect this recluse.

They show her in the shadow of her own little world faced with the discomfort she felt from a society she didn’t feel part of. One where many of her relationships offered her more disappointment than joy.

We know a person may develop this evasive tendency little by little until it leads to a psychotic break that often requires being checked into a mental ward.

Psychiatrists define these people and that behavior towards isolation as “shrinkers.” And, strange as it may seem, it seems like that tendency is appearing less and less in today’s world. 

Emily Dickinson and avoidant personality disorder


Characteristics of People with Avoidant Personality Disorder

There was a time when people thought an upbringing based on criticism, humiliation, and disdain inevitably lead to avoidant personality disorder. 

But now when it comes to any kind of clinical disorder, we know that “2 plus 2 is never 4.” In other words, everyone reacts differently to the same circumstances.

And in the universe of personality disorders, there are a lot of conditioning factors. There are more associated disorders, and extremely complex dysfunctional thoughts.

Also, the current DSM-V defines avoidant personality as a form of social anxiety. In this case, self-esteem is so low that the person starts to completely lose their social capabilities. 

It gets to the point that they prefer isolation. But the most complex thing about all this is that their situations are completely egodystonic.

That is, all their values, dreams, needs, and identity are in constant, unpleasant chaos. The mental exhaustion that comes as a result is massive. 

But people with avoidant personality disorder know perfectly well what they should do to improve their situation. Because, as a general rule, they’re very intelligent people.

Yet the mere idea of confronting their fears, phobias, and thoughts produces a great deal of anxiety. So they prefer to make excuses, postpone, and leave the solution to the panic they’re feeling today, for tomorrow.

a lone man in a rainy sea

Characteristics of People With Avoidant Personality Disorder

  • The feeling that no matter what they do, they’ll always be rejected, criticized, and pushed away.
  • An exaggerated level of self-criticism. They see themselves as completely incompetent humans in any context. It’s common for them them to say things to themselves like, “I’m not made for this world.”
  • They tend to present an exaggerated level of dysphoria. That is, they combine sadness with anxiety. 
  • They use an exaggerated “arsenal” of dysfunctional thoughts. “It’s better to do nothing than to try something and fail.” “People are always critical. They love to humiliate everyone, and they’re indifferent to other people’s needs…”
  • On top of social avoidance, they also practice three other kinds. They engage in cognitive, behavioral, and emotional avoidance. Specifically, to not think, not do, and not process my emotions. That way, I won’t have to confront the thing that makes me so scared, that I myself am causing.

Also, what causes these behaviors is the reinforcement of the cycle that keeps anxiety alive. So, little by little, to protect themselves from negative emotion, these people choose isolation.

Treatment for Avoidant Personality Disorder

A therapeutic relationship with someone who has avoidant personality disorder is often long and fruitless. This is true for a variety of reasons. 

The first is that they tend to think the professional won’t understand their internal world. They think they’ll be rejected for their thoughts, ideas, and needs.

Once the psychotherapist gains their trust and builds a strong bond, then we might see progress. But, if that trust never appears, it’s unlikely we’ll see any advances that will reinforce the patient’s hope.

Things a person who has avoidant personality disorder needs to work on are these:

  • Reformulate dysfunctional frameworks. 
  • Work on their automatic thoughts and cognitive distortions.
  • Explore the origins of their avoidant behavior.
  • Think back on experiences that cause discomfort.
  • Strengthen social habits that might help them in their daily life.
  • Make a progress diagram, and get better about their avoidant behavior. 
  • Improve their social skills through group therapy.
  • Improve their self-image.
a sad, lonely girl

As you can see, there are multiple strategies a professional can use with these patients. We’re looking at a kind of disorder where certain kinds of therapy can be helpful.

Cognitive-behavioral, rational-emotional, and psychodynamic therapies, as well as systematic desensitization are especially useful.