Central to the Dependant Personality Disorder (DPD) is a pervasive fear of being abandoned by significant others.
Underlying this overwhelming fear of abandonment, is a strongly felt belief that they need to be taken care of. Individuals with Dependent Personality Disorder have deep and abiding reservations and doubts about whether they have the necessary resources and/or capabilities to take care of themselves.
The Core of Dependent Personality Disorder
This strongly held belief – that their very survival is contingent on maintaining proximity to individuals they rely upon, coupled with the fear of abandonment – leads individuals with Dependent Personality Disorder to behave in very specific ways. Typically, they engage in behaviours that are “designed” (not purposefully or for strategic purposes) to have the effect of engendering and eliciting reassurance and care-giving behaviour from their significant other/s.
Nonetheless, the felt need to hold on tenaciously to significant others in a bid to avoid being abandoned not only does not work, but worse, it creates a relationship dynamic that is self-perpetuating and keeps everyone stuck, indefinitely.
By virtue of the two core aspects of Dependent Personality Disorder, namely the strongly held belief that they can’t cope on their own and the overwhelming fear of abandonment, these individuals become ensnared in a dilemma that inhibits and often subverts progress.
To put it differently, because of their fear of abandonment, individuals with DPD often see opportunities to gain independence as anxiety-provoking and even terrifying. They have a somewhat reluctant and ambivalent attitude in relation to opportunities to pursue independence. These feelings of ambivalence and reluctance can be understood by considering two potential feared consequences of achieving this degree of independence. On the one hand, achieving this independence may diminish the need for the carer or significant other to be ubiquitously available for ongoing support and reassurance, thereby threatening the perceived availability of this person. On the other hand, the fear of abandonment betrays an underlying sense of their own feelings of worthlessness that, needless to say, perpetuates the dynamic of needing to “cling onto others”.
Moreover, individuals with DPD come across as pessimistic, berating themselves as “not good enough”, and incessantly doubting their personal capabilities and resources for coping. It is dangerous to risk being seen as capable when you doubt your own capacity to remain consistently so, to create a “false façade” is to risk that no one will be around to help when things begin to fall apart.
Typical Clinging Behaviours
Dependent Personality Disorder can be characterised by a pervasive fear of abandonment and manifests in various forms of “clinging behaviours” that include:
- Indecisiveness – requiring excessive amounts of reassurance;
- Shirking away from assuming responsibility for significant life-decisions and events, deferring to significant others, including parents or therapists, etc;
- Avoiding disagreement and conflict in anticipation of alienating the support person;
- Ingratiating themselves to others, that is, displaying a tendency to please significant others;
- Appearing helpless and protesting about being alone or doing anything by themselves.
Treating Dependent Personality Disorder
How then is Dependent Personality Disorder treated? The most promising and effective treatment essentially involves a two-pronged approach.
Firstly, it is essential to involve the entire system, at least in the initial stages of treatment (ie partner, family, school, church, etc) especially those who are most involved with the individual with DPD. The system may unknowingly or unwittingly be “helping” to maintain the dependence.
This intervention is usually followed by a careful and close examination of the individual’s attachment history. It is precisely this retrospective examination that affords both the individual with DPD and the therapist to make sense of how the “fear of abandonment” was fostered in the context of their early attachment relationships with the primary caregiver. This is a critical phase of treatment in the sense that research in the field of interpersonal neurobiology shows that making sense of our early attachment history is vitally important as a precursor for change. By creating an autobiographical narrative of one’s relationship history, insight is gained into the individual’s current patterns of attachment.
The crucial point is that it is only once one’s attachment and relational patterns have been illuminated or made visible, and understood within the context of one’s attachment history, that one is afforded the opportunity or option to do things differently. That is, to choose to relate to oneself, others and the world differently.
Author: Cobus Kleynhans, BA (Hons), MA (Clin Psych).
A Clinical Psychologist with over a dozen years’ experience in working with individuals and couples, Cobus Kleynhans has specialist training in the techniques and practice of Couples and Family Therapy.
He has pursued extensive development in mindfulness-based treatment models, and is excited by the wealth of research revealing how mindfulness is effective in helping to enhance and promote healthy brain function.
Please note: Cobus’ books are currently closed.