Harvard Mental Health Letter

Dependent personality disorder

Threatened by self-reliance, they take shelter in submission.

To be sure, people need people. We survive as social creatures. Mental health is partly defined by strong emotional attachments to the people we love and a supple interdependence. Any of us may become perturbed when important people disappoint us. But for some, the relationship becomes one-sided and fraught. Although the distinction between normal and unhealthy dependence may be a matter of degree, psychiatrists have identified a personality disorder associated with such one-sided relationships.

People with dependent personality may submit to the will of others in a misguided attempt to extract a promise of care and protection. They may think of themselves, or present themselves, as unable to cope with everyday life on their own. At the same time, they may fear that a show of confidence or competence will lead to rejection and abandonment. They demand advice and reassurance when making even minor decisions. They take no initiative and let others assume responsibility for their lives — even, sometimes, where to live and what jobs to take. Because they intensely fear disapproval, they may be excessively ingratiating. They find it difficult to disagree or refuse requests, especially from anyone they depend on. They allow themselves to be intimidated and avoid even justified anger for fear of alienating others. To gain the support they think they need, they may volunteer for unpleasant tasks, submit to unreasonable demands, and tolerate verbal, physical, or sexual abuse.

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