Avoidant Personality Styles
Some avoidant personalities become highly sensitive and aware of everyone's needs but their own to try to manage their fears. Others deal with their anxiety by writing incredible poetry, creating beautiful pieces of artwork, or burying themselves in solitary pursuits. They develop extreme talents in activities that help them deal with their interpersonal anxieties by working alone. Others initially appear quite happy around people or even desirous of the attention of others. But anything that seems to hint of rejection quickly triggers their deep anxiety.
Remember Julie? She hosted a lively and well-organized party, convinced that she would be able to relax and have fun this time. With a smile on her face and a shaky optimism in her heart, Julie greeted each guest, watching closely as the activities unfolded.
Unfortunately, Julie's efforts to give the perfect party in order to push away her fears were unrealistic. Perfect parties, perfect hosts, and perfect guests do not exist! When Dave left the party, it snapped Julie's fragile optimism and any hopes of feeling good about herself.
You may wonder why someone like Dave who so fears relating to people goes to a party in the first place? Good question. The answer is an important thing to remember about people with an avoidant personality style. As fearful as they are of being rejected, they still deeply desire friendships and social contacts.
When an avoidant person's efforts to cope with their anxiety over being negatively evaluated become so pervasive that they seriously impact several areas of their lives, they may be diagnosed with an Avoidant Personality Disorder. This is seen in only 0.5 to 1.0 percent of the general population, equally divided among men and women, and needs to be diagnosed and treated by a professional.
To be professionally diagnosed as having an Avoidant Personality Disorder, a person must have a pattern of relating that begins no later than early adulthood and is characterized by at least four of the following:
- Avoiding occupational activities that involve significant social contact because of the fear of being rejected, criticized, or disapproved
- Not getting involved with others unless they are certain of being liked
- Consistently being afraid to become involved in intimate relationships
- Preoccupation with being criticized or rejected in social settings
- Inhibitions in new social settings because of feelings of inadequacy
- Viewing oneself as socially unappealing, inept, or inferior
- Consistently reluctant to take risks or try new activities because of the fear of being embarrassed, criticized, or ridiculed.1
The avoidant person's inner
experience is characterized by a
hyperalertness to how he feels and
how he fits into his relational world.
In this article we refer to an avoidant personality style rather than the technical phrase, Avoidant Personality Disorder, since many people who do not meet at least four of the formal diagnostic criteria have pervasive avoidant styles that still cause them and others near them a lot of grief.
The Inner Life of the Avoidant Personality
The avoidant person's inner experience is characterized by a hyperalertness to how he feels and how he fits into his relational world. He is extremely sensitive to the moods and feelings of others and to any hint of disapproval. A brief grimace on the face of one's friend may be taken personally as a sign of disapproval.
Such hypersensitivity not only applies to external stimuli but to internal stimuli as well. Fleeting thoughts can become ruminations. A tinge of emotion can be transformed into a flood of despair. A common physical sensation may be translated as abnormal, and phobias may spring forth from everyday relational anxieties and experiences. What others experience as minor stresses are compounded, and may even result in psychosomatic symptoms like Julie's headache in the opening vignette. A pattern of withdrawal and even self-desertion may emerge. Attempts to ignore one's internal conflicts are followed by relational struggles that further reveal these very conflicts—a frustrating and potentially depressing cycle.
Since people with avoidant personalities have difficulty experiencing intimacy, they may come to believe that emotional closeness and caring love (particularly unconditional love) do not exist. Their hypervigilance leads them to pay attention to every negative experience and miss the positive ones that make life so gratifying and pleasurable. All of their relationships are likely to be experienced as difficult, even their relationship with God. No matter how hard they try to believe that God loves them, they have continuous doubts and always expect His disapproval.
Does an avoidant person fear all types of relationships equally? Yes and no. In one sense, the avoidant person has learned to be anxious about all types of relationships. No one is excluded as a potential source of hurt. But most avoidant personalities also find one or a few people with whom they get along better than with others. Unfortunately, in time problems often emerge in even those relationships.
The Roots of Relational Avoidance
God designed each of us for meaningful mutual relationships. Ours is the wonderful opportunity to relate to God, family, friends, and others. The core of our identity is lived out in our relationship with our Creator and with people. We share our deepest feelings, our joys and pains with true friends. That is part of being fully human. The Apostle Paul loved the Christians in Corinth so much that he felt distress and anguish for them (II Corinthians 2:1-4). He goes as far as saying, "If one part suffers, every part suffers with it; if one part is honored, every part rejoices with it" (I Corinthians 12:26, NIV). Sharing meaningful emotional relationships is one of the richest experiences in life. It is the way God made us.
Continued on Page Three