The Link Between Childhood Emotional Neglect And Avoidant Personality Disorder :
It is thought that about 2-3% of individuals within the U.S. suffer from an avoidant personality disorder (AvPD). This disorder can often be linked to childhood emotional neglect.
Those who suffer from the disorder tend to be preoccupied with the faults and failings they perceive in themselves and to exaggerate, in their own minds, these faults and failings (if, indeed, they objectively exist rather than being the imaginings of a self-lacerating personality). To compound this problem, they are also prone to minimising or dismissing altogether, their strengths and positive qualities.
They are also likely to avoid any job that involves significant interaction with other people so are likely to select careers in which they are largely left to their own devices (such as a computer programmer or writer).
Further, they suffer from very low self-esteem and greatly lack confidence; indeed, they are likely to view themselves as profoundly inadequate and fundamentally flawed.
They are highly sensitive and find social interaction extremely uncomfortable, fearing ridicule, criticism and rejection. They feel they have nothing to offer others and that others will immediately dislike them and view them, essentially, as uninteresting non-entities. Often, too, they fear others will see them as ‘weird’, ‘peculiar’ or ‘odd’ due to their self-consciousness and general unease.
If forced to be in a social situation, they are likely to excessively, even obsessively, self-monitor, so concerned are they that they may say or do something that humiliates them. As a result, frequently, they will be taciturn and may speak with much hesitation, stammering and stuttering.
They tend, too, to mistrust others.
In some cases, they may also be agoraphobic, staying at home by themselves living in an internal world of the mind which may well include elements of fantasy.
Avoidant personality disorder can be particularly cruel as, often, those who suffer from it have a deep desire and need to connect emotionally with others.
Causes of avoidant personality disorder (AvPD):
The onset of avoidant personality disorder is usually during late teens. Those who have suffered childhood emotional neglect (i.e. shown little or no love, affection, approval or interest) from their parents are at higher than average risk of developing it, especially if they have been rejected by one or both parents.
Indeed, my own mother rejected me when I was thirteen years old so I went to live with my father and step-mother for several years who could barely tolerate my presence and essentially ignored me for half a decade (except to point out my faults which were, it seems, inordinate). Apparently, I was ‘sullen’, ‘morose’ and ‘hostile’. A ‘clot’, a ‘nincompoop’ and ‘buffoon.’ ‘Ungodly’ and in all likelihood ‘evil’, quite possibly demonically possessed and in urgent need of an exorcism (in other posts I have written of how my step-mother shouted at me in what she believed to be, or possibly faked, ‘tongues’, when I was thirteen and had just moved in with her and my father, and how she would tell me that both she and her biological son could ‘sense evil in the house’ whenever my friend, Steve, had been round to see me). And, it goes without saying, I had no redeeming features whatsoever, let alone any mitigation regarding my abhorrent behaviour.
To this day, I feel like an extremely awkward, excessively self-conscious teenager in the company of others. I suppose as a child, I internalised the view that I was neither likeable nor interesting, nor, for that matter, even wanted.
Once such a self-view takes root, it is very hard to dislodge, almost like trying to change the colour of your eyes by a sheer act of will.
More On Causes :
Evolutionary psychology (the study of why behaviours evolve) explains in part the behaviour of those who suffer from AvPD. Our ancestors developed the ‘fight or flight’ response to things that they feared, and, as individuals with AvPD, at root, fear other people, they can become hostile to others (reflecting the ‘fight’ response), or do their best to avoid others (reflecting the ‘flight’ response). However, research suggests that ENVIRONMENTAL factors play a larger part in the development of AvPD than genetic factors (Millon and Everly).
Two main influences on the development of APD are :
Let’s look at each of these in turn :
– PARENTAL REJECTION: according to research conducted by the psychologist Kantor, parental rejection is the environmental factor which is most strongly associated with an individual’s later development of AvPD. This is borne out by the fact that those who suffer from AvPD are far more likely than others to have experienced rejection; furthermore, their experiences of rejection have commonly been found to be particularly intense and frequent.
Parental rejection will often set up the mindset (either consciously or unconsciously) in the rejected individual which runs along the lines of: ‘If my parents can’t accept me, how can I possibly expect anybody else to?’ This can have a catastrophic effect upon the person’s self-esteem, self-worth and confidence. It will often, too, lead the individual to become profoundly self-critical, even to the point of self-hatred.
– PEER REJECTION: if, when we are young, our home environment is rejecting, critical, hostile and undermines our sense of self-worth, but, on the other hand, outside of the home we have many experiences which are positively reinforcing to us (e.g. supportive teachers, friends or other social networks), the latter experiences may enable us to develop sufficient PSYCHOLOGICAL RESILIENCE to protect us from the worst emotional effects of our home-life.
However, if a young person is rejected not only by parent/s but, also, by siblings and peer group, AvPD is far more likely to develop in later life, especially if the various rejections continue over a sustained period.
The experience of continual rejection and humiliation can lead to the individual internalising others’ negative view of him/her (ie coming to see him/herself in the same negative light in which others appear to see him/her).
This leads him/her to become yet more self-critical and to feel even more inferior. These feelings of worthlessness lead to even greater withdrawal from others, and, thus, increases to an even greater extent, the person’s loneliness and sense of isolation. In the mind of the person becoming increasingly cut off from society, the rejection by his/her peers seems to justify and validate the parental rejection. In the end, the individual may retreat so far from others that AvPD develops.
OTHER POSSIBLE PARENTAL CONTRIBUTIONS TO THE DEVELOPMENT OF AvPD :
I briefly outline these two possible contributors to the development of AvPD below :
– INFANTALIZATION: parents who infantilise their children (i.e are overprotective and don’t let the child develop a sense of self-responsibility) may make it hard for that child, as s/he grows up, to relate to others outside of the family on equal terms. This may lead to the individual becoming regressive and/or dependent in extra-familial relationships.
– TRANSFERENCE : (‘transference’ refers to the psychological mechanism whereby we transfer a feeling we have for somebody close to us onto a different person. An example would be a person who fears his/her father later transferring that fear onto authority figures in general, such as their boss at work). Transference can lead to avoidance behaviour when the person with AvPD distances him/herself from others who remind him/her of someone s/he was afraid of as a child (usually a parent).
As has already been discussed, those suffering from avoidant personality disorder will generally endeavour to avoid social contact with others as a strategy to prevent themselves from being rejected and rebuffed. Over time, others become aware of this aloofness, and, frequently, will likewise avoid him/her (this has been termed ‘reciprocal avoidance’).
Worse still, especially if young (at school, for example), s/he may attract the attention of bullies who may apply derogatory names to him/her (eg ‘loner’ etc) as they see him/her as an easy target and perhaps as too timid to stand up for him/herself. Adults, too, who suffer from AvPD, may be similarly discriminated against, albeit often in a more subtle manner.
Those with AvPD often find themselves trapped within a vicious cycle: his/her withdrawn and aloof behaviour leads to others not being well disposed towards him/her, this, in turn, leads to lowering the self-esteem of the AvPD sufferer further, which, in turn, leads to further withdrawn behaviour…and so on…and so on… As the cycle continues, the problem becomes increasingly intensified.
Because the person with AvPD is hypervigilant for any possible signs of rejection, as well as being hypersensitive to such, this can often lead to him/her perceiving rejection where none, objectively speaking, exists; or else s/he may greatly exaggerate and magnify minor signs of rejection. In the mind of the person with AvPD, any signs of rejection are deeply personal – they see the perceived rejection as confirming the ‘fact’ that they are a bad and worthless person. They assume that the perceived rejection is based on an in-depth and accurate analysis of their personality (whereas, in reality, it is much more likely to be due to superficial reasons, because the perceived rejector is in a bad mood, or for any number of reasons that are not personal in relation to the person with AvPD.
It has been pointed out by the psychologists Millon and Everly that conditioning is at play in the development of AvPD; specifically, a type of conditioning known by psychologists as NEGATIVE REINFORCEMENT. A behaviour which is NEGATIVELY REINFORCED is one which becomes associated with avoiding an undesirable outcome. In the case of the individual with APD, the behaviour which is negatively reinforced is aloofness as it can help the individual avoid the adverse consequence of rejection. The more a behaviour is reinforced in this way, the more ingrained the response becomes.
Three types of treatment available for AvPD are :
1) Behaviour Therapy
2) Family Therapy
Let’s briefly look at these in turn :
1) Behaviour Therapy – this form of therapy involves the therapist encouraging the person with AvPD to interact with others in social situations for longer and longer periods while giving him/her support, encouragement and positive reinforcement.
2) Family Therapy – earlier described how the development of AvPD might be contributed to by the sufferer having been ‘infantilised’ by his/her parents. If this is suspected to be the case, family therapy may be appropriate.
3) Medication – doctors sometimes prescribe anti-depressants to those suffering from AvPD, which can help reduce the anxiety contributing to the condition.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.