Avoidant Personality Disorder

Learning Objectives

  • Describe the characteristics and diagnosis of avoidant personality disorder

Cluster C personality disorders include avoidant, dependent, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorders. Individuals with these disorders often appear anxious, fearful, or clingy (a mnemonic to help remember Cluster C disorders are the three C’s—cowardly, clingy, and compulsive). Avoidant personality disorders exhibit a pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and hypersensitivity to negative evaluation. Dependent personality disorders show a pattern of submissive and clinging behavior that evidence an excessive need to be taken care of. Lastly, obsessive-compulsive personality disorders manifest a preoccupation with orderliness, perfectionism, and control.

Table 1. DSM-5 Personality Disorders
Avoidant socially inhibited and oversensitive to negative evaluation; avoids occupations that involve interpersonal contact because of fears of criticism or rejection; avoids relationships with others unless guaranteed to be accepted unconditionally; feels inadequate and views self as socially inept and unappealing; unwilling to take risks or engage in new activities if they may prove embarrassing C
Dependent allows others to take over and run their life; is submissive, clingy, and fears separation; cannot make decisions without advice and reassurance from others; lacks self-confidence; cannot do things on their own; feels uncomfortable or helpless when alone C
Obsessive-Compulsive pervasive need for perfectionism that interferes with the ability to complete tasks; preoccupied with details, rules, order, and schedules; excessively devoted to work at the expense of leisure and friendships; rigid, inflexible, and stubborn; insists things be done a certain way; miserly with money C

Avoidant Personality Disorder

People with avoidant personality disorder (AvPD) often consider themselves to be socially inept or personally unappealing and avoid social interaction for fear of being ridiculed, humiliated, rejected, or disliked. They often avoid becoming involved with others unless they are certain they will be liked. As the name suggests, the main coping mechanism of those with avoidant personality disorder (AvPD) is avoidance of feared stimuli.

Those affected display a pattern of severe social anxiety, social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy and inferiority, extreme sensitivity to negative evaluation and rejection, and avoidance of social interaction despite a strong desire for intimacy.

According to the DSM-5, avoidant personality disorder (AvPD) diagnosis refers to a widespread pattern of inhibition around people, feeling inadequate, and being very sensitive to negative evaluation. Symptoms begin by early adulthood and occur in a range of situations.

A person in deep thought squatting with their hands clasped.

Figure 1. People with AvPD often have a negative perception of themselves.

Four of the following seven specific symptoms should be present:

  • avoids occupational activities that involve significant interpersonal contact, because of fears of criticism, disapproval, or rejection
  • is unwilling to get involved with people unless certain of being liked
  • shows restraint within intimate relationships because of the fear of being shamed or ridiculed
  • is preoccupied with being criticized or rejected in social situations
  • is inhibited in new interpersonal situations because of feelings of inadequacy
  • views self as socially inept, personally unappealing, or inferior to others
  • is unusually reluctant to take personal risk or to engage in any new activities because they may prove embarrassing

Differential Diagnosis

In contrast to social anxiety disorder, a diagnosis of AvPD also requires that the general criteria for a personality disorder are met. According to DSM-5, AvPD must be differentiated from similar personality disorders such as dependent, paranoid, schizoid, and schizotypal. But these disorders can also occur together; this is particularly likely for AvPD and dependent personality disorder. Thus, if criteria for more than one personality disorder are met, all can be diagnosed. There is also an overlap between avoidant and schizoid personality traits, and AvPD may have a relationship to the schizophrenia spectrum.


AvPD is reported to be especially prevalent in people with anxiety disorders, although estimates of comorbidity vary widely due to differences in (among others) diagnostic instruments. Research suggests that approximately 10–50% of people who have panic disorder with agoraphobia have avoidant personality disorder, as well as about 20–40% of people who have social anxiety disorder. In addition, AvPD is more prevalent in people who have comorbid social anxiety disorder and generalized anxiety disorder than in those who have only one of the aforementioned conditions. Some studies report prevalence rates of up to 45% among people with generalized anxiety disorder and up to 56% of those with obsessive-compulsive disorder. Post-traumatic stress disorder is also commonly comorbid with avoidant personality disorder.


Data from the 2001–2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions indicates a prevalence rate of 2.36% in the American general population. It appears to occur with equal frequency in males and females.


Small sad girl sitting on the sand beach.

Figure 2. Childhood neglect is a risk factor for AvPD.

Causes of AvPD are not clearly defined, but appear to be influenced by a combination of social, genetic, and psychological factors. The disorder may be related to temperamental factors that are inherited.

Childhood emotional neglect (in particular, the rejection of a child by one or both parents) and peer group rejection are associated with an increased risk for its development; however, it is possible for AvPD to occur without any notable history of abuse or neglect.


Treatment of avoidant personality disorder can employ various techniques, such as social skills training, psychotherapy, cognitive therapy, exposure treatment to gradually increase social contacts, group therapy for practicing social skills, and sometimes drug therapy.

Key Takeaways: avoidant personality disorder

Case Study: Avoidant Personality Disorder

The patient was 35-year-old, unmarried data technician William, referred to a specialized treatment program for personality disorders from an outpatient drug addiction service. His personality pathology was considered more devastating than his substance abuse. Presenting complaints included low self-esteem, loneliness, a sense of emptiness, suicidal ideation, social isolation, substance abuse, and general dissatisfaction with life. Present complaints had been chronic in nature, dating back to childhood.

William recalled having daily suicidal thoughts for several years in his early youth. His avoidant behavior was more prominent than his level of experienced anxiety. William’s most prominent feature was a pervasive fear of being ridiculed when interacting with others, and he was diagnosed with avoidant personality disorder.

In a group-based treatment program lasting for 20 weeks, he was a regular, but somewhat detached participant. The therapists encountered a series of problems related to passivity: he postponed most of his obligations, resisted sorting out practical affairs, did not pay his bills, and avoided contacting people who could be helpful.

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Watch this video to learn more about behaviors associated with avoidant personality disorder.

You can view the transcript for “Avoidant Personality Disorder.. What is it?” here (opens in new window).

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avoidant personality disorder: personality disorder characterized by patterns of social withdrawal, inadequacy, and fear of criticism