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Avoidant Personality Disorder

Editor: Amit Sapra Updated: 2/12/2024 6:21:25 AM


Avoidant personality disorder (AVPD) is characterized by a persistent pattern of social anxiety, heightened sensitivity to rejection, and pervasive feelings of inadequacy, coupled with a deep-rooted longing for meaningful connections with others. Swiss psychiatrist Eugen Bleuler first described an avoidant personality type in his 1911 work Dementia Praecox: Or the Group of Schizophrenias.[1] German psychiatrist Ernst Kretschmer clarified the distinction between schizoid personality types and avoidant personality types in 1921.[2] In 1980, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM), 3rd edition, formally included avoidant personality disorder. Historically, there has been some controversy regarding AVPD and social anxiety disorder similarities.[3]

The DSM-5-TR divides personality disorders into Cluster A, Cluster B, and Cluster C. Each cluster encompasses a distinct set of personality disorders with commonalities regarding symptoms, behaviors, and underlying psychological patterns.

Cluster A refers to personality disorders with odd or eccentric characteristics. These include paranoid personality disorder, schizoid personality disorder, and schizotypal personality disorder. Individuals within this cluster often exhibit social withdrawal, peculiar or paranoid beliefs, and difficulties forming close relationships.

Cluster B comprises personality disorders with dramatic, emotional, or erratic behaviors. This cluster includes antisocial personality disorder, borderline personality disorder, histrionic personality disorder, and narcissistic personality disorder. Individuals within this cluster often display impulsive actions, emotional instability, and challenges in maintaining stable relationships.

Cluster C involves personality disorders with anxious and fearful characteristics. These include avoidant personality disorder, dependent personality disorder, and obsessive-compulsive personality disorder. Individuals within this cluster tend to experience significant anxiety, fear of abandonment, and an excessive need for control or perfectionism.

Despite the historical context of using the "cluster" system, there are limitations when approaching personality disorders in this manner, and it is not consistently validated in the literature.[4]


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Research on the etiology of AVPD is relatively limited, and high-quality studies specifically investigating its causes are scarce. Several factors are believed to contribute to the development of AVPD, including genetic predisposition, childhood experiences, and environmental influences. However, it is essential to note that the relative importance of these factors is still undergoing investigation and debate.

Genetic studies propose a potential hereditary component in AVPD. Studies involving twins have suggested that genetic and environmental factors contribute to the etiology of AVPD.[5] These findings suggest that genetic factors contribute to the vulnerability of AVPD. However, the specific genes or genetic mechanisms involved in AVPD have yet to be fully elucidated. 

Medical conditions, specifically those with pathology that may damage neurons, are often associated with personality disorders or changes. This includes but is not limited to head trauma, cerebrovascular diseases, cerebral tumors, epilepsy, Huntington's disease, multiple sclerosis, endocrine disorders, heavy metal poisoning, neurosyphilis, and acquired immune deficiency syndrome (AIDS).[6]

Various factors contribute to the development of personality traits and disorders. These include unconscious processes, early childhood experiences, and the influence of internal conflicts. Psychoanalyst Wilhelm Reich made significant contributions to understanding defense mechanisms and their relationship to personality types. He introduced the concept of "character armor," which refers to defense mechanisms that develop within individuals to alleviate cognitive conflict arising from internal impulses and interpersonal anxiety. For instance, those with avoidant tendencies tend to have withdrawal defense mechanisms.[7] 

From an object relations theory perspective, avoidant behaviors can be understood as stemming from attachment issues during infancy, which give rise to an intense fear of intimacy. Therefore, similar to schizoid personality disorder, psychological fantasy is common in AVPD, including ideas of fantasy lives and imaginary friends who provide internal satisfaction.[8] Early interactions with a caregiver may contribute to the development of AVPD. Trauma and neglect experienced at an early age can result in fear of intimacy and trust, further engendering a state of hypervigilance.[9]

Personality is a complex summation of biological, psychological, social, and developmental factors; therefore, each personality is unique, even amongst those labeled with a personality disorder. Personality is a pattern of behaviors that an individual adapts uniquely in response to constantly changing internal and external stimuli. This is broadly described as temperament, a heritable and innate psychobiological characteristic.[10][11] However, temperament is further shaped through epigenetic mechanisms, namely through life experiences such as trauma and socioeconomic conditions; these are adaptive etiological factors in personality development.[12][13] Temperament traits include harm avoidance, novelty seeking, reward dependence, and persistence.

Harm avoidance involves a bias towards inhibiting behavior that would result in punishment or non-reward.[14] Individuals with AVPD have very high harm avoidance, as most of their pathological behavior emerges from a fear of potential emotional harm or rejection.

Novelty seeking is an inherent desire to initiate novel activities likely to produce a reward signal.[15] Individuals with AVPD have low novelty-seeking behaviors. Although they long for social relationships, their harm avoidance typically outweighs their novelty-seeking initiatives.  

Reward dependence describes the amount of desire to cater to behaviors in response to social reward cues.[16] Individuals with AVPD have low to moderate reward dependence. This temperament trait holds clinical relevance as it is often observed in individuals who struggle to form satisfying relationships, leading to unfulfilled desires for connection and a sense of reward. Consequently, this disparity between their need for connection and the actual fulfillment of that need often results in feelings of disappointment and dissatisfaction. 

Persistence refers to the ability to maintain efforts and continue with behaviors despite obstacles, frustration, fatigue, or limited reinforcement. Individuals with AVPD exhibit low persistence and are more prone to giving up on their pursuits when encountering challenges.


High-quality and multi-population studies that attempt to quantify the prevalence of AVPD are lacking, and most of the attempted studies are outdated (from a different era of DSM), limiting their applicability.[3] Still, one study analyzed the 2001-2002 National Epidemiologic Survey on Alcohol and Related Conditions (n= 43,093) and estimated the prevalence of AVPD at 2.36% of the population.[17] Another DSM-IV-era study investigated the prevalence of personality disorders among psychiatric outpatients (n=270) and estimated the prevalence of AVPD to be 14.7%.[17]

History and Physical

The presentation of AVPD is variable. Therefore, obtaining a thorough history of the illness, medical history, and social history is essential. The chief complaint may be related to anxiety or depression. Patients with AVPD tend to be timid, and the prompting for psychiatric evaluation may be at the behest of a concerned family member. History will elicit hypersensitiveness to rejection despite a desire for meaningful human companionship.[18] An inferiority complex coupled with a coexisting fear of rejection is a consistent pattern of AVPD. Behaviorally, this manifests as a widespread avoidance of social interaction. This intense aversion towards rejection leads to suppression of affective expression, resulting in schizoid-like introversion. However, it is essential to determine if the patient desires social relationships, as this is a significant distinguishing factor from schizoid personality disorder.[3]

During conversation, patients with AVPD lack self-confidence and often speak in a self-effacing manner. They may also hesitate to express themselves without seeking permission from a family member, driven by their fear of potential rejection by the clinician.[18] Individuals with AVPD may misinterpret others' comments about them as derogatory or of ridicule nature leading to a need for frequent redirection to the normal interpretation of comments about them.[3] Clinicians working with individuals with AVPD should be aware of these communication patterns and create a supportive environment that fosters trust and encourages open expression. It is crucial to establish a non-judgmental atmosphere where individuals with AVPD feel safe to share their thoughts and feelings without fear of rejection or criticism 

Vocationally, individuals with AVPD often encounter challenges obtaining employment. However, when they do find work, it tends to be non-confrontational roles or part-time positions. Romantic relationships generally only occur when an exceptionally strong guarantee of uncritical acceptance exists. A similar expectation typically extends into friendships, which limits their ability to develop or maintain relationships with friends and extended family.[3]

The mental status examination, conducted during psychiatric evaluations, is crucial in assessing individuals with AVPD. However, it is essential to note that the specific elements and findings of the examination can vary depending on each case of AVPD. Assessment of patients should include:

  • Appearance: The patient's general grooming and fashion choices should be noted. Individuals with AVPD are likely to dress neutrally to avoid the risk of criticism or comments about their appearance. Clothing, accessories, hairstyles, and highly noticeable or eccentric tattoos suggest against AVPD. 
  • Behavior: Reserved and nervous behaviors, downcast gaze, difficulty making eye contact, or feeling uncomfortable when eye contact is established may be seen in individuals with AVPD. In addition, cooperation may fluctuate depending on how the patient feels the clinician "likes" them. 
  • Speech: Individuals with AVPD may exhibit decreased speech due to shyness. However, no expected speech initiation, volume, or vocabulary concerns exist.
  • Affect: Affect is likely to present as anxiety or other stress, particularly in the uncomfortable environment of a clinical evaluation. 
  • Thought content: Thought content in individuals with AVPD is likely to center around a fear of being disliked; however, it is not typically at a delusional or obsessional level. Thoughts of suicide, particularly regarding fear of abandonment, may be more suggestive of borderline personality disorder than AVPD.  
  • Thought process: In individuals with AVPD, the thought process is expected to be linear but limited in range and logic. Their fear of being judged tends to influence their thinking, leading to a heightened focus on concrete and specific aspects of potential criticism. 
  • Cognition: General cognition and orientation is not expected to be impaired in individuals with AVPD. 
  • Judgment: Judgement in individuals with AVPD is poor, as their fear of rejection is generally largely unfounded but prevents them from making rational decisions about their interpersonal functioning.[3]


Diagnosis of a personality disorder benefits from a longitudinal observation of a patient's behaviors across various circumstances to give a broader understanding of long-term functioning. This is because many personality disorder features can overlap with symptoms observed during acute psychiatric conditions.[19] Therefore, personality disorders should generally be diagnosed when no acute psychiatric process is concurrently occurring. However, there are instances where a longitudinal observation may not always be feasible or required, mainly when an underlying personality disorder significantly contributes to hospitalizations or relapse of another psychiatric condition(ie, major depressive episode).[20] It may take several visits with a patient to finally establish a firm diagnosis of AVPD. 

To obtain a formal diagnosis of AVPD, individuals must meet the diagnostic criteria specified in the DSM-5-TR. The diagnosis involves a thorough evaluation that considers multiple sources of information, including personal history, collateral information, and a mental status examination. This comprehensive assessment allows clinicians to assess the individual's symptoms, functioning, and overall presentation concerning the established diagnostic criteria.[3]

Avoidant Personality Disorder DSM-5-TR Criteria 

  1. Meeting the DSM-5-TR diagnostic criteria for AVPD requires the presence of a pervasive pattern of social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and hypersensitivity to negative evaluation, beginning in early adulthood and present in various contexts. The pattern must be persistent and cause significant distress or impairment in social, occupational, or other important areas of functioning. Clinical features include at least four of the following:
    1. Avoidance of social, interpersonal, and occupational activities that involve frequent contact due to an underlying fear of criticism, disapproval, or rejection.
    2. Unwillingness to become involved with new relationships unless there is a certainty of being liked.
    3. Restraint in intimate relationships due to a fear of being ridiculed or shamed.
    4. Preoccupation with criticism and rejection.
    5. Inhibition in new interpersonal situations due to feelings of inadequacy.
    6. Low self-confidence with the belief that they are inherently inferior or unappealing to others.
    7. Reluctance to take personal risks or engage in activities that can result in embarrassment or perceived failure.[3]

Treatment / Management

There is currently limited research regarding the optimal management of AVPD. Most studies are from case reports of AVPD or derived from studies investigating the treatment of social anxiety disorder.[21] Many studies have reported no efficacy in treating AVPD, low rates of remission of symptoms, and failure to reach normative levels of functioning.[3][22] (B3)

Different types of psychotherapy, such as cognitive-behavioral therapy (CBT), have been explored in treating AVPD. CBT is considered the optimal treatment approach for AVPD and aims to address maladaptive thinking patterns, enhance self-esteem, improve social skills, and challenge avoidance behaviors. However, response rates are limited for this intervention.[23] 

Exposure therapy, a sub-type of cognitive behavioral therapy, has also demonstrated some efficacy for social phobias but has a high risk of treatment dropouts.[22][24] Mentalization and interpersonal therapy have also been reported with some efficacy for treating AVPD.[24][25] As AVPD is unlikely to remit with or without treatment, the focus of treatment may be aimed at reducing interpersonal stress and stabilizing socioeconomic conditions.[8](B3)

Psychotropic medications are generally ineffective in treating AVPD, and there are no FDA-approved agents for treating the condition. Social anxiety disorder may respond well to serotonergic modulators such as selective serotonin reuptake inhibitors (SSRIs) and serotonin-norepinephrine reuptake inhibitors (SNRIs). There is limited evidence for cross-over efficacy in AVPD.[26] However, treating comorbid conditions with solid evidence for psychotropic medication treatments will likely reduce suffering in patients with AVPD. 

Differential Diagnosis

AVPD must primarily be distinguished from social anxiety disorder (SAD), as they share similar diagnostic criteria, etiology, quality of life deficits, and clinical presentations. The relationship between SAD and AVPD is a subject of ongoing debate, with some researchers proposing that they represent different points on a continuum rather than distinct disorders. This perspective suggests SAD could be considered a milder disorder, while AVPD represents a more severe manifestation.[18] AVPD is more likely to impair social and occupational functioning than SAD significantly.[18] However, the American Psychiatric Association supports distinguishing these disorders in the DSM, as roughly two-thirds of individuals with AVPD do not meet the criteria for SAD.[27] In contrast to AVPD, SAD typically manifests as more anxiety specifically related to certain situations rather than general interpersonal contact. Further, these disorders may co-occur if the diagnostic criteria for both conditions are met. Finally, other anxiety disorders, such as agoraphobia and panic disorder, may be comorbid.[18]]

Vulnerability and anxiety are shared features of cluster C personality disorders, and there is some symptom overlap for dependent personality disorder.[28] However, the underlying anxiety and desire for physical proximity in dependent personality disorder result from a fear of separation from a significant attachment figure. In contrast, ruminations of possible rejection consume those with AVPD.[3] The pervasive isolation witnessed in AVPD and schizoid personality disorder can be diagnostically differentiated by contrasting the active detachment of AVPD against the schizoid trait of passive-detachment. AVPD describes a behavioral state of "actively" avoiding social engagement with the impetus to circumvent rejection, whereas the latter ambivalent "passive" isolation precipitates from a complete lack of interest. Furthermore, individuals with schizoid personality disorder are insensitive to social rejection and indifferent to interpersonal engagement.[3]

Pertinent Studies and Ongoing Trials

There is a generally limited understanding of AVPD, with high-quality population studies lacking. Most current knowledge is based on small sample-size investigations, case reports, or case series. These studies are generally from other eras of DSM. Additionally, there are significant limitations to the existing models for describing all personality disorders. The "cluster" system has been most commonly utilized due to its implementation in the DSM. Despite attempts to classify behavioral similarity patterns into syndromes, such as personality disorders, the individual uniqueness of each personality poses challenges for diagnosis and research into specific personality disorders.[4] 

Experts in personality disorders have suggested switching to a dimensional model of personality rather than a cluster model. The dimensional models proposed generally describe temperament, utilization of defense mechanisms, and identifying pathological personality traits.[29] Although the DSM-5 did not incorporate these recommendations due to the sudden radical change it would imply for clinical use, the paradigm will likely shift in the coming decades as further research solidifies in congruence with evolving clinical guidelines. This is particularly evident as the DSM-5-TR incorporated this research into publication under the "emerging measures and models" section. Notably, in this section of the DSM-5-TR, some of the "cluster" model personality disorders have been removed, but AVPD remains a named personality disorder. The alternative dimensional model of AVPD identifies the internalization of distress, high negative affectivity, behavioral inhibition and avoidance, and low levels of extraversion as salient diagnostic features.[30][31]


AVPD is a chronic and impairing disorder in socio-occupational functioning. In a study examining AVPD symptom stability over a 2-year period, it was found that individuals with AVPD displayed significant resistance to remission. Symptoms such as feelings of inadequacy, social ineptness, and the persistent need for assurance of being liked before engaging in social interactions remained unchanged.[32] However, some studies have suggested that, with time and treatment, a subset of those diagnosed with AVPD will eventually no longer meet diagnostic criteria. Specifically, one study estimated the stability of diagnosis at 10 years to be around 50%.[33] 


Substance use disorders are common among personality disorders but with limited implications into which specific personality disorders pose the most risk for a particular substance use disorder.[34] Personality disorders have an increased likelihood of suicide and suicide attempts compared to those without personality disorders, and individuals with NPD should be screened for suicidal ideation regularly.[35]

Deterrence and Patient Education

The treatment of AVPD is impingent upon developing and maintaining therapeutic rapport. Therapists should offer reassurance that the environment is safe and supportive. Patients are encouraged to express the symptoms they wish to have addressed and communicate any psychosocial stressors that a treatment team can help alleviate. Rather than primarily focusing on changing the patient's worldview, clinicians should aim to understand and address the specific concerns and challenges that the patient is facing. This approach is particularly relevant when the patient is not in acute distress or crisis when alone.[3] Further, patients are encouraged to utilize support networks through their remaining social relationships and expand on these as they develop comfort and confidence. Involving the patient's family is another way of monitoring for decompensation and providing education on how to provide stable social factors for the patient.[36] Utilizing standardized assessments for quality of life may reveal ways to optimize the ability to function in significant areas of life for an individual with AVPD.

Enhancing Healthcare Team Outcomes

The diagnosis and treatment of AVPD is a complicated topic but ultimately is an area of psychiatric research that requires further study. As diagnostic and treatment models are shifting away from a "cluster" system and towards a dimensional model of personality, the implications that this will have on clinical practice will need close observation. Still, when a treatment team suspects AVPD, a comprehensive history with collateral information is recommended before diagnosing AVPD.[3] Including the patient's perspective and determining the appropriate care goals for an individual with AVPD is essential to prevent overmedicalization or iatrogenic harm to a patient who may not be suffering from any treatable symptoms. Collaboration with social workers, therapists, and family to optimize the social factors in a patient's life can offer stability to individuals with AVPD. (Oxford CEBM evidence level 5)



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