Personality disorders are fascinating–many are comparatively rare and they all lead to some pretty unreasonable and difficult to understand behaviours…which kind of makes them ideal for writers! Personality disorders capture the extremeness that our complex mix of nature and nurture can create—encapsulating that on a page is a challenge, but also exciting. If you’re looking for an extreme character, they can be your antagonist, your protagonist’s parent (and the source of their wound) or if you’re feeling really game—your hero, personality disorders are a goldmine! No matter which character, they will lend a layer of difference and interest to your story.
It’s doing it authentically that’s the key.
Today we’re delving into Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD). DPD is characterised by a pervasive and excessive need to be taken care of by others. This leads to submissive and clinging behaviour and fears of separation, beginning by early adulthood and present in a variety of contexts (imagine the anxious toddler who fears separation and you’re getting the idea). The following characteristics are what you’ll see in a person with DPD:
Has difficulty making everyday decisions
These characters struggle to make everyday decisions without an excessive amount of advice and reassurance from others (e.g., what colour shirt to wear to work or whether to carry an umbrella). They will tend to be submissive and let others (often a single person—generally a parent or a spouse) assume responsibility for most major areas of their lives. Adults with this disorder typically need others to decide where they should live, what kind of job they should have, and which neighbours to befriend. With all these challenges, it’s not surprising that individuals with DPD struggle to function in the workplace, particularly if independent initiative is required. They may avoid positions of responsibility and become anxious when faced with decisions. Adolescents with this disorder may allow their parent/s to decide what they should wear, with whom they should associate, how they should spend their free time, and what school or college they should attend.
This need for others to assume responsibility goes beyond age-appropriate and situation-appropriate requests for assistance from others (e.g., the specific needs of children, elderly persons, and persons with a disability). DPD can occur in an individual who has a serious medical condition or disability (in fact, chronic physical illness can predispose a person to DPD), but in such cases the difficulty in taking responsibility must go beyond what would normally be associated with that condition or disability.
Has difficulty disagreeing with others
Because a person with DPD has a powerful need for support and care (even overprotection and dominance), they will fear the loss of supporter approval. They will often have difficulty expressing disagreement with other individuals, particularly those on whom they are dependent. These individuals feel so unable to function alone that they will agree with things that they feel are wrong rather than risk alienating their carer. They don’t get appropriately angry at others whose support and nurturance they need for fear of alienating them.
This means your character will be willing to submit to what others want, even if the demands are unreasonable. This places them at risk of abuse, as their need to maintain an important bond often results in an imbalanced relationship. They may make extraordinary self-sacrifices or tolerate verbal, physical, or sexual abuse. It’s important to note that if the individual’s concerns regarding expressing disagreement need to be realistic (e.g., realistic fears of retribution from an abusive spouse – this behaviour would not be considered evidence of DPD).
Has difficulty doing things on his or her own
A character presenting with DPD is unlikely to do anything independently because of a deep-seated lack of self-confidence in their judgment or abilities (as opposed to a lack of motivation or energy). Individuals with this disorder feel uncomfortable or helpless when alone because of this exaggerated fear of being unable to care for themselves. Your character will wait for others to start things because they believe others can ‘do it better.’ Only if you give them the assurance that someone else is supervising or approving, are they likely to function adequately.
Goes to excessive lengths to obtain nurturance and support from others
These characters will proactively foster their dependence and elicit caregiving due to their self-perception that they are unable to function adequately without the help of others (as opposed to being unable due to age or disability). Many of us have done this one some level—pretended we were incompetent so someone else did something for us (that’s how I got my husband to make mashed potato every time we had it). People with DPD dial this up, and perceive that they are genuinely incapable. They may fear appearing more competent, because they may believe that this will lead to abandonment. To add another layer of complexity, because they rely on others to handle their problems, they often don’t learn the skills of independent living (thankfully, I already knew how to make mashed potato), thus perpetuating dependency.
The prospect of being alone is frightening
Individuals with this disorder are often preoccupied with fears of being left to care for themselves. They see themselves as so totally dependent on the advice and help of someone else that they worry about being abandoned by that person when there are no grounds to justify such fears.
If a close relationship ends (e.g., a breakup with a lover or the death of a caregiver), your character may urgently seek another relationship to provide the care and support they need. Their belief that they are unable to function in the absence of a close relationship motivates these individuals to become quickly and indiscriminately attached to another individual (and yes, that is risky and yes, it does leave them vulnerable).
Individuals with DPD are often characterized by pessimism and self-doubt; they tend to belittle their abilities and assets, and may constantly refer to themselves as ‘stupid.’ Your character will take criticism and disapproval as proof of their worthlessness. If they are involved in an abusive or unequal relationship, then their partner is likely to reinforce these beliefs.
Told you it was interesting! Weaving a character with DPD will be a challenge, particularly if you’re looking for a reader to empathise with them (their neediness makes them highly egocentric), but also a fascinating opportunity to capture how disordered our thinking can become.
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