Avoidant Personality Styles:
Hiding from What You Need the Most
I'm sorry, I must be going," Dave muttered after only being
at the party for a half hour. His hesitant excitement had quickly
turned to anxiety when all he could think about was whether he
had worn the right clothes, why more people had not said hi,
and who he would play games with that evening. As he felt himself
becoming more and more nervous, Dave was sure that all eyes were
upon him. Leaving seemed like his only option.
From across the room, Julie, the party hostess, saw Dave looking
upset as he left. "Why is he leaving so soon?" she
asked her husband, Steve. Seeing the distressed look on her face
and sensing the fear behind Julie's question, Steve answered, "I
don't know, but I'm sure it's nothing you did."
Julie wasn't convinced. She thought it must have been something
she had forgotten or the fact that she had not greeted Dave.
She became concerned at what she perceived was a derogatory tone
in Steve's voice. Concluding that Steve really did think the
party wasn't much fun, Julie spent much of the evening in the
kitchen complaining of a headache. Confused by Dave's early departure
and frustrated by Julie's all-too-typical reaction, Steve simply
shrugged his shoulders and began mingling with the guests.
Have you known someone who consistently acted in extreme ways
like Julie? Have you come in contact with people who go to social
events or strike up conversations, only to seem nervous, walk
away quickly or act like they would rather be some other place?
Or have you often had these reactions around people yourself?
What you may have noticed or experienced could be the struggles
of someone with an avoidant personality style.
The Avoidant Personality Style
But don't most of us experience some anxiety in relationships?
Haven't we all had some reservations or fears about certain people
or social situations similar to those of our partygoer Dave?
Yes, but our fears didn't result in the profound social inhibitions
and severe feelings of inadequacy that haunted Dave.
convinced they are thinking critical thoughts about you,
or that you have done something
socially inappropriate or awkward."
Try for a moment to put yourself in the shoes of someone who
is extremely ill at ease in social contacts. Imagine waking up
in the morning and working hard to muster up the small amount
of optimism that is buried beneath your social anxiety. But when
you finally do come to a situation when you interact with people,
it happens again. You are convinced they are thinking critical
thoughts about you, or that you have done something socially
inappropriate or awkward. You are certain that you do not belong
there. Maybe it's true, you think to yourself. You don't have
what it takes to be accepted or liked by other people.
To make matters worse, the ways you behave to avoid being rejected
and criticized actually elicit the very responses from others
that seem to validate your worst fears.You shrink back within
yourself, unsure of whom to blame—yourself or the seemingly
critical, rejecting, or condemning people with whom you come
into contact every day. After awhile, this pattern pervades your
life. You long to feel socially acceptable and experience friendship
and intimacy, but the painful self-consciousness you feel in
the presence of others makes it easier to merely avoid them.
You may be unwilling to get involved with people unless you are
certain they will like you. And you approach potentially intimate
relationships with restraint or a deep fear of being shamed or
ridiculed. Inhibited by feelings of inadequacy or of not measuring
up, you are preoccupied with thoughts of criticism or rejection.
Some people struggling with an avoidant personality style clearly
display their social anxiety and emotional anguish and simply
withdraw. Others mask their fears. They may even let you into
what seems to be a close friendship (or even a committed relationship
like marriage) as long as you pass a stringent, initial loyalty
and acceptance test. But when you inevitably break their unrealistic
guidelines for a safe relationship, your avoidant friend erupts
in disdainful contempt or withdraws in hurt and anger.
Other avoidant personalities try to cope with painful feelings
of rejection by clinging rigidly to some belief or ideal. They
try to find the sense of security or worth that is lacking in
their relationships by obsessively propounding and defending
some particular philosophical, political, or religious perspective.
Still other avoidant personalities develop rigid and intense
family loyalties. Even though their fear of relationships may
have initially developed because of rejection, ridicule, or conditional
love within their family, they maintain the fantasy that eventually
they will be accepted and approved by their family members. But
the picture they hold of their family is usually more of a wish
than a reality. A deep sense of caring with emotional and spiritual
sensitivity is not there. In its place are superficial loyalties
or outward appearances of togetherness.
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,
- Not getting involved with others unless they are certain
of being liked
- Consistently being afraid to become involved in intimate
- Preoccupation with being criticized or rejected in social
- Inhibitions in new social settings because of feelings of
- Viewing oneself as socially unappealing, inept, or inferior
reluctant to take risks or try new activities because
of the fear of being embarrassed, criticized, or ridiculed.*
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.
Unfortunately, living in a sinful world brings a myriad of potential
problems into our relationships. We misunderstand each other.
We blame others for our problems, and we become preoccupied with
ourselves. Some of us become extremely angry, condemning, controlling,
or critical. Others lose control of their lives through drugs
and alcohol, and some are physically or mentally abusive. All
of these styles can cause deep pain during a child's impressionable
When children are repeatedly emotionally bruised or ignored,
their hope of ever having safe, encouraging, nurturing connections
is snuffed out by their constant fear of hurt, criticism, or
rejection. Proverbs 13:12 says, "Hope deferred makes the
heart sick." The avoidant person lives with little or no
hope that love, joy, peace, longsuffering, gentleness, patience,
kindness, and forgiveness can ever be his. This despair makes
him emotionally vulnerable. Once the heart despairs of ever experiencing
safe intimacy, it is difficult to believe that one's needs can
ever be met by another person. The safest recourse seems to be
People with Avoidant Personality traits became that way because
of a variety of influences. They were likely born with a certain
biological predisposition toward introversiveness, hyperirritability,
fearfulness, or sensitivity. They may have grown up in a family
that was in some way abusive (sometimes severely so), neglectful,
rejecting, or highly critical, competitive or shaming. Some combination
of these family dynamics combined with their inborn temperament
caused them to become excessively self-critical, sensitive to
rejection, and socially anxious. Siblings and peers may also
have unknowingly contributed to the development of their self-rejecting,
critical way of thinking about themselves. Eventually, a vulnerable
self-concept emerges and continues to be reinforced by subsequent
relationships, experiences, and self-perceptions.
An avoidant personality nearly always begins in early childhood.
It often starts as profound shyness, fear of social situations,
or lack of friendships. In adolescence, this trait becomes clearer
as the social and emotional struggles of the teenage years take
center stage. By adulthood, the characteristics of an avoidant
personality are generally well established.
who has avoided deep personal involvement out of fear
for years will not be able to suddenly
drop his defenses and invite
you in with open arms."
During childhood and adolescence, caution should be taken not
to mistake normal development or unique individual characteristics
for a more pervasive avoidant personality style or disorder.
Shyness, while sometimes labeled as maladaptive by more outgoing
and gregarious members of our society, may be a perfectly normal
manifestation of one's biological predispositions or personality.
The desire to read a good book instead of attending a party is
not indicative of avoidance. Similarly, purposefully withdrawing
from people in order to regain one's energy, experience solitude,
or protect oneself from relational injustices may merely reflect
responsible choices or the needs of a more introverted individual.
It is only when a pattern of avoidance is anxiety driven and
becomes consistent and pervasive that it is maladaptive.
How Can I Help Someone With an Avoidant Personality Style?
Being in relationship with a person with an avoidant personality
can be frustrating and confusing. You want to be emotionally
connected and engage in the normal range of human interactions.
But they are socially and emotionally like a turtle who repeatedly
pulls into his shell at inappropriate moments. You get occasional
glimpses of their real self—just enough to get your hopes
up—only to see them retreat into their shell again.
Efforts to relate to a friend or relative like this can seem
fruitless or never ending. You may feel the easiest thing to
do is to give up and allow the person to withdraw. After all,
isn't this what the avoidant person wants us to do anyhow? But
remember, the avoidant personality is conflicted at this point.
He both wants to be left alone (for safety) and to be in a relationship.
Some withdrawn, shy, avoidant people will struggle with their
feelings for an entire lifetime. But many others grow and change.
A combination of their own motivation, the support and acceptance
of family and friends, an experience of God's unconditional love,
and participation in good therapy can bring about major growth.
Even then, however, we should not expect an avoidant person to
turn into the life of the party! And the process will take time.
Someone who has avoided deep personal involvement out of fear
for years will not be able to suddenly drop his defenses and
invite you in with open arms. Instead, expect him to alternate
between hope and fear and to inch toward you one minute and retreat
the next. Helping the avoidant person takes a great deal of patience,
sensitivity, and time. But if you can place yourself in their
emotional shoes and sense the fears they feel, you may be able
to gradually help them take steps to diminish their fears. Here
are some specific suggestions for helping an avoidant person.
First. The first step is to help the person feel as safe as
possible with you. His pain and danger radar is exceptionally
strong. Since any hint of criticism, ridicule, or rejection can
trigger his withdrawal, it is crucial to accept him just as he
is. If you have too strong of a desire to change him, you won't
be helpful. The avoidant person will sense that you want him
to change for your reasons, and he won't feel safe and understood.
The avoidant person must know that you want to help him for himself,
not for you. Only then can he feel safe enough to open up. The
Bible puts it well when it says, "There is no fear in love.
But perfect love drives out fear because fear has to do with
punishment" (I John 45:18 NIV). As long as the avoidant
person is afraid that you will criticize, judge, complain, or
punish, he will not feel safe enough to open up. It will take
much patient love to help overcome his fear.
Second, ask questions that show your sincere interest in his
life. At first you may ask the usual questions about the weather,
work, and his day. But as your relationship grows, you can gradually
become more personal and ask questions about his ideas and feelings.
In time you may get to the hurts and fears that first led him
to start avoiding meaningful relationships with others.
Third, you can disclose things about yourself, including your
own struggles and weaknesses. Honest self-disclosure promotes
a sense of togetherness and safety and encourages reciprocal
Fourth, once you reach a level of honest mutual sharing, you
may need to lovingly confront one of the avoidant person's behaviors
or tendency to exaggerate the disapproval he or she receives
from others. Empathize with the person's pain and reasons for
acting or seeing things the way he or she does. Then kindly point
out the problems these reactions are causing. Continue to show
that you still accept him even if he doesn't change. You are
simply trying to help him observe something he does that actually
interferes with what he really wants in life. You aren't being
critical or condemning. You are trying to be helpful.
Fifth, take it slowly. If either you or the avoidant person
discloses too much too quickly, things can backfire. An idealized,
intimate relationship may become so attractive that he jumps
in with both feet only to be disillusioned and withdraw again
the moment things don't fit his fantasized image of a perfect,
close relationship. Consistent love and caring, along with an
occasional misunderstanding that is talked through and resolved,
lay a much better foundation for lasting trust than a quick,
Sixth, commit the entire relationship to prayer. Try not to
become discouraged about what may appear to be a lack of return
for your efforts. God is even more interested in helping your
friend than you are!
Finally, one of the most important things you can do is to encourage
your avoidant friend to get professional counseling. You may
not have the skills, time, or desire to help a friend with a
longstanding pattern of avoidance. Your pastor may know a good
Christian therapist. Or you can do some of your own research
to identify the names of reputable therapists. Don't expect that
all counselors will have the expertise to work with avoidant
personality issues, since counselors have various specialties
and experiences. Try to find someone with a special gift in relating
to people who have a habit of avoiding meaningful relationships.
love and caring, along with an occasional misunderstanding
that is talked through and resolved, lay
a much better foundation for lasting trust
than a quick, idealized relationship."
When your friend seems most open or most frustrated by his
anxiety is a good time to suggest that a therapist could be helpful.
Then gently explain why you believe this. You should expect some
defensiveness, hesitancy, denial, or even a strong display of
emotion. But if you have made it this far and you are fairly
certain of the individual's need for therapy, your assertiveness
in recommending treatment may be the best way to show your concern.
What If I Have an Avoidant Personality Style?
First, if you keep seeing yourself in these pages, be assured
that help is available. You do not have to continue living with
such strong self-criticism and fears of being ridiculed, disapproved,
or hurt. You can work through the causes of your painful relational
feelings and become comfortable around others. The starting point
is to know that you can. Others have done it. So can you.
Second. The next step is to find a safe relationship. Find a
friend or counselor with whom you feel a reasonable measure of
safety and comfort. You won't feel incredibly safe, of course,
because that's the nature of your problem. But some people are
basically very kind, well-adjusted, accepting, non-judgmental
and tend to put you at ease. That is the type of person you need
to begin sharing your struggles.
Third, be prepared to face the painful childhood experiences
that lie at the root of your tendency to be extremely shy and
sensitive. While it is probably most beneficial to do this with
a professional counselor, you may be able to find a good friend
who can help you on this journey. This can be a frightening step,
but it is incredibly relieving to find that you are not alone
and that someone can come alongside you in a way that no one
did when you were growing up. The Bible says, "Carry each
other's burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of
Christ" (Galatians 6:2 NIV).
Fourth, don't expect perfection from your psychotherapist or
your friend. They will not perfectly understand you all the time.
And you don't need them to. What you need is someone who is largely
sensitive, understanding, patient, and nonjudgmental—not
someone who is perfect. In fact, part of your growth will probably
come by learning that a slight misunderstanding or a temporary
preoccupation was just that—not a sign of deep disapproval
Fifth, expect to work through a variety of intense emotions.
People who continually avoid situations need to come to grips
with their social anxiety. But they also frequently have other
hidden painful feelings like shame, depression, abandonment,
confusion, anger or resentment. Only as you work through those
longstanding emotions will you develop the freedom to feel good
about yourself, comfortable with others, and to perceive social
Therapy with a sensitive Christian psychologist or counselor
can provide a safe environment that gradually helps you "come
out of hiding" and experience authentic acceptance. Although
your counseling probably needs to start individually in order
to help you feel safe, in time it may be helpful to involve a
spouse, family members, or even a friend. Some people find group
counseling helpful once they have established a safe relationship
with a counselor and made some initial progress.
Several forms of individual therapy have proven effective in
treating the avoidant personality. The most successful approaches
tend to utilize all or a combination of the following:
- A genuinely supportive and sensitive relationship
- Empathy for the withdrawn person's emotional pain and relational
- Trust building
- Expression of feelings
- Exploring the childhood relationships, dynamics, and feelings
that led to the avoidant style
- Increased understanding of oneself, others, and relationships
- Learning to challenge automatic negative thoughts and false
ways of viewing life
- Replacing habitually negative thoughts with more realistic
assessments of oneself and others
- Behavioral interventions to practice new ways of relating
and managing self-critical thoughts
- Development of a strong identity as a completely forgiven,
accepted child of God through Jesus Christ as Savior.
The goals for therapy include increasing self-esteem and confidence
in relationships, and working toward a decreased sensitivity
to the perceived criticism of others. For example, if our partygoer
Dave were to enter therapy, his counselor might first spend time
supporting him in his struggles, empathizing with how hard it
must be, and earning Dave's trust. The therapist would be able
to hear both Dave's desires to have meaningful relationships
and his intense fears of being criticized, rejected, or humiliated.
The therapist would be able to communicate that he or she can
truly understand the pain of Dave's dilemma. If Dave stays to
himself, he is isolated and alone. But if he tries to get involved
with people, he is sure he will make a fool of himself or be
rejected, ignored, or humiliated. Either way he loses. This is
the dilemma of the avoidant person and he can only be helped
by a therapist who understands this dilemma at a deep emotional
As Dave begins to feel understood and safe, he can begin to
explore the underlying causes of his intense social fears and
to investigate how and why he has equated mild disapproval with
rejection, and rejection with devastation. He needs to recall
and reexperience the painful patterns that led to his withdrawal.
As a child Dave may have had no option except to withdraw or
learn to fight. But as an adult he can find much better ways
of managing and resolving his fears and pain.
With a foundation of safety and acceptance, the therapist can
gradually begin to sensitively challenge Dave's distorted thoughts,
such as the idea that all eyes are on him when he goes to a party.
Dave can learn why he tends to read in criticism when it isn't
there and learn to challenge his exaggerated perceptions of others'
disapproval. If Dave joins a counseling group with others who
have similar avoidant struggles, he may see and hear in others
what he may not be able to see and hear in himself. Dave might
also join a family group or have some counseling with his spouse
if he is married. This would provide him with relational experiences
and insights with those closest to him.
for therapy include increasing self-esteem and confidence
in relationships, and working toward
a decreased sensitivity to the
perceived criticism of others."
In terms of the length of treatment, the current trend of brief
therapy may be somewhat helpful in alleviating some avoidant
personality issues, especially if family and friends are willing
to participate and support Dave in his therapy. But due to the
deeply embedded nature of personality characteristics and the
avoidant person's hesitancy to trust and disclose, longer-term
therapy is much more likely to be helpful.
Both while in counseling and out, Dave's relationship with God
can be an incredible resource. The Bible tells us, "Though
my mother and father forsake me, the Lord will take me up" (Psalm
27:10). In other words, even though those who should be nearest
to us may let us down, God will never fail us. And the Apostle
Paul reminds us that we are "accepted in the Beloved" (Ephesians
1:5, 6 KJV). A major portion of our identity should come because
we know we are God's loved, forgiven children. No matter how
harmful our earthly parents or friends may have been, or how
critical or condemning or rejecting, God is our perfect, loving,
forgiving, encouraging heavenly Father.
When discussing God with an avoidant person, however, one must
be sensitive to the possibility that she is presently angry with
God or that the abuse she experienced came from parents or others
who were supposedly representing God. When that has happened,
it can require time to experience how different God is from parents
or others who gave a distorted picture of His character and His
feelings for us.
The problems or the sickness of the heart experienced by someone
with an avoidant personality are very painful, but they can be
overcome. Proverbs 13:12 reminds us that a longing fulfilled "is
a tree of life." We all have a deep longing for love and
relational connections and seek them out in our own unique ways.
This includes avoidant personalities who initially seem like
they don't want relationships. Even when these deep longings
seem to be beyond recognition, they are still at the core because
every person is made in God's image. We all desire to be in relationship
with others. And even though it is harder for the avoidant personality,
they can do it with time and appropriate help.
A resource for further reading on the topic of avoidance is
Hiding from Love: How to Change the Withdrawal Patterns That
Isolate and Imprison You by Dr. John Townsend (1996, Zondervan:
Grand Rapids). The author's discussion of the hiding dilemma,
helpful and harmful hiding, and hope for those who hide will
enlighten counselors, ministry professionals, family members,
and struggling individuals alike.
Also recommended is Robert Karen's book, Becoming Attached,
(1998, Oxford University Press).on the development of attachment
styles. Karen, using his gifts as a journalist and a psychoanalyst,
presents the basic concepts of attachment in a way that is both
readable and enjoyable.
*Adapted from Diagnostic and Statistical
Manual of Mental Disorders. Fourth Edition. Washington, D.C.
Paul A. Johns, M.A., MFT is a Mobile Therapist
and Behavioral Specialist consultant with Philhaven in Reading,
PA. He specializes
in working with children and their families.
:: back ::