Dependent Personality Disorder (DPD) is a condition characterised by an extreme emotional dependence on other people. It’s usually a long=term condition that makes it much harder to live an ordinary life, and is slightly more common among women and young adults. This article looks at how to accurately write about characters with Dependent Personality Disorder.
People who have DPD have extreme difficulty making decisions on their own on account of their dependence on other people. They tend to lack the self-confidence to back their own instincts and their own decision making. They are rarely certain that they have made a good decision, unless someone else gives it their approval. This approval they constantly seek, and they constantly act to avoid disapproval.
DPD is a Cluster C Personality Disorder, which means that fear and anxiety are ever-present features of it. In this case, the fear and anxiety primarily relates to making wrong decisions. For whatever reason, people with DPD don’t learn that no-one on this planet really knows what they’re doing and that their decisions are usually as good as anyone else’s. Dependent personalities have a strong desire to have someone else give the “stamp of approval” to their behaviours and actions.
If the protagonist of your story encounters a character with DPD, they might perceive that second character as childish, even infantile. Many of their mannerisms will be the same as young children who are yet to learn the boundaries of social behaviour. A common example is when they make a joke but become afraid that it was a social error until someone else laughs, at which point they do too.
This can be frustrating if the protagonist has to get the character with DPD to take adult responsibilities and to be independent. The condition is especially challenging since the harder someone pressures a person with DPD to take responsibility, the more anxious they will become, and consequently the more dependent. The protagonist will have to know patience to succeed, and if they don’t know if they have to learn.
Your protagonist might be resented by a DPD character if that character feels the protagonist is not approving enough. It’s common for people to think disparagingly of someone with DPD because they see dependency as weak and craven. This timidity can breed resentment, so that a character with DPD might easily feel themselves slighted and wish to take revenge. Passive-aggressive behaviour is a common feature.
A protagonist who has DPD themselves probably lives a life of extreme anxiety. Because so many decisions are made in everyday life, a protagonist with DPD will almost certainly have a lot of difficulty living one. They will have great difficulty getting projects or activities started, because they are too dependent on what other people think to take the initiative themselves.
This is especially the case when a person with DPD has to be examined by an authority figure. If a protagonist with DPD has to, for example, sit a driver’s licence test, it’s common for them to work themselves into a state of panic beforehand, thinking about the possibility of making a mistake and earning the instructor’s disapproval. Passing through international customs is also a great trial. Both of these situations induce far more anxiety in someone with DPD than in a person without the condition.
If your protagonist has this condition, they might find it extremely difficult to ask for their rights if they are being taken advantage of. A character with DPD might be so afraid of disapproval from their boss that they don’t seek to enforce their rights, and standing up to one’s parents is out of the question (unless one is really pushed too far). They might also take measures to ensure that they are never alone, because this requires that one think for oneself.
People with this condition tend to be highly motivated to seek out and maintain relationships with people they consider protectors or caregivers. A protagonist who is acting along these lines might find that pledging their allegiance to a leader of some kind alleviates much of their anxiety about not making correct decisions, for good or for ill.
DPD patients usually have a perception of themselves as powerless or incapable of anything, which might betray a life story of having been treated in that manner by authority figures. Mirroring this is a perception of other people as all-powerful and infinitely capable. This is not simply the same as low self-esteem, because DPD doesn’t tend to come with the bitterness and resentment that characterises a poor self-image.
As with many of the conditions in this book, there is believed to be a considerable link between early childhood abuse or neglect and later development of DPD. In particular, it is thought that parenting styles with too much overprotectiveness or authoritarianism correlate with having the condition. Overprotective parents might prevent a child from exposing themselves to danger and therefore from learning that they are capable of overcoming it, whereas authoritarians might create a sense of learned helplessness.
This article is an excerpt from Writing With The DSM-V (Writing With Psychology Book 5), edited by Vince McLeod and due for release by VJM Publishing in the summer of 2018/19.