There’s more to dependent personality disorder than just clinginess. How can you write about it realistically and compellingly? Understand what it is and how it affects your character in their day-to-day life.
There are characters who are dependent on others because it’s necessary, characters whose age or illness or disability mean that it would be difficult to function independently.
Then there are characters who fear of being abandoned is so intense they can’t bear to be alone. These are characters who cling to their important others with a desperate need, believe they are incapable of acting without support and supervision, and whose panic at being separated from their important others can be so great that they indiscriminately attach themselves to someone else. These are characters with dependent personality disorder (DPD).
Dana is an example of one such character. Remember her from How to Tell If Your Character Has Dependent Personality Disorder? We saw a snippet of how her excessively dependent behaviour affected the lives of those around her as well as her own and we briefly reviewed the diagnostic criteria for dependent personality disorder. In this post, we’re really going to dig into those summary criteria and find out what they mean, how they may come across, and how you can write about them effectively, accurately and sensitively.
Let’s get started.
To Keep in Mind:
The information in this post comes from the DSM-5 (see ‘Further Reading’). Please do not use it to diagnose yourself or others. It isn’t intended to be a substitute for professional advice so do consult a qualified clinical professional if you have any questions about the diagnosis criteria. Feel free to use this information to diagnose your characters, however.
In order to be diagnosed with dependent personality disorder, your character needs to meet at least five (or more) of the diagnostic criteria listed below, as illustrated by our example character Dana. Your DPD character may experience the following:
Has difficulty making everyday decisions without an excessive amount of advice and reassurance from others.
Because your character feels that she isn’t able to make the proper decision or do things correctly without someone else telling her it’s right, she really struggles with making even small, everyday decisions. She may rely heavily on others to decide things like the colour shirt to wear that day, what to order from the menu or whether to carry an umbrella or not, making it difficult for her to function without them.
Needs other people to take responsibility for most of the major areas in his or her life.
The fear of being unable to take care of herself can make your character passive, allowing other people (often just one particular person) to take responsibility for most of the major areas in her life. She may inherently feel that every decision she makes is wrong and therefore she can’t be responsible for her own life. Instead, she believes that someone else is better suited to directing her actions and expects them to make decisions for her (as in Criterion 1).
Has difficulty expressing disagreement with others for fear of losing their support or approval.
This fear of losing the people she’s dependent on is so intense that your character may agree with them even if she feels they’re wrong or they’re acting terribly towards her or others. Even in situations where it’s appropriate to get angry at them, your DPD character won’t for fear of alienating them.
Because of this characteristic, your character might change her opinion to agree with others to avoid disagreeing with them, which could make her seem like a great match to people who don’t know her well. To those close to her, however, it could soon become obvious that she isn’t being truthful and that her opinions are easily swayed (as was the case with our example characters, Kate and Dana, in the previous post).
Note here that the fear of losing support or approval isn’t realistic. If it’s entirely possible that her friend will disapprove of her and stop supporting her or that her spouse will be abusive if she disagrees, then your character wouldn’t meet this criterion. The fear must be unfounded and unrealistic.
Has difficulty starting projects or doing things on his or her own.
It’s important to remember here that this isn’t because your character lacks the motivation or energy to initiate projects or act independently; it’s a lack of confidence in her judgement or abilities that causes this fear. If she’s reassured that someone else is supervising her and approves of her actions, she’s likely to function perfectly adequately.
Try to remember a time when you were afraid you wouldn’t be able to make the right judgement, a time when you doubted yourself and your abilities. Now intensify that fear and anxiety. Turn it up to the max. Can you understand your DPD character a bit better now?
Your character might also fear that becoming (or at least appearing to become) more competent could lead to people abandoning her, whether that’s because they think she’s capable of functioning on her own or because they don’t need her around if she’s not dependent on them (this could tie in with the worries of Criterion 3). Due to her over-reliance on others to solve her problems, she could also never learn how to live independently, which further increases her dependency on others.
Goes to excessive lengths to get care and support from others, to the point of volunteering to do things that are unpleasant.
Her need to have that important bond with another could very well lead to an imbalanced or distorted relationship for your DPD character. That’s not all that surprising when she’s willing to submit to whatever others want, even if what they want is unreasonable or unpleasant. Your character could make extraordinary self-sacrifices in order to obtain and maintain the support of others and even tolerate verbal, physical or sexual abuse. (Note here that this only applies if other options are available to your character—she’s not forced to endure these things because there’s no other option.)
An example of this criterion in action? Say your DPD character is terrified of dogs, but her significant other wants to get a German Shepherd. Despite her terrible fear, she goes with him to the local shelter and hovers by his side as he takes home their new dog. She doesn’t voice her disapproval or true feelings for fear that her partner will stop loving her (Criterion 3).
Feels uncomfortable or helpless when he or she is alone because of exaggerated fears of being unable to take care of herself.
Being left alone is one of your DPD character’s greatest fears, so imagine how uncomfortable or helpless she’ll feel when it inevitably happens. Because of her exaggerated fears of being unable to look after herself, she might “tag along” with her important others just to avoid being left alone, even if she isn’t interested or involved in what they’re doing. That last point could tie in with Criterion 5, particularly if what they’re doing is something that is unpleasant to your character.
Urgently seeks another relationship for care and support when a close relationship ends.
What if the person your character is dependent on (e.g., a lover or a caregiver) breaks up with them or dies? Imagine the fear and the panic she would feel upon being suddenly left to take care of herself, something she believes wholeheartedly that she is incapable of doing. This overwhelming panic can lead to your character urgently seeking another relationship to provide the care and support they crave as soon as the previous one ends. However, becoming quickly and indiscriminately attached to another person can result in some very hastily made decisions and poor choices in partner or caregiver.
Is unrealistically preoccupied with fears of being left to take care of himself or herself.
This preoccupation can make your character worry about being abandoned by their important other when there are no real grounds to justify those fears. You could show this preoccupation through your DPD character’s thoughts, which may routinely return to worries about being abandoned and about what she would do if that did happen, and through her actions, such as her anxious body language, her clinginess to her important other, and through her need for reassurance that she won’t be abandoned.
Critical here is that her fear must be excessive and unrealistic. If your character is acting in a dependent way because her life circumstances demand it—for example, if she has an illness or disability or she’s very young—or her fears of abandonment are realistic, then this criterion wouldn’t apply.
Associated Features of Dependent Personality Disorder
Pessimism and self-doubt often plague individuals with DPD so consider having your character belittle her abilities and assets or regularly call herself “stupid”. She’s likely to interpret criticism and disapproval as proof of her worthlessness, which can lead to her losing faith in herself, and she might seek individuals who are overprotective or dominant to form a relationship with.
If initiative or independence is required in her job, your character may struggle unless supervision is given. To make sure she isn’t faced with a situation like this, she may avoid or turn down positions of responsibility, like saying no to a promotion or taking a low ranking position in a company, instead. Keep this in mind if you write about your DPD character in a work context.
A Few Final Thoughts
Personality disorders are, by definition, inflexible, pervasive and enduring. Try colouring your character’s thoughts, feelings, dialogue and behaviour with the characteristic features of dependent personality disorder so that it affects her whole perspective of the world, not just little bits here and there. Keep it consistent and pervasive to match the enduring nature of personality disorders.
Found this post interesting? Check out Fearful and Anxious: Writing About Cluster C Personality Disorders and Emotional, Erratic and Dramatic: Writing About Cluster B Personality Disorders.
Oh, and one last thing. A 19 page downloadable workbook, complete with character profiles for you to fill out. Enjoy!