It’s not uncommon for people to be shy, or to avoid the discomfort associated with criticism, rejection, and embarrassment. For some people, however, this avoidance can come to dominate their entire life, restricting their ability to form friendships or relationships, and even limiting their ability to function professionally.
People with Avoidant Personality Disorder (AvPD) experience persistent feelings of inadequacy, and are extremely sensitive to what others think of them. They spend significant amounts of time focusing on their own shortcomings and are hesitant to form relationships where they feel like they could be rejected, causing them to withdraw from and avoid social situations, including at work and school (Smith, 2018). Approximately 2% of the population has AvPD, with those affected equally split between men and women (Psychology Today, n.d.).
If you’re training to become a professional counsellor, here are some helpful tips to remember when working with clients who have AvPD.
A Quick Overview of AvPD
AvPD is characterized by three core components: social inhibition, feelings of inadequacy, and sensitivity to criticism or rejection. Along with these three core components, a number of other symptoms might co-occur, such as: avoidance of activities at work that involve interpersonal contact due to fear of criticism or rejection, unwillingness to interact with others unless certain that they’ll receive a positive response, or reluctance to take risks or engage in activities that could result in embarrassment (Smith, 2018).
As graduates of counselling therapist training know, stigma is often a significant challenge for people living with a mental illness, and many myths about AvPD persist. Some might wrongly think that avoidant personality disorder is just an overreaction, or that it’s nothing more than nerves, stress, or shyness. However, this is far from the case; in order to qualify as AvPD, symptoms must be consistent across time, and must cause significant impairment in the individual’s life (Webb, 2018).
The Distinctions Between AvPD, Schizoid Personality, and Social Phobia
Among those who are less familiar with mental illness, avoidant personality disorder can sometimes be mistaken for other related but distinct disorders, such as schizoid personality disorder (SPD) or social phobia.
Schizoid personality, a much rarer condition, is similar to AvPD in that both are marked by social isolation, but individuals with schizoid personality disorder avoid social interactions for different reasons than those who have AvPD (Winarick, 2017). Therefore, while their behaviour may appear similar, those living with these conditions have very different experiences.
Social phobia likewise shows many overlapping features with AvPD, but tends to manifest as a fear of specific social situations, marked by both mental and physical symptoms of anxiety. While some have suggested that AvPD and social phobia are two points along the same continuum rather than distinct disorders, this is a topic of ongoing discussion (Hoermann, n.d.), so the distinction should be kept in mind.
Helping Clients with AvPD When You Become a Counsellor
While group therapy can sometimes be helpful later on in the treatment process, one-on-one therapy is the preferred option for clients with AvPD (Bressert, 2018). This is because those living with AvPD could feel nervous about sharing their experiences with others, making a group setting especially intimidating at the outset (Bressert, 2018).
One thing for counselling therapists to be mindful of when working with clients who have AvPD is that these clients may have difficulty viewing things in an objective manner, focusing instead on the negative in life, to the exclusion of all else (Bressert, 2018). This could interfere with their ability to give an accurate self-report, so when you become a counsellor, it’s important to be particularly detailed in your initial evaluation, while making the process as unobtrusive as possible (Bressert, 2018).
After the initial evaluation, therapy can help clients address where some of their feelings are stemming from, helping clients “resolve past conflicts that may be causing current issues” (Good Therapy, 2018). In addition, therapy can also help to build healthy coping mechanisms and behaviours, so that clients can feel more comfortable interacting with others and engaging in social situations (Good Therapy, 2018).
Are you interested in pursuing a career as a professional counsellor?
Contact Rhodes Wellness College to learn more about professional counselling training in Vancouver.
Bressert, S. (2018 Oct 24). Avoidant Personality Disorder Treatment. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/disorders/avoidant-personality-disorder/treatment/
Good Therapy (2018 May 22). Avoidant Personality. GoodTherapy. Retrieved from https://www.goodtherapy.org/learn-about-therapy/issues/avoidant-personality
Psychology Today (n.d.). Avoidant Personality Disorder. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/conditions/avoidant-personality-disorder
Smith, K. (2018 Nov 19). Avoidant Personality Disorder. Retrieved from https://www.psycom.net/avoidant-personality-disorder
Webb, J. (2018 Jul 8). 5 Steps to Tackling Avoidant Personality Disorder. Retrieved from https://psychcentral.com/blog/5-steps-to-tackling-avoidant-personality-disorder/
Winarick, D. (2017 Jan 2). The Disappearance of Schizoid Personality. Psychology Today. Retrieved from https://www.psychologytoday.com/ca/blog/personality-quotient/201701/the-disappearance-the-schizoid-personality