Early Historical Forerunners

The avoidant personality has been described in several sources as far back as the early 1900s, although the personality style was not so named for some time. In 1911, Bleuler (1950) studied schizophrenia and its various developmental pathways. Some of his patients were noted to "shun contact with reality because their affects are so powerful they must avoid everything which might arouse their emotions. The apathy toward the outer world is then a secondary one springing from a hypertrophied sensitivity" (p. 65). Other theorists described traits essential to the avoidant, without hitting on this key contrast. Schneider (1923/1950), for example, described the "insecure self-distrusting psychopath," individuals who are chronically dissatisfied with themselves and always blame themselves when things go wrong but keep such feelings deeply hidden. Avoidant and schizoid patterns were frequently either confused or referred to synonymously, until Kretschmer (1921), in providing the first relatively complete description, developed a distinction. He divided active and passive forms of withdrawal into a continuum between two extremes: anaesthetic and hyperasesthetic. Anaesthetics, the obvious forerunners of the contemporary schizoids, were said to be affectively insensitive, dull, and lacking in spontaneity. In contrast, hyperasesthetics, although also withdrawn, were described as excitable and anxious, but also tender, shy, sulking, and distrustful of others. In particular, they seek "as far as possible to avoid and deaden all stimulation from the outside" (p. 161), which is a classic avoidant trait.

In the following four sections, we offer a detailed portrayal of the avoidant personality as expressed through the biological, psychodynamic, interpersonal, and cognitive perspectives. Each of these domains interacts to form the whole person. We have chosen to present history and description side by side. Avoid the temptation to see this material simply as a historical progression of "who did what when" because you will miss out on the descriptive bounty that each theoretical background brings to the construct. By the time you finish these sections, you should have a good grasp of the avoidant prototype. Developmental pathways are also described, though these pathways are currently speculative and indistinct. Read not only for history but also for the characteristics that each author unearthed and their significance to the total personality. References to the cases are included.

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