We have previously described much of the interpersonal spectrum of the avoidant personality because a pervasive sense of interpersonal unease may be the most noticeable domain of this personality pattern. Occasionally, you are likely to feel somewhat uncomfortable when confronted with a big crowd; by contrast, avoidants feel uncomfortable when confronted with even a single strange individual. Just one new person can activate all their fears of inadequacy and rejection. At best, they hesitate in expressing their own thoughts or opinions; at worst, they misread innocent comments and facial expressions as indicating an attitude of critical judgment or rejection.
As the tension mounts, their speech may become slow and constrained, with noticeable fragments of confused or irrelevant digressions. They may stutter through their lack of confidence, as with the case of Sean (Case 6.2). Because avoidants often feel that others are watching for their gaffes, their body posture may seem stiff and highly controlled, though with periodic bursts of fidgety movements. Overt expressions of emotion are kept in check for fear that others might detect their anxiety, much to their own shame. Inevitably, the feeling of being awkward contributes to their awkwardness. This is especially true of avoidants, for whom every miskeyed movement is scrutinized and judged, or so they believe.
Anxiety often precludes the avoidant's ability to speak fluidly and coherently, causing some avoidants to conclude that it would be best to not speak at all and attempt to melt into the woodwork. Such physical manifestations of interpersonal anxiety are likely to be especially acute in forced social situations, for example, when a school demands that all students attend a graduation ceremony, and many people are milling around and talking while waiting for things to start. Formal occasions are likely to be especially dreaded because they come with amplified codes of dress and behavior. Everyone knows what to expect and everyone is trying to conform, so discrepancies become magnified and errors stick out like a sore thumb. Allison would likely wait in the restroom and pray for the event to be over.
Avoidants do not confront this interpersonal anxiety. Instead, they escape social encounters whenever possible as a means of saving themselves from "inevitable" negative judgments. Any event that requires communication with others constitutes a potential threat to their fragile security. They may even deny themselves simple possessions to protect against the pain of loss or disappointment. Most find that efforts to comply with others' wishes, much less to assert themselves, prove fruitless and painful. They may feel that repeated appeasements have cost them their personal integrity, leading only to greater feelings of self-contempt. The only course they know to reduce shame and humiliation is to back away, withdraw within themselves, and keep a watchful eye on any incursion into their solitude. Distance guarantees safety, but trust invites pain.
To encourage even a modicum of social and functional efficacy, those who interact with avoidants, and especially those who have a stake in the avoidant's interpersonal interactions, must tread with extreme caution. For example, in a work situation, the avoidant's supervisor would need to approximate a good boxing manager. You don't start the avoidant out on something critical to an important project. You can imagine Allison's reaction if her boss were to say, "Okay, I know this is your first day, but there are a lot of people depending on you, and if this isn't done right, well, there'll be hell to pay." She would most likely go home for an early lunch and never return. Instead, avoidants need to be started out slowly, preferably on tasks for which they already feel some sense of competence—not so easy to cause them to think, "Gee, I guess he really sees through me and doesn't want to risk giving me any responsibility at all," but something manageable nonetheless.
Further, avoidants need to have a crystal-clear picture of others' expectations, with clear communications, well-defined interpersonal situations, and sequences of operations fully explained for them. Definition makes anxiety more manageable and keeps the avoidant from making mountains out of molehills. Consequences for mistakes should also be clearly defined and, if possible, minimized. A boss who is comfortable
The Interpersonal Perspective
enough to self-disclose some of his or her own gaffes is also helpful. The risk is always that once their anxiety gets out of control, avoidants will leave with a courteous smile, as if nothing were the matter, and never come back. Because avoidants fear the expectations and judgment of others, cultivating a sense of trust with an avoidant worker is always a plus. Avoidants will not be the first to speak up when problems arise, especially if the problem mainly inconveniences them.
We previously mentioned the interpersonal relationships of avoidant personalities, especially through Allison and her high school boyfriend. Avoidant personalities frequently develop a façade that seems more adequate to them for dealing with the outside world. This façade is then used as a means of securing relationships against their perceived inadequacies that seem to them so egregious as to invariably sabotage the relationship, if ever discovered. Oftentimes, spouses begin to collaborate with their avoidant partners to some degree, doing things for them that permit them to stay at home, thus insulating them from the expectations or judgments of strangers. As the years wear on and the avoidant remains an underachiever, such collaborations may eventually wear thin. In effect, the more able spouse functions as an enabler of personality pathology. Some spouses, to their great disappointment, even sense that the avoidant affects a certain degree of pretense in the marital relationship as well. Some end the relationship, feeling that the intimacy they thought was there never really was and that they never knew the avoidant person at all.
In general, avoidants' protective shell of isolation serves only to perpetuate their problems. First, by narrowing their range of interpersonal experiences, they preclude the possibility of learning new ways of behaving that might bring them greater self-confidence or a sense of personal worth. In the most severe cases, they are left completely alone with their own turmoil and conflict. Though they have succeeded in minimizing external dangers, many find themselves trapped in their own skin, alone with their own self-contempt. These avoidants continue to recycle past humiliations, often losing touch with reality by becoming more and more caught up in the past and more and more estranged from the everyday current world. Second, like dependent personalities, their apparent weakness and self-doubt does occasionally attract those who enjoy shaming and ridiculing people who cannot defend themselves. The additional humiliation they experience thereby works to confirm their mistrust of others and causes them to place faith in a very few.
The interpersonal development of the avoidant personality has been described succinctly by Benjamin (1996) through her SASB model. Much like dependent and neg-ativistic personalities, avoidants begin life with normal, healthy attachments, thus accounting for their wish to enjoy interpersonal relationships of genuine intimacy. As they mature, however, caretakers begin to exert intense control directed toward creating an impressive and admirable social image, casting mistakes and imperfections as extremely embarrassing to the family. You can see this in both Allison's and Sean's histories. Flaws are degraded and mocked, thus creating an extreme sensitivity to the possibility of humiliation. From Sean's history, we can see that his father was invested in making offensive comparisons between Sean and his two brothers. In the last paragraph of the case, his father even indicates that he doesn't respect him as a male.
What might the future avoidant do to safeguard against these invectives? First and foremost, they begin to conceal anything that might be seen as an imperfection or that might be fuel for further negative commentary. In fact, they become hypersensitive to the possibility of mistakes, which contributes to the development of a generalized fear of the negative evaluations of others. This also, not surprisingly, chips away at an already undermined self-image. Benjamin (1996) also notes that avoidants are usually shunned by the rest of the family as evidence of the family's shame and harsh judgment. Rather than be welcomed as part of the group, avoidants are forced to "go it alone," because the group won't have them. From the perspective of future avoidants, there is apparently a consensus about their defectiveness. Sean saw this both in his own family and at school, where he was picked last for teams and referred to as "the runt." Allison's mother and father even supplied supporting evidence, telling her that her birth was an accident and treating her as a burden.
To survive, future avoidants develop a sense of autonomy that is intrinsically linked to punishment (Benjamin, 1996). For example, avoidants are more likely to be "overlooked" for an invitation to a family reunion, or, as a child, the birthdays of their friends or even siblings are celebrated, but not theirs. In avoidance of the shame of such segregation, such shunned individuals withdraw in advance. Though they regret their defec-tiveness, they continuously strive to win over caregivers, who in turn often infuse the message that the family is the only genuine source of love and support, and loyalty is valued above all else. The implicit message is, "Although we tolerate your flaws, no one else ever will. Stay in the place where you at least have a chance to feel safe."
Whereas most avoidant personalities develop as the result of repeated exposure to developmental experiences that instill a sense of shame and low self-esteem, clinical experience indicates that certain traumatic childhood experiences, such as physical brutalization, incest, or molestation, may also be sufficient to produce a lifelong pattern of social avoidance and interpersonal fearfulness that resembles the avoidant pattern (Stone, 1993). Sexually abused children, for example, are often made to feel that they have something to be ashamed of, either by the perpetrator or by their own family. They may feel or be made to feel, "If I weren't defective in some way, this wouldn't have happened in the first place."
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