The Psychodynamic Perspective

As mentioned previously, there has historically been a tendency to lump together schizoid and avoidant patterns, based on the tendency of both to withdraw. This may be traced to the historic psychodynamic tradition, where anyone whose personality was best described as withdrawn was classified simply as schizoid. Avoidants and schizoids were thus grouped together, as if their development and functioning were essentially the same. Even today, many analysts regard the avoidant simply as a nonpsychotic portion of the "schizoid spectrum," defined by withdrawal into imagination as the characteristic defense, something that Allison has been engaged in since childhood.

Psychodynamicists, however, did separate the constructs for study on several occasions and described character types akin to what we would now term the avoidant personality. Menninger (1930) described "isolated" individuals who demonstrated the capacity for normal emotional expression but who had "been artificially withheld from human contacts to the point of developing curious deficiencies, mannerisms, attitudes, odd behaviors, which serve to preclude their absorption or amalgamation into the group" and who "suffer constantly and sometimes acutely with feelings of inadequacy, diffidence, self-dissatisfaction and a pervading discouragement because of such feelings" (pp. 64, 71). Fenichel (1945), in line with the psychoanalytic school's long-term interests with inhibition, fear, and avoidance of our most basic drives, formulated a conception reflecting a phobic character but did not emphasize its social dimension. Other classical analytic investigators have also focused on phobia as a characterologic feature, as is seen in Rado's "phobic avoidance mechanism" (1969, p. 182), which he describes as a progressive reinforcer of more and more psychic safeguards in patients with "over-reactive disorders," and in the "phobic character traits" described by MacKinnon and Michels (1971), which imply a generalized disposition to phobia where avoidance becomes the key feature.

Ego analysts, another faction of analytic thought, moved away from personality conceived through the conflict between basic drives and social forces and began to emphasize the interpersonal and reality-oriented nature of the ego, which was not driven by the battle between internal and external forces but instead operated synthetically to bind together and assimilate them (Greenberg & Mitchell, 1983), thus becoming capable of adding its own unique stamp to human behavior. Anticipating modern formulations, Horney (1937, p. 99) developed the concept of the detached type, individuals who believe, "If I withdraw, nothing can hurt me." Far from making themselves invulnerable, however, Horney believed that such individuals develop a sense of self-hatred and self-contempt and in turn are led to the conclusion that others regard them exactly as they regard themselves. As a result, they feel strained when relating to others, distance themselves from social encounters, and seek to never become attached to anyone. These theorists submit that a central goal of the avoidant personality is to deny anxiety and discomfort by denying all emotional feeling, actively derailing their painful preoccupations and tensions by introducing irrelevant thoughts or distorting the meaning of their thoughts, and effectively escaping the pain and anguish of simply being themselves by blunting and diffusing their internal perceptions and emotions.

Additionally, ego analysts describe avoidants as markedly indulgent in fantasy and imagination, both as a means of replacing anxiety-arousing cognitions of inadequacy and low self-worth and as a means of gratifying needs that cannot be met due to social withdrawal but may be explored in an isolated fashion. Because feelings of being unwanted are always close to the surface, they may imagine that they are deeply loved and involved in a whirlwind, fairytale romance. Allison, as you may recall, does not say what she fantasizes about, but the odds are strong, especially with her admission that she "has dreams" of unconditional acceptance, that the fantasy world version of herself is not just adequate but immensely talented and highly admired, complete with a "romantic someone" who fervently seeks to know everything about her. This is just the reverse of what she believes in real life—that others are not only disinterested in her but regard her as defective and shameful. Other avoidants, especially those who have co-morbid paranoid or negativistic traits, may see themselves dispatching their enemies with a swift, confident fury.

Inevitably, however, such fantasies serve only to highlight just how impoverished their lives tend to be. Rather than employing a flexible and well-rounded array of defense mechanisms as would a healthy personality, the avoidant personality relies virtually exclusively on escape and fantasy. If these defenses are not possible or are highly impractical, they may quickly be overwhelmed or simply repress emotions of every kind, leaving only a flat, bland, unemotional exterior that belies a painful inner turmoil. This is one of the principal reasons avoidant personalities are often mistaken for schizoids, even by therapists. You can easily imagine Allison, if forced into a social encounter, choosing not to share anything of herself at all. In that case, she would appear to be completely without emotion or motivation, cardinal characteristics of the schizoid personality.

The experience of anxiety in the avoidant personality is complicated and fueled by several defining conflicts. First is the struggle of affection versus mistrust or, as Allison might say, having a boyfriend or getting dumped. As noted, avoidants wish for intimacy with others but cannot shake the belief that these desires inevitably end in pain and disillusionment. This characteristic provides one of the key distinctions between the avoidant and the dependent, who trusts readily and easily approaches others in time of emotional need. Second, avoidants deeply want to actualize their potentials but have strong doubts about their own competence and abilities. In particular, the idea of venturing into society and competing against others who are much more self-confident is especially frightening to them. You can imagine how Allison might feel knowing that professors are fond of students who raise their hands in class and contribute to the discussion. You can probably imagine a professor's puzzlement with such a bright girl who sits in the corner, out of sight, saying nothing.

For avoidants, then, virtually all roads to happiness seem blocked: Not only are they unable to act effectively on their own behalf, but their pervasive sense of inadequacy and mistrust prevents them from relying on others. Both roads lead to pain and discomfort. Avoidants are trapped in the worst of both worlds, seeking to avoid both the distress of moving forward socially and the emptiness within them that accrues from neglecting their own self-actualization. For some, like Allison, the conflict eventually becomes so acute that they present for therapy and begin working to resolve the dilemma.

Finally, though a later section covers broad, contextual developmental aspects of the avoidant personality, it is important to understand this pattern's early experience through the lens of object relations. This imperative branch of psychoanalytic thought is concerned with the influence of early memories and images of caretakers formed during infant development, no longer accessible to consciousness, which exert an ongoing influence on adult behavior. One of the basic tenets of psychoanalytic theory holds that children internalize the standards of important others, such as parents, teachers, and other role models, in the superego, which has two parts. First, the ideal self, or ego ideal, consists of wished-for characteristics, standards of behavior, accomplishments, and other things the individual would like to become. Because a highly developed ego ideal leads to effort to realize that ideal, this part of the superego can be connected to individual differences in levels of aspiration and self-actualization, the desire to fulfill your own unique potentialities as a living being. The conscience is the second part of the superego, containing all manner of prohibitions, rules, and commandments that detail behaviors that are off limits. Manifestations of the mature superego are felt in adult life through pangs of guilt or the voice of conscience.

The avoidant personality typically has a highly developed ego ideal complete with high aspirations and desires for self-actualization, but it is paired with an intensely condemning superego that constantly faults and disapproves of every behavior. In effect, they have internalized parental standards of high achievement and social success, combined with blame and shunning for the smallest mistakes. Allison states that during her childhood, her parents were very successful and had equally high expectations for her. Unfortunately, they also criticized her excessively for every small mistake. Allison carries both internalized voices, one demanding achievement and the other so critical that she is convinced of her inadequacies as a social leper. In effect, the distance between her ego ideal and her perceived actual self, who she believes herself to be, is so great that she is humiliated before her own judgment and panics when she thinks others might regard her in the same way.

The strong emphasis on standards of behavior sometimes leads to the development of traits that are characteristic of the compulsive personality, as well. In particular, the desire to avoid the small faults that elicited surges of parental dismay may frequently lead to the preoccupation with detail characteristic of the compulsive. Whereas the compulsive seeks to perform flawlessly, however, the avoidant usually refuses to perform at all; the risk is too great.

Anxiety and Panic Attacks

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