Dear Patti,

My mother died three months ago. I’m having a very difficult time and feel like I can’t make it without her. My two sisters are loving and supportive but sometimes critical of me because I’m 41 and have never lived on my own. I always lived with our mom. After we sell her house, I’ll probably move in with my oldest sister and her husband. I get so scared when I have to make a lot of decisions or handle things alone. I know I lack self-confidence and lean on my family too much, but I still try my best to be a good person. I’m not lazy. I volunteer at church and a local women’s shelter regularly, I work-part time as a secretary and I insist on paying rent. My sisters worry because they think I don’t have much of a life. I’ve never had a boyfriend or much of a social life. Some people misjudge me and think I’m not capable or bright, but that’s not true. I speak four languages, did very well in school and am actually quite intelligent. I just don’t speak up for myself because I’m uncomfortable with confrontation, conflict and competition. 

At my sisters’ persistence, I recently saw a psychotherapist and I liked him. He was kind and nice and diagnosed me as having a dependent personality disorder. He told us it’s extremely difficult to treat. I want to change but I just don’t know if I can. I don’t want to wake up someday and realize my life has been wasted. By then, it’ll be too late. I want a full life, but I’m scared I’m going to fail and that’s when I just want to be left alone and not pushed.

  — Michele

Dear Michele,

Personality disorders are usually developed by early adulthood which means you’ve been this way your whole adult life. It makes sense you’re uncertain as to how to function in a different way. There are 10 recognized personality disorders and each one has its own set of rigid behaviors. These traits usually impair people’s lives and their ability to have quality relationships and general happiness. They include certain maladaptive responses to situations and are considered personality disorders only when they cause significant functional impairment.    

People (like you) diagnosed with a dependent personality disorder (DPD) often feel insecure, inadequate, and uncomfortable about taking care of themselves. They also have a pervasive need to be nurtured. This not only leads them to engage in submissive behavior but often to hand over responsibility for most of their personal decisions to someone else. The fear of rejection and/or abandonment immobilizes them into a state of thinking and believing they’re helpless. In order to maintain their close relationships, they’ll go to extreme lengths, make extraordinary self-sacrifices, and sometimes even submit to abuse/intimidation so they won’t end up alone.

Partly why your condition is hard to treat is because those who have this condition are distressed about their lives (and the harmful consequences) but tend to avoid seeking help. Since they’ve always been this way, they’re unaware that their own thoughts and actions are causing the problem. Therapists often have difficulties treating personality disorders because their patients have convinced themselves that their feelings and behaviors are normal. Only when they become motivated to regain control of their lives is healing possible. It sounds like you’re already on that path.    

Successful treatment of DPD may take a long time and that’s OK. Only you will decide what and how much you want to change. Your therapist will help you acknowledge and understand your dependent behavior and decide if the personal cost of being chronically dependent has been worth it. Together you’ll realize treatment goals that may be a new stretch but shouldn’t contradict your basic personality. Accordingly, your positive skills — such as the ability to be a good member of society, spiritual and a hard worker — will be respected characteristics while you gently work toward living a more freeing and fuller life. The goal isn’t independence but autonomy, which is the capacity for independence and the ability to develop intimate relationships. 

With the help of a professional therapeutic relationship, you’ll also learn to identify the sources of your stress, take responsibility for your actions and work toward freeing yourself from the aspects of your life that you and your family believe often imprison you. That sounds hopeful and exciting.


Patti Carmalt-Vener, a faculty member with the Southern California Society for Intensive Short Term Psychotherapy, has been a psychotherapist in private practice for 23 years and has offices in Pasadena, Santa Monica and Canoga Park. Contact her at (626) 584-8582 or email pcarmalt@aol.com. Visit her website, patticarmalt-vener.com.