Signs You Have a Submissive Personality and How To Stop It

Are you overly agreeable, have difficulty expressing your opinions, and are unable to make decisions on your own? You may be showing signs of a submissive personality.

Clinical psychologist Terri Bly, from Ellie Mental Health in Minnesota, told Newsweek: "I want to be clear here, that there is nothing inherently bad or disordered about being submissive. If you live in an environment in which you are punished for asserting yourself, submissiveness can be considered pretty adaptive."

Even if you live in a place where asserting yourself is acceptable, as long as you feel that your needs are being met and you're content with your life and relationships, "there is nothing inherently bad about having a submissive personality style," Bly said.

But it's only when submissive personality traits are "contributing to your unhappiness or putting you in harm's way that we start to think of them as problematic," Bly said.

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What Is A Submissive Personality Type?

Ramani Durvasula—a clinical psychologist who has appeared with Will Smith and Jada Pinkett Smith on the Red Table Talk show—told Newsweek: "There is no 'official' designation of a submissive personality, it may be closest to a dependent personality style—which is characterized by an individual who will often relent and give into the wishes and needs of others, not express their own needs, and believe that they 'need' the other person as they may not be able to take good enough care of themselves."

Lori Morton, a licensed family and marriage therapist based in Florida, told Newsweek that submissive personalities fall under "the clinical umbrella of Dependent Personality Disorder."

Those with a dependent personality suffer from "excessive neediness" and are dependent on those closest to them. With this disorder, "there is a pervasive and excessive need to be cared for, that leads to submissive and clinging behavior, and an unfounded fear of separation."

Bly said the most common diagnosis given to those with "problematic submissiveness" is Dependent Personality Disorder.

Those with this disorder "tend to be submissive because they don't have a strong sense of who they are, they don't believe they deserve to advocate for their own needs." They are so afraid of rejection and they'll go along with what others tell them to do, even if it puts them in a bad situation.

Chelsea Hudson, a licensed therapist at Cityscape Counseling, a mental health practice based in Illinois, told Newsweek: "On the extreme end of the spectrum, someone with a submissive personality may present as overly agreeable, afraid of conflict and highly sensitive.

"On a non-pathological level, someone with a submissive personality might simply be easy going and prefer to fly under the radar in social settings."

Signs You Have A Submissive Personality

Below are some key symptoms presented by those with a submissive personality, as outlined by Morton and Bly:

  • As they seek both approval and support, a person with a submissive personality cannot express opinions or disagreement, especially with those on whom they're dependent.
  • It may seem like they don't have a strong sense of who they are or what they like or dislike. They're the type who, when asked where they want to go for dinner, will say, "Wherever you want to go" and usually cannot be persuaded to offer a suggestion of their own.
  • Those who are submissive can be talked out of their opinions or decisions pretty easily, especially if they're challenged by someone they admire or with whom they are in a close relationship.
  • They're unable to function alone and will often agree with things that they feel are wrong rather than risk losing the help and support of those to whom they look for guidance.
  • They find it extremely difficult to initiate projects or work independently, due to a lack of self-confidence in themselves and in their abilities.
  • They have difficulty making everyday decisions without an excessive amount of advice and reassurance from others.
  • They will quickly find another relationship as a source of care and support when a close relationship ends.
  • They are excessively preoccupied with fears of being left to take care of themselves.
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What Causes A Submissive Personality?

Bly said it is crucial to bear in mind that many cultures and religions "encourage, reward or even demand submissiveness, especially in women" and "plenty of cultures" expect people in lower social classes to act submissively toward people with a higher social status.

The psychologist added: "While I don't think we have any way to know for certain whether submissiveness is a nature thing, a nurture thing, or some combination of the two, I think it's fair to say that you are more likely to develop submissive traits if you grow up in an environment in which you are expected to conform and obey."

Durvasula agreed, noting that in the case of a submissive/dependent personality, "the largest contributor is likely to be culture—cultural beliefs around the role of women in particular, but also around the roles of people who may hold less power and privilege in a society, and lifelong familial and cultural expectations and indoctrination on what acceptable behavior is considered to be."

Childhood upbringing can also be a contributing factor. Hudson said while a person with a submissive personality may have just been born with "an easy going temperament," they could have also developed this trait as a result of their environmental upbringing, "such as being the middle child and not having as much of a voice as their siblings or growing up in an abusive family where it was self-protective to be submissive."

Hudson explained: "If you grew up surrounded by abuse and conflict, being submissive would have helped you to de-escalate the aggressor and protect you and your loved ones."

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The Dangers and Risks of Having A Submissive Personality

Below are some dangers and risks associated with having a submissive personality, as outlined by Durvasula, Bly, and Hudson.

  • Getting into and stuck in an abusive relationship.
  • Being taken advantage of professionally and personally.
  • Not enacting their own interests, aspirations or dreams.
  • Feeling silenced within one's own life and feeling a loss of a sense of agency.
  • Other personality traits or mental health issues may arise as a result, including social anxiety, potentially somatoform patterns (having physical symptoms in lieu of psychological conflict) due to lack of expression of needs or feelings.
  • Could be prone to anxiety, depression, eating disorders, low self-worth, shame.
  • May be more at risk of developing Major Depressive Disorder or Generalized Anxiety Disorder, if their submissiveness is connected to a belief that they have no control over their own fate.

How To Stop Being Submissive, If You Don't Like It

1. Build agency and assertiveness

Durvasula said: "Trying new things and building a sense of efficacy can be useful and help learn a sense of agency. Therapy is also important to explore whether a person is struggling with having this kind of personality style and wants to change it, to understand the origin and fears related to it."

There are plenty of resources available for those who want to develop more assertiveness and agency over their own lives, including individual and group therapy, said Bly.

"If you're not able or willing to participate in therapy, there are also quite a few books and workbooks focused on helping people become more assertive, create and maintain healthy boundaries, and develop a stronger sense of self in the process," Bly advised.

2. Process your past trauma

Hudson said: "Your voice matters as much as anyone else's but it will take therapeutic work and time to heal from the trauma that caused you to become submissive in the first place."

Once you've "processed and integrated your past trauma," then you can learn how to be more assertive, such as making requests and holding boundaries in a firm but fair manner.

"Working on your self-worth will naturally increase your confidence, which will in turn motivate you to be less submissive," according to Hudson.

3. Cognitive behavioral therapy

Morton said: "People with dependent personality disorder should consider therapy for treatment. Cognitive-behavioral therapy is often used to help treat people with a dependent personality disorder because it focuses on modifying dysfunctional emotions, behaviors, and thoughts by interrogating and uprooting negative or irrational beliefs."

Medication may also be prescribed for some people due to other underlying conditions. Antidepressants, sedatives and tranquilizers may also be prescribed for those with dependent personality disorder who suffer co-occurring conditions, Morton noted.

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