In the realm of personality psychology, neuroticism is a trait that often gets a bad rap. This characteristic, prevalent in many of us, is frequently associated with anxiety, moodiness, and emotional instability. However, like all personality traits, neuroticism is not purely negative; it is a complex blend of emotions, behaviours, and responses to stress.
One of the “Big Five” personality traits, along with extraversion, openness to experience, agreeableness, and conscientiousness, neuroticism encapsulates an individual’s tendency towards experiencing negative emotions. These emotions may include anxiety, anger, envy, guilt, and depression. Individuals high in neuroticism often perceive everyday situations as threatening or minor frustrations as hopelessly difficult. They may struggle with regulating and managing their emotional responses, leading to mood swings and feelings of instability.
While it’s easy to view neuroticism as a trait to avoid or suppress, it’s critical to understand that everyone possesses some degree of this characteristic. It’s a part of our human emotional architecture, sculpted by millions of years of evolution, and serves a purpose. From an evolutionary perspective, high neuroticism may have been advantageous by making our ancestors more vigilant and alert to dangers in their environment.
Although high levels of neuroticism can pose challenges, it can also provide unique insights and perspectives. Neurotic individuals tend to be hyper-aware of their surroundings and internal sensations. They’re more likely to notice nuances that others might overlook. They also tend to be deep thinkers and problem-solvers, ruminating over issues until they find a solution.
Of course, living with high neuroticism can be difficult. This trait is associated with several mental health disorders, including anxiety disorders, depression, and obsessive compulsive disorder (OCD). Moreover, people with high neuroticism may experience physical health problems, as chronic stress and negative emotions can exacerbate conditions such as heart disease and diabetes.
However, understanding and acknowledging one’s neurotic tendencies can be the first step towards self-improvement and personal growth. High neuroticism can serve as a powerful motivator for seeking therapy or counselling, encouraging individuals to learn valuable skills like emotion regulation, resilience, and stress management.
Importantly, reducing neuroticism isn’t necessarily the ultimate goal. Each of the Big Five personality traits exists along a continuum, and being too low in neuroticism can have its drawbacks as well. Individuals low in neuroticism may fail to perceive real threats, overestimate their abilities, or lack motivation to change or improve. The key is to find a balance and learn to utilise neuroticism in a way that serves rather than hinders.
Furthermore, modern society can inadvertently heighten neuroticism. Social media, news media, and other digital platforms often emphasise negative events and situations, which can fuel anxiety and stress. Mindful consumption of media and conscious efforts to focus on positive, uplifting content can help mitigate the negative aspects of neuroticism.
Neuroticism, like all personality traits, is a double-edged sword. It can cause distress and discomfort, but it can also spur creativity, introspection, and a heightened awareness of the world. Recognising and understanding this trait, whether in ourselves or in others, is the first step towards harnessing its power and mitigating its potential harm.
In a society that often prioritises emotional stability and positivity, it can be challenging to accept one’s neurotic tendencies. Yet, acknowledging neuroticism’s multifaceted nature and its potential for both good and bad is vital. We are all, to varying degrees, neurotic, and this trait – like all aspects of our personalities – merits respect and understanding. Neuroticism is not a flaw to be erased but a part of our complex, unique psychological tapestry.
Joshua House, PhD is a Brooklyn-based psychologist specialising in personality psychology, known for his unconventional approach to understanding human complexities.