As a New York Jewish woman, I am more than a little familiar with the term “neurotic.” It has been used to describe me – along with several of my family members – more than once. Sometimes the word makes me cringe – and I definitely think that it has negative connotations in our culture. At other times, though, “neurotic” feels endearing. After all, some of our best comedians use “neurotic” as a badge of honor, and find the self-deprecating humor in all their many neuroses.
What Does It Mean To Be “Neurotic”
The term “neurotic” is not just a word invented for comedic purposes, however. It is one of the “Big 5” personality traits (extroversion, neuroticism, openness, conscientiousness and agreeableness) recognized by psychologists, and is generally described as a propensity toward anxiety, negativity, and self-doubt – someone who tends to go through “worst case scenarios” in their mind on a loop.
Like all personality traits, there is spectrum when it comes to neuroticism, so all of us are at least a little neurotic (that’s a relief!). On the one hand, explains psychologist and professor Dr. C. George Boeree of Shippensburg University, people who tend more toward increased levels of neuroticism are “very nervous” and highly emotional. They may be more likely to develop disorders like “phobias, obsessions, compulsions, and depression.” Those with “low neuroticism” would be considered more emotionally stable.
For the most part, the label of “neurotic” has fallen out of favor in psychological circles. In 1980, the term “neurosis” was removed from the American Psychiatric Association’s Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (DSM-III), and most therapists and experts do not use the term to diagnose or describe the personality of their clients.
8 Common Personality Traits of Neurotics
How can you tell if you’re a little more neurotic than the rest of the world? Well, one main difference between someone who is simply neurotic and someone who has developed psychosis is that even the most highly neurotic person is clearly – maybe even painfully so – aware of this tendency in their personality.
Of course, neuroticism looks different for different people, but most people with highly neurotic personality traits have some combination of these defining characteristics, including:
- A tendency toward mood disorders like anxiety and depression
- Hyper-awareness and self-consciousness of one’s mistakes and imperfections
- A propensity to dwell on the negative
- An expectation that the worst outcome in any situation is the one most likely to occur
- Highly reactive to stress and emotional upset
- Compulsive, and may play the same scenario in one’s head over and over
- Prone to hypochondria and panic disorder
- May be more likely to adopt maladaptive behaviors, such as self-medication with alcohol, food, or other substances
Is Neuroticism Always A Bad Thing?
If your tendency toward neuroticism is causing you distress, or pushing you toward depression, anxiety, phobias, or addictions you should certainly consider seeking counseling or therapy to help manage your feelings and move toward wellness.
But remember, being “neurotic” is not a medical condition or even a diagnosable mood disorder. It is a personality trait and state of being that some of us just tend to have more of, and living with a higher dose of neuroticism than most people can be challenging. Therapy modalities like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have been helpful for people who feel that their neurotic tendencies are taking over.
However, having a small and manageable amount of neuroticism in your life may actually be a good thing!
For example, Daniel Nettle, who wrote the book Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are, explains that neurotic people are “strivers” and tend to have an inner, self-directed drive to succeed. In addition, the tendency toward “rumination” that is often wrapped up in neuroses can be an asset if you are working in a detail-oriented job or one that requires in-depth thinking and analysis.
Neurotic personalities may also have had evolutionary advantages, as explained in a paper published in Evolution and Human Behavior. While people who are neurotic may be more likely to exhibit signs of depression and anxiety, they are traditionally “more risk-averse and vigilant concerning environmental dangers,” which certainly may have helped our “neurotic” ancestors survive adversity.
Don’t Be Ashamed of Your Neuroses
It’s no fun when your neurotic tendencies take over and make you miserable, but being a little neurotic is nothing to be ashamed of. Some of the most creative and successful people out there tend toward the neurotic side of things. It’s all a matter of keeping your neuroticism in perspective, using it to your advantage, seeking help if it gets out of hand – and making sure to maintain a healthy sense of humor about it all.