What it Means to Be “Neurotic”

Clinically Reviewed by Jill E. Daino, LCSW-R
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Updated on 10/01/2020

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 self-deprecating humor in all their many neuroses. Neuroticism is truly one of the most debated personality traits there is.

What is the Definition of Neuroticism?

Neuroticism is defined by a propensity toward anxiety, negativity, and self-doubt. It is often experienced by constantly rehashing worst case scenarios in your head, and can be linked to guilt, worry, fear, and depression. Neuroticism is one of the Big 5 personality traits recognized by psychologists, along with extroversion, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and agreeableness. As with all personality traits, neuroticism exists on a spectrum, so all of us are at least a little bit neurotic.

On the one hand, explains psychologist and professor Dr. C. George Boeree, 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. Individuals high in neuroticism more often experience dissatisfaction with their lives as they are more prone to negative emotions such as anxiety, depression, and anger.

Additionally, neuroticism largely refers to the way people experience negative emotion when faced with stress. As clinical psychologist Kristin Naragon-Gainey, PhD, associate professor of psychology at The University of Buffalo said: “Two people could be faced with the same situation and the neurotic one will put a negative spin on the experience and produce a stronger reaction to stress—with feelings like sadness, anxiety, fear, hostility, irritability, and anger,” Often, individuals high in neuroticism, produce a level of worry or sadness that doesn’t necessarily match the severity of the issue they’re faced with.

Neuroticism is measured by the Big Five personality assessment that asks individuals to rate statements according to how well it describes them. The statements, based on how the participant responds, will assess specific dimensions of their personality. For example, the assessment taker will rate an array of statements about how much they typically worry, whether they are easily disturbed, experience mood swings, are easily irritated, or are prone to feeling blue.

In the most recent version of the Big Five personality assessment, neuroticism is separated into three categories: anxiety, depression, and emotional volatility. Neuroticism scores are largely based on how an individual rates statements within these subcategories; higher ratings suggest a higher degree of neuroticism.

How is Neurosis Different from Neuroticism?

The term neurosis originated in the 18th century as a way to label a variety of psychological disorders that couldn’t be traced to a single cause. Though useful at the time, the label has come to be viewed as vague and ill defined. It was seen as a psychological factor disrupting one’s quality of life, often including obsessive thoughts and anxiety. 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 today no longer use the term to diagnose or describe the personality of their clients. Instead, neuroses are now diagnosed as depressive or anxiety disorders.

Neurosis is often mistakenly confused with neuroticism, which as described above, is a personality trait that refers to anxiety, negativity, and self-doubt. It is also worth noting that the term “neurotic” has also fallen out of favor in psychological circles to avoid this confusion.

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 share some combination of these defining characteristics, including:

  1. A tendency toward mood disorders like anxiety and depression
  2. Hyper-awareness and self-consciousness of one’s mistakes and imperfections
  3. A propensity to dwell on the negative
  4. An expectation that the worst outcome in any situation is the one most likely to occur
  5. Highly reactive to stress and emotional upset
  6. Compulsive, and may play the same scenario in one’s head over and over
  7. Prone to hypochondria and panic disorder
  8. May be more likely to adopt maladaptive behaviors, such as self-medication with alcohol, food, or other substances

Is Neuroticism 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. Therapy can help you effectively manage stress and anxiety, which may help you prevent neurotic behavior.

But remember, being “neurotic” is not a medical condition or even a diagnosable mood disorder. It is a personality trait and a state of being that some of us tend to have more of than others. Living with a higher dose of neuroticism than most people can be challenging and therapy modalities like Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT) have been helpful for people who feel that their neurotic tendencies are taking over.

Can Neuroticism be Beneficial?

From the examples provided, it might seem like neuroticism is wholly negative, but rest assured that having a small and manageable amount of neuroticism in your life can actually be a good thing!

As Daniel Nettle, who wrote the book Personality: What Makes You the Way You Are, explains, 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 people can also be healthier than others, especially if they are conscientious as well. Nicholas A. Turiano Ph.D., a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Rochester Medical Center, says that these individuals “have fewer chronic health conditions, they have healthier body weights, and they have lower levels of inflammation.” Healthy neurotics are also better equipped to deal with stressful situations. As Turiano says “The healthy neurotic individuals somehow find a way to channel that anxiety they have to motivate them to do good work,” Turiano says.

Additionally, since neurotics people are more prone to negative emotions, Dr. Naragon-Gainey argues that they can also possess more emotional depth, “They have more experience handling negative emotions, which, though difficult, can also make them deeper, and facilitate empathy and understanding for other people’s struggles,” she explained.

Finally, 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 Neuroticism

It’s no fun when your neurotic tendencies take over and make you miserable, but being high on neuroticism is nothing to be ashamed of. Some even take it as a compliment; many of the most creative and successful people out there tend to be on 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. It is also worth noting that personality traits have been shown to be malleable; they can change with time and often shift with major life events such as moving, getting married, or having a child. Nothing is set in stone.

If you’re looking for ways to become less neurotic, try exercising for at least thirty minutes a day, engaging in mindfulness, reframing your thoughts, and doing deep-breathing exercises. These techniques can help limit spiraling, negative thoughts and ground you in the present. By participating in prosocial activities such as volunteer work, you can also foster a sense of gratitude, avoid pessimistic ruminations, and increase personal satisfaction.

The Takeaway

Being a bit higher on the neuroticism scale than others is perfectly fine — think of all the wonderfully neurotic comics who make us laugh — and might even be a good thing. Be proud and confident of your personality traits, even as you’re on the lookout for negative impacts on behavior. If you feel like aspects of your personality are hard to live with, hindering your daily life, or are becoming frustrating, meeting with a therapist can help. Whether you choose in-person, or online therapy, a licensed therapist can work with you to distinguish problematic behavioral patterns and provide actionable ways you can work on better navigating challenges and problematic thoughts.

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