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Elizabeth T.07.01.202012 min read

Your Mom Jokes You're Neurotic, But Really, Are You?

“Ain’t no party like a neurotic party”, said no one ever. Mostly because it would tend to look like a party thrown by Eeyore from the Winnie-the-Pooh books. Neuroticism is one of the five personality traits in the Big Five Personality Trait model. It's often confused with the word neuroses, which originated in the 18th century.

It was used broadly for a range of psychological or mental disorders. It tended to be used when a disturbance was sensed but there was no apparent physical cause originally coined in the 18th century to label a range of psychological disorders that could not usually be linked to a physical cause. The word neuroses differ from the personality trait, of neuroticism.

The term "neuroticism" refers to a dimension of personality that has a long-term tendency to be in an emotionally anxious or negative state.
Think Eeyore.

However, some psychologists and psychiatrists do use the term neurosis to refer to anxious symptoms and behaviors that they’re not quite sure of. Some doctors use it to describe mental illnesses that are not psychotic in nature. The most famous psychoanalysts, like Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung, liked to think that the human thought process itself was a neurosis.

It’s easy to see why neuroses and neuroticism can be confused.

Neurosis on the other hand has no single definition. It’s usually used to refer to a psychological medical condition that impacts how a person lives their life.

Obsessive-Compulsive Disorder (OCD) is one example. Individuals with OCD have a neurosis that may have them obsessively check door locks till the point they’re late to work or washing their hands to the point where their skin becomes damaged. A neurosis doesn’t alter a person’s perception of reality, but it does affect the quality of their life

Unlike neuroses, it is not associated with some sort of medical issue or condition. Neuroticism is one of the five personality traits in the Big Five Personality Trait model. The other traits are extraversion, agreeability, conscientiousness, and openness.

Personality is usually defined by the set of behaviors, feelings, and thoughts that arise from a person’s biological and environmental state.

While there’s no set definition behind the word “personality”, psychologists define its traits along 5 dimensions: introversion-extroversion (also spelled “extraversion”), agreeableness, openness, consciousness, and neuroticism (i.e. emotional stability).

A brief history of personality trait development 

Personality trait theory began in the 1930s, when psychologist Gordon Allport used the dictionary to track down over 4000 traits. He compiled these 4000 traits into 3 categories. Another psychologist reduced the 4000 trait list to 171.

Later on a British psychologist, Hans Eysenck, used these characteristics to create a 3-dimensional model. The field of psychology felt Eysenck’s model was a bit too limiting while Allport’s list was too hefty. They found a comfortable middle: a five-factor model used to describe different kinds of personality traits: the Big Five.

These five categories of personality show a range within each. For example, no one is 100% introverted or 100% extroverted. Individuals tend to play somewhere in the middle of the two.

Neuroticism, one of the dimensions of personality, refers to the range of emotional stability a person has. If they tend to be emotionally stable (their moods tend to stay pretty constant), they would be termed as “low neuroticism”. If their moods and feelings fluctuate over a period of time, they are labeled with “high neuroticism”.

Individuals who score on the higher end tend to struggle with feelings of depression, guilt, envy, anger, or anxiety more frequently. They tend to experience these emotions on a much more severe and much more frequent basis.

It’s not easy being a sensitive soul.

Neuroticism is linked to feeling sensitive about negative feelings, environments, attitudes, and experiences.

A person that is more neuroticistic may be a more sensitive person in general to their feelings, in social circumstances, and their physical environment.

Being a sensitive person comes with its advantages: a greater ability to listen, they tend to have more empathy, and have higher levels of intuition. But there’s also a down-side to being a sensitive person.

High sensitivity can take a toll on one’s health, well-being, and professional success. Additionally, it can cause serious damage in relationships. A person with high sensitivity responds with acute physical, mental, and emotional reactions.

They are sometimes seen, but often they go undetected by others. Some people are more sensitive to some areas than others. For example, some individuals are acutely pained by social and environmental factors. Others may feel more sensitivity internally, when thinking of themselves or their interactions and relationships with people.

For many highly sensitive people, the key is to learn how to manage and navigate through these areas of sensitivity. Much of the sensitivity may come from an overload of sensory experiences; others stem from social or emotional factors. Highly sensitive people can become deeply disturbed if their sensitivity mechanism isn’t properly overseen.

Those who score high on neuroticism tend to be particularly sensitive to environmental stress.
What’s important is to distinguish what may seem like everyday interactions to those with low neuroticism--a “hello” from the cashier or a lunch meeting---is menacing and significant to those who are more neurotic.

Trivial social interactions may be aggressively intimidating---they may cancel appointments with friends in worry of social interaction; they may continue to replay a conversation with someone over and over for weeks on end. This personality tends to be self-conscious and it shows in their thought patterns.

Because of the ruminative structure of their thoughts, they may be the individuals who tend to possess phobias and other neuroticistic traits, like anxiety, panic, aggression, and depression. These negative feelings and fears are long-term, not only happening with certain individuals or certain social situations or places.

Highly neurotic people are more susceptible to mental illness than those are not. Though the everyday experience seems to wear on them, neurotic individuals are often creatives. They tend to gravitate towards the artistic industries. Creative individuals score higher on tests of neuroticism than those who aren’t in creative fields.

Additionally, for those who are nervous about the outcome of being highly neurotic, take heart. There is a possible advantage. In a study done by State University New York (SUNY) Downstate Medical Centre, showed that individuals suffering from anxiety also had the tendency to have a higher IQ on average.

In the university’s research, they explained a possible cause for this close correlation: “high intelligence and worry are linked with brain activity measured by the depletion of the nutrient choline in the white matter of the brain.” When a person’s brain is constantly working, working out multiple permutations of a situation or problem, it leads to more problem-solving skills.

It seems worried is one way that the brain exercises

Steve Jobs. Sir Isaac Newton. These were leaders in their field, but also prone to the serious complications of being neuroticistic.

Steve Jobs was known for his mood swings and obsessive behavior. Sir Isaac Newton refused to sleep for 5 nights and felt his friends were conspiring against him. Though neuroticism may seem like a genius-like quality or may be glorified by movies or culture, Annie Murphy Paul, the author of The Cult of Personality, tells Quartz “it’s not any fun to be neuroticistic or to be around people who are neuroticistic. We talk about it jokingly, but actually it can be a very unpleasant characteristic; it’s burdensome.”

On a biological level, neuroticism may be detected. High levels of negative thoughts light up a specific part of the brain called the medial prefrontal cortex---even when they're just resting in a brain scanner.

This part of their brain which is located right behind the forehead is used principally for deciding what is a threat or not. Adam Perkins, psychologist and lecturer at the King’s College London tells Live Science, "It's quite a simple leap to think they've got a sort of internal threat generator in their heads. They can be lying down in bed or sitting in an armchair in a perfectly neutral environment, and yet they're feeling as if they're under threat."


Their "default mode network," is thinking of all the negative outcomes or feelings. Their brains seem to be active even when they’re not doing anything in particular. Since the medial prefrontal cortex is part of that system, ruminating thoughts are difficult to turn off. Hence overthinking becomes a real challenge for some neuroticistic individuals.

The International Personality Pool (IPIP) gives access to individuals to use public domain commercial psychological tests. The IPIP highlights one of the most common psychological models of psychology, the Big 5, or otherwise known as the Five Factor Model.

The model explains that personality can be explained along five dimensions: introversion-extraversion, conscientiousness, agreeableness, neuroticism and openness to experience. We’ve explained extroversion and introversion and agreeableness and consciousness.

In Neuroticism, there are 6 subscales within this particular personality dimension:

1. Anxiety

This anxiety looks how it easily someone is worried and how often they look at their environment as potentially dangerous. This takes into account the flight-or-fight activation. It looks at general anxiety, tension, nervousness, or phobias. Someone who scores low are generally calm and unworried about a different number of circumstances.

2. Angry-hostility

Individuals who score high on anger have an aversion when situations are not going their way. They feel bitter when they feel being cheated or something is being taken from them. This facet doesn’t examine or refer to the expression of anger; that’s observed with the personality dimension, the agreeableness trait. This facet has to do with the tendency to feel angry. A person who scores high may not appear angry, but definitely feels anger

3. Depression

This facet is not necessarily aligned with clinical definition of depression as the same mental ailment in psychopathy. They may be discouraged, sad and sometimes have difficulty starting tasks due to low motivation and low energy. Someone who scores low does on the depression facet does not mean they have depressive feelings, but that doesn’t mean they have positive emotions like happiness. That’s a separate construct, measured on the personality dimension of introversion-extraversion.

4. Self-consciousness

There is a certain sensitivity to how people look or perceive an individual. Those who score high are concerned that people are looking that them negatively. They tend to feel awkward, ashamed, and/or embarrassed. Someone who scores low tend to do well in social situations, as they have low amount of nervousness.

5. Impulsiveness

It’s interesting when we think of this we think of the characteristic of impulsiveness we think of conscientiousness; it’s part of consciousness but also part of neuroticism. We see this expressed as the inability to resist urges. This person tends to give in to cravings, over-indulge and enjoy short-term gains rather than the long-term. They are often not concerned with the consequences of giving into urges.

6. Vulnerability

Vulnerability deals with having a predisposition to panic. It has some overlap with the anxiety facet. The anxiety facet has a low threshold for flight-or-fight response. This is primarily the action going on with vulnerability: a person who scores high on vulnerability tends to get that flight-or-flight mode more easily. Vulnerability relates to stress, feeling confused or anxious in the presence of a stressor. Unlike anxiety, we tend to examine how easily someone feels when a stressor is present. Along the anxiety facet, it’s more generalized. Those who score low on vulnerability appear calm, poised, and confident. With those who score on the extreme low side, they may seem distant or dispassionate.

Am I highly neuroticistic?


In no way this is the same as taking a qualified personality assessment or speaking with a psychologist. However a few key patterns may reveal neurotic tendencies in certain facets of this dimension.

Are you hyper-aware?

You’re a person that looks for voice inflections, body language, how many people are in a room and the social dynamics happening in conversations you’re not even part of. In general, you’re very aware.

Are you hyper-self-conscious?

You’re a person that eats healthy because they don’t want to die a painful death 50 years from now. You may be a person that goes over class notes and old tests to prepare for your next exam weeks before it takes place. You tend to worry about your own well-being.

Are you a pessimist, but use that to your favor?

You may be a pessimist but it’s helped you ace that exam you were nervous about or that friendship you quickly saved because you noticed a few things were “off”. A highly neurotic person pays more attention to how things will go wrong and sometimes may act to prepare for the worst outcome.

Like any personality characteristic, there are positives and negatives to be low scoring or high scoring. Neuroticism tends to be associated with poor career outcomes and other negative outcomes when scores are too high. They experience a challenging road ahead as they’re more sensitive to certain stressors, whether environmental or social.

However, it's interesting to know that individuals who score high on neuroticism tend to do better when they also score high in consciousness, which seems to balance out a highly neurotic individual. Therefore a negative career outcome can be negated by increasing consciousness behaviour.

Additionally, it’s important to note that it’s possible for a person to be a low scorer in some elements but high in others.

Like other dimensions, neuroticism is rooted in a number of different causations. In 1964, Carl Jung wrote “Man is blind to the fact that, with all his rationality and efficiency, he is possessed by 'powers' that are beyond his control. His gods and demons...keep him on the run with restlessness, vague apprehensions, psychological complications, an insatiable need for pills, alcohol, tobacco, food — and, above all, a large array of neuroses.” The famed psychotherapist highlighted what emotionally rich and complex beings we are.

Our internal schema thought patterns, and how we add meaning to the world around us are based from the tapestry of biology, environment, childhood, values, religion, culture, literature, movies, and so much more. It’s often messy.

Though neuroticism may be a challenge for some, it could also be their greatest source of creativity and empathy.

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