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The Neuroticism Paradox

When worrying can help you cope more successfully

No one wants to be neurotic. In ancient times, Hippocrates described the "melancholic" temperament as suffering from chronically disturbed bodily fluids. In modern psychology Freud identified the neurotic personality as the prototype of psychopathology. Over the millennia, people who are anxious, worried, and depressed have been regarded as suffering from undesirable attributes that diminish their life quality and make them difficult, if not miserable, to be around. Mental health professionals long ago abandoned the phrase "neurosis" to describe the syndrome of extreme sadness and worry. Instead, psychological disorders involving depressed moods and highly anxious states fall into several categories of the diagnostic nomenclature system.

Yet psychologists could not completely abandon their fascination with the concept of neurosis. When personality researchers began to categorize longstanding dispositions or traits into the factors of the Big Five, neuroticism (also called "N") showed up as the sore thumb in contrast to the other, more positively worded traits, of agreeableness, openness to experience, conscientiousness, and extraversion. Once identified, neuroticism began showing up as a correlate of all sorts of other potentially harmful and unpleasant psychological states ranging from lower intelligence test scores, greater distractibility in tests of processing speed, poorer memory, greater reactivity to stress, poorer coping, and lower feelings of self-efficacy or self-confidence. According to these findings, you definitely don't want to be high on neuroticism if high achievement is your goal.

The unfortunate feature of high neuroticism, and the potentially bad news for people who score high on this trait, is that traits are viewed as unchanging throughout life. If you're born a difficult baby (i.e. high on neuroticism), you'll remain a difficult and maladjusted adult all through your life, was the common view. We now know that personality traits are more malleable than researchers originally believed. Nevertheless, turning around a neurotic personality is still regarded by many as equivalent to turning a large ocean liner on the sea; it requires a great deal of effort, a great deal of time, and may or may not succeed.

In the heyday of psychoanalysis, treating "neurosis" was seen as the major goal of therapy. A client with an unresolved Oedipus complex would be encouraged to work through unresolved Oedipal issues through years of 50-minute bouts of free association. At the time, however, the term was a loose catchall for everything that ailed a person psychologically. In fact, its generality and vagueness was the cause of its expulsion from a diagnostic nomenclature system seeking ever greater specificity.

Though we now have more sophisticated ways of understanding the trait of neuroticism, there still remains the sense that the person with high neuroticism scores remains burdened through life with a constant Eeyore-like view of the world. In a culture that emphasizes feeling happy as much and as often as possible ("Don't worry, be happy"), this person is a round peg in a square hole and will have difficulty adapting to everyday life's challenges.

Yet, poking through the heaps of data proclaiming the dangers of sad moods and high neuroticism were always a few glimmers of hope. For example, researchers in the late 1970s began to talk about the virtues of "depressive realism:" the more honest perceptions of self and world in people who typically feel unhappy. In one particular experimental study by Alloy and Abramson in 1979, nondepressed undergraduates were more likely than the depressed to think that they were in control of a random event (the turning on and off of a light bulb). The term "sadder but wiser" aptly captured the essence of this effect. In contrast, the nondepressed tend to over-emphasize their own role in the events in their lives, part of a general tendency for non-depressed people to view themselves in an unrealistically positive light.

If being depressed is related to a tendency to analyze self and world more critically, the costs of lower self-esteem and feelings of helplessness, of course, can be very high. This slight benefit, though, of being more realistic might be considered a strength, however. Extrapolating to people high in neuroticism, whose mood tends to be more negative, we see that there can be some hidden advantages.

In another study, conducted in 2005 by Maya Tamir and Michael Robinson, also involving undergraduates, people with high neuroticism scores were timed when they categorized words that were positive (e.g. "kiss") and negative ("syringe"). When people high in neuroticism were judging the negative words, they were actually faster than were people low in neuroticism. The authors concluded that for people high in neuroticism, "feeling bad promotes effective functioning." Their continued bad mood might make them better able to interpret what's happening to them than if they were to artificially adopt a good mood just for the sake of being happy.

Most recently, researchers studying personality traits in long-term married couples found that women married to men who were high in the trait of conscientiousness and neuroticism felt slightly healthier. Oddly enough, the boost from a highly neurotic and conscientious mate only worked in the case of wives, not husbands. Perhaps this combination in a husband provides the woman with a partner who urges her to take better care of herself. There are two other important points about this study. One is that a trait doesn't occur in isolation - a person high in neuroticism and conscientiousness may be very different from a person who is high in both neuroticism and agreeableness. Two, people influence each other. Just as we talk about change occurring within individuals over time, it's important to realize that people change in relationship to each other as well.

I'm not arguing that we should all feel depressed in order to function more effectively or that women should deliberately look for neurotic partners. Also, it's important to realize that most of the studies involve participants who are in their late teens and early 20s, i.e. college undergraduates. Young adults are just pulling out of the egocentric years of late adolescence when they tend to see themselves as the center of their respective universes. As we get older, we all become more "depressive realists" by virtue of our growing set of life experiences that teach us we're not in control of everything that happens to us. So it's important to look critically at studies conducted only on college students. It's also important to distinguish between clinical depression, a condition that can have multiple causes, from bad moods or sadness.

If you feel that your own personality traits are inhibiting your enjoyment of life, though, there are ways you can make positive changes to increase your fulfillment:

1. Don't be worried about worrying. There are reasons to worry, and reasons not to worry. If your reasons are realistically tied to what's happening in your life, don't add guilt over feeling negative to your existing feelings of sadness or anxiety.

2. When real worries come your way, take practical steps to turn things around. Cognitive-behavioral psychologists, unlike psychoanalysts, look at sad moods and worry as primarily the result of negative thoughts. You can change your mood by changing your thoughts, one step at a time.

3. Use depressive realism to your advantage. Although people with clinical depression have great difficulty seeing the positive in life, going overboard in the opposite direction also carries risks. Take a good hard look at the situations you can control and those you can't, and work to change those you can control.

The moral of the story is that being in a bad mood isn't always a bad thing. Sometimes you may even be able to see yourself and your life in a clearer and more honest light.

Follow me on Twitter @swhitbo for daily updates on psychology, health, and aging. Feel free to join my Facebook group, "Fulfillment at Any Age," to discuss today's blog, or to ask further questions about this posting.

Copyright Susan Krauss Whitbourne, Ph.D. 2010


Alloy, L. B., & Abramson, L. Y. (1979). Judgment of contingency in depressed and nondepressed students: sadder but wiser? J Exp Psychol Gen, 108, 441-485.

Tamir, M., & Robinson, M. D. (2004). Knowing good from bad: the paradox of neuroticism, negative affect, and evaluative processing. J Pers Soc Psychol, 87, 913-925.

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