- Trait neuroticism refers to one's dispositional set point for experiencing negative emotion.
- High trait neuroticism is generally associated with problems with depression and anxiety.
- Very low trait neuroticism might be highly problematic in some cases.
Not too long ago, a doctoral student asked me if very low neuroticism can ever be a problem. Here I share why I answered by saying: “Yes, if it comes with some other traits and character structures.”
Trait Neuroticsm Vs. Character Neurosis
First, though, let’s get clear about what "neuroticism" means. To do that we need to differentiate “trait neuroticism” from “character neurosis.” Character neuroses refer to the entrenched maladaptive patterns that arise as a function of how we cope and the stressors we are placed in. As such, character neuroses are generally not a good thing. Indeed, most psychotherapy can be framed as trying to help folks become aware of these kinds of neurotic patterns, accept them, and move toward learning new skills, such that one engages with the world in a more adaptive and growth-promoting way.
Trait neuroticism is different. It refers to one’s dispositional tendency to experience negative emotion. One way to think about it is to consider how a car idles. People who have high trait neuroticism have a negative emotional system that “idles” high. This means they are more sensitive to stressors, have more intense negative reactions, and take longer to return to baseline levels of emotional arousal. High trait neuroticism is one of the key elements that drives people into depressed and anxious states, as well as into psychotherapy. Another way of saying this is that high trait neuroticism makes one vulnerable to developing character neuroses. (For more on trait neuroticism, see here).
But what about low trait neuroticism? Is that just a good thing? My general answer is that, in this day and age, I think moderately low trait neuroticism is probably mostly a good thing. That is, I think modern society is structured so that we are reacting to stressors that we would be far better off not reacting to. As such, folks who have highly sensitive negative emotional systems are vulnerable to chronic stress and would probably be both happier and more adaptively fulfilled if they could tone their negative reactivity down. This is hard to do if you are “sitting on a sensitive horse,” which is sometimes how I describe high trait neuroticism.
An Example of Deeply Problematic Very Low Neuroticism
With that said, it also is the case that I have seen instances when very low neuroticism can be deeply problematic. This is especially the case when it is combined with low conscientiousness and some antisocial attitudes. The story of a client I had a long time ago makes this clear. "Jeff" (name changed) was part of the suicide-attempter study I ran between 1999 to 2003. He came in because, in the months prior, he had been feeling bored, had been hooked on heroin, and had tried killing himself. He had been out of prison for about a year. It was how he got into prison that gives a window into what very low neuroticism can look like and why it can lead to deep trouble. Here is Jeff's narrative of how he got in prison:
He was 19 when this girl, who was about 12, started flirting with him. They headed back to the girl’s home and started having sex in the basement. The girl's father came home, heard them, and went to get his gun. Jeff saw the father's car keys on the table, grabbed them, and jumped into the car. Someone — presumably the father — called 911, and soon there were cops chasing Jeff down some poorly lit country roads. Eventually, Jeff lost control of the car. It veered off the road into a tree. He was not wearing a seatbelt, and he hit his head hard into the steering wheel, splitting his forehead wide open. (He pointed to the half-moon–shaped scar on his hairline as he told the story.) He distinctly remembered sitting there, looking through the blood spilling over his eyes. He saw the fog and the steam coming from the car engine. In the rearview mirror, he saw the flashing lights of the cop cars. He saw the officers with their guns drawn, screaming at him to get out of the car, lay down, and spread his arms and legs.
And, in response to all of this, one word came to his mind: “Cool.”
Although this is an extreme example, it shows clearly that very low trait neuroticism can potentially result in massive problems. Indeed, we see clear analogies in the pain literature. In rare instances, some people have conditions such that they are incapable of feeling pain. This is generally considered a serious condition, as they are constantly injuring themselves, but, because of no pain, they shrug it off and proceed. Of course, injured bodies that do not heal eventually stop functioning, and many of these individuals die young. We can see similarities here with someone who has no socioemotional anxiety and other character elements that result in impulsive, reckless, and massively damaging behavior. The bottom line is that, while high trait neuroticism is the source of much suffering, it also may well be that very low trait neuroticism comes with its own set of problems.