5 Ways to Turn Neuroticism to Your Advantage

New research identifies factors we can work on to feel better—and do better.

Posted Mar 07, 2018

The anguish of the neurotic individual is the same as that of the saint. The neurotic, the saint are engaged in the same battle. Their blood flows from similar wounds. But the first one gasps and the other one gives.

—Georges Bataille

It is one of the most effective attitudes of the neurotic to measure thumbs down, so to speak, a real person by an ideal, since in doing so he can depreciate him as much as he wishes.

—Alfred Adler

Neuroticism is a primary personality characteristic, one of the five major traits (the "five factor model") which to a significant extent crosses culture to determine overall personality, though different cultures may on average be higher on certain traits than others. The other Big 5 personality traits are openness, agreeableness, extroversion and conscientiousness. Characteristics associated with neuroticism include anxiety, hostility, anger, depression, self-consciousness and stress vulnerability.

In defense of self-defense.

While benefits such as intelligence, humor, more realistic if “cynical” expectations, greater self-awareness, drivenness and conscientiousness, lower risk-taking, and a strong need to provide for others—it is also associated with self-criticism, sensitivity to others and social anxiety, moodiness and anxiety, poorer general health, greater day-to-day strain, and strong negative emotional reactions. As a result, neurotic people on average tend to find romantic, personal and family relationships more effortful and less successful than desired, have problems keeping jobs, and generally aren’t as satisfied with life.

More neurotic people may find themselves trapped in maladaptive thought patterns which they compulsively defend. So impoverished is the sense of self, that it is necessary to cling to even negative self-attributions because the prospect of positive change itself feels like a threat to integrity, an unacceptable risk of losing oneself by morphing into a different person. Suggestions by other people to change, or pressure from the workplace to function better interpersonally are hard to swallow, feeling more like unjust attacks and false critiques than efforts to be supportive and constructive. In stronger neuroticism, perfect is the enemy of good, as we imagine impossible ideals for oneself and others which protect us from the painstaking work of gradual change and safety of knowing what to expect even if it is bleak, over the risk of disappointment from trying to engage in unfamiliar and unproven ways.

People higher in neuroticism exhibit reduced “prosocial behaviors” Such PSBs include helping others, being soothing and supportive, more generous and giving, doing more charitable work, and generally enjoying a greater sense of well-being. PSBs bolster self-esteem via approval and recognition from others, enhance one’s sense of self-efficacy and accomplishment, support a positive and resilient outlook, and enhance the quality of relations and build community.

Neuroticism, the spice of life?

Among the other personality traits, neuroticism appears to stand apart, a unique ingredient which mellows with age. Think of neuroticism as a super-power not everyone wants to have too much of, and not everyone learns how to use properly when they do possess it. Or think of neuroticism as a strong spice, where "a little goes a long way". Extreme neuroticism can be crippling, but in moderation is desirable. Certain expressions of neuroticism is an acquired taste, as a quirky sense of humor may be, interesting in ways, but potentially dark. Intriguing yet potentially irritating, even annoying. For people with greater levels of neuroticism, it is a challenge and an opportunity. Left unchecked, it can lead to chronic troubles.

Neuroticism may be tempered by other personality traits. It is buffered by higher levels of agreeableness, but a very neurotic disagreeable person, all other factors being equal, will be more challenging in a relationship—and more prone to be harsh and self-blaming. While an extroverted neurotic person may want to be around people more, it can cause inner conflict because being more social also means potentially more stress, self-criticism and anxiety. Introversion, on the other hand, may buffer neuroticism and reduce problematic relationships and loneliness.

How does neuroticism interfere with prosocial behavior?

According to prior research, Guo, Sun and Li (2018) report that in particular, neuroticism has reliably been associated with reduced prosocial behaviors. In spite of consistent cross-cultural findings correlating neuroticism with reduced prosocial behaviors, they note that research has not spelled out the exactly how this character trait leads to negative social outcomes. There must be concrete connections between neuroticism and lower prosocial behaviors, and understanding those potentially causal factors can help us to temper neuroticism. Identifying specific behaviors and attitudes which lead to negative social outcomes can help motivated “neurotics” to reinforce the positives and compensate for or adjust the negatives. Especially because neurotic people tend to be more self-aware and more self-critical, having accurate and high-quality psychological information is a great gift for personal development and therapeutic work when applied constructively.

Potential avenues for neuroticism to impact prosocial behavior include: social anxiety, including being easily embarrassed and stressed in social settings; empathy (cognitive and emotional), more complicated in neuroticism because of difficulty seeing the other person’s point of view, though the higher personal distress in neuroticism may also motivate empathic-type behaviors; social self-efficacy, the specific feeling that we are capable of dealing with social situations and relationships (rather than general self-efficacy); self-esteem, a sense of confidence and self-worth which makes it easier to engage in activities; and emotional intelligence, which is associated with openness, agreeableness, and the ability to manage emotionally negative relationships and situations more effectively.

To sketch out how these factors may connect neuroticism to PSB, Guo and colleagues used a “mediation analysis” to look at psychological data collected from over 1450 young adults (students in China, about 60 percent women). They used reliable and validated self-report instruments to create a 154 item-survey looking at prosocial behavior (Prosocial Tendencies Measure, Revised), neuroticism (the Big 5 Neuroticism Subscale), social self-efficacy (Scale of Perceived Social Self-Efficacy), social anxiety (Liebowitz social anxiety scale), a social-desirability measure (Marlowe-Crowne social desirability scale), and culturally-specific emotional intelligence (Wong and Law emotional intelligence scale), social sensitivity,  (Interpersonal Reactivity Index), and self-esteem (Rosenberg Self-Esteem Scale).

Their results indicate that reduced prosocial behavior in neuroticism is related to lower social self-efficacy, less emotional intelligence, poorer self-esteem, difficulty taking others’ perspectives, and reduced empathy. They found that there was no direct effect of neuroticism on PSB, supporting the hypothesis that specific factors are at play. Social self-efficacy was the largest specific contributor, accounting for 73 percent of the negative impact of neuroticism on PSB, followed by lower emotional intelligence, impaired perspective taking, and related difficulty with empathy. In contrast, higher levels of personal distress with neuroticism encouraged prosocial behavior—not via empathy, but rather via presumed efforts to alleviate one’s own negative emotions by attending to others.

Tempering neuroticism.

While the study sample was young and culturally-bound, prior research suggests that the factors studies are stable across different cultures and may be generalizable, though they require replication. It may be that age and experience and cultural differences could shift the importance of different underlying factors. Regardless, this study identifies several factors which more neurotic people can take into account in efforts to pursue positive changes in themselves, in personal and professional relations, and in general life satisfaction and wellness.

Social self-efficacy was the strongest factor blocking prosocial behavior in neuroticism. This is a specific belief that we are able to perform well in social situations, and goes along with self-esteem to enable us to bring out the best in ourselves. For people lower in these factors, intentionally cultivating a more optimistic and constructive approach by identifying problem areas, setting specific behavioral goals, and practicing interpersonal skills will lead to greater social success, greater confidence in oneself, and the expectation that one is generally competent to work and play well with others. Greater social self-efficacy leads to greater self-esteem, leading to positive change, social success, a greater sense of self-efficacy, and so on.

Likewise, emotional intelligence and perspective taking can be learned, even if we are inclined to focus on our own problems, be tone-deaf to others’ emotional problems, and less adept at handling difficult emotional situations. We can learn to use cognitive empathy, for example, to think about the other’s point of view and imagine what they could be feeling, and act appropriately. It may take more effort and conscious practice, but pays off.  

Getting out of one’s head, for example by doing meaningful volunteer work helping others, can serve as a distraction from overly negative self-ruminations, foster feelings of gratitude, provide a low-stakes forum to work on social skills, and bolster self-efficacy. When it comes to caring for others, using empathy as a motivator adds to the neurotic motive of reducing personal distress by imbuing care-giving with greater authenticity and compassion. This, in turn, is prone to lead to greater personal satisfaction, less focus on negative emotions, greater engagement with and appreciation from others, and improved overall competence.

Recognizing problem areas and getting to work on them can be easier said than done, especially for neurotically-preoccupied people who may not be able to see outside of an inflexible, pessimistic worldview, who tend to be more self-critical than non-judgmentally self-reflective, and may reject help and fail to use social supports. Because of avoidance and distress, it is easier to be reactive—when problems get so bad that people have to try to change or face certain failure—than proactive. 

Cultivating a proactive attitude can prevent future suffering, through focusing on imagining regret so as to provide motivation to take evasive action, thinking about the benefits of change, focusing on goals while outlining specific steps toward those goals, and seeking help from others, among other things. Guided self-help, mindfulness- and compassion-based meditation, individual and group therapy, good self-care, and engaging in activities which address challenge areas can, among other things, help to move the needle while maximizing the positive aspects of neuroticism—and turning them to better use, a paradoxically non-neurotic intention.

By Grant H. Brenner, MD 

References

Guo Q, Sun P & Li L. Why neurotic individuals are less prosocial? A multiple mediation analysis regarding related mechanisms. Personality and Individual Differences 128 (2018) 55–61.