Neuroticism is the trait associated with negative emotions. Of course, it’s probably the one trait you don’t want to score high on because it sucks to feel bad.
Naturally, I score moderately high in neuroticism…
It’s worth pointing out that all of us are more sensitive to negative emotions. Human beings are neurotic creatures.
This is often illustrated by the fact people will hurt more by a loss of a given magnitude than feel rewarded by a gain of the same amount.
What this means is that someone who’s described as a neurotic will be particularly risk-averse.
What’s the long-term cost of never taking risks? Of always being afraid of negative consequences? Well, you retreat from life itself. You spend your days never venturing out of the bat cave.
Of course, those high in neuroticism are far more likely to suffer from mental illnesses such as depression. I can painfully attest to this.
The Cost of Consciousness
Neuroticism can be broken down into the following two aspects: Volatility and Withdrawal.
I think it’s helpful to liken them to the fight or flight or freeze response system, where volatility represents fight (think anger, irritability, unstable etc.), and withdrawal represents flight or freeze (think anxiety, fear, depression etc.).
I score moderately high in withdrawal but lower in volatility. This has something to do with past trauma. As a result, I tend to shrink into my shell.
Interestingly enough, high withdrawal is associated with self-consciousness. I say that’s interesting because self-consciousness is often touted as a cardinal human trait.
We see it as a good thing!
Remember what I said about our weaknesses being attached to our strengths? Self-consciousness is perhaps the best example of that.
Becoming self-aware was one of the most significant milestones in our evolution. It has allowed us to do extraordinary things.
Yet it’s also meant living in the shadow of our own mortality. Knowing that death is coming to each and every one of us. That has proved a high cost to bear. Arguably it’s this uncomfortable truth that drives most of our actions.
Another high cost to consciousness is shame. Having to come to terms with our very real limitations. Knowing that we will always fall short of what we could be.
Shame is very different from guilt. One could argue that guilt is good, whereas shame isn’t.
To highlight the difference, someone who feels guilty might say, “I messed that up,” whereas someone who who feels shame might say, “I messed that up.”
Shame places the focus on the self as opposed to the behaviour. More to the point, the mistake is seen as a reflection that the self is fundamentally flawed.
The Surprising Benefits of High Neuroticism
Now, you might be wondering what the upshot is for those higher in neuroticism. After all, the trait wouldn’t exist if it didn’t come with benefits.
To answer this question, it helps to ask why we all tend to feel negative emotions more intensely in the first place. Why do we all have an inbuilt negativity bias, for example?
The answer is survival.
Anxiety is a horrible emotion, but better that than being badly hurt in an accident or being outcast by the Alpha of your tribe. It’s best to tread carefully rather than be dead as the dodo.
The truth is feeling bad has done more to ensure the survival of our species than feeling good ever has, yet fear is dragged through the mud.
Do you see a problem here?
We demonise fear. We make it out to mean that something must be wrong with us. We say there is nothing to fear but fear itself. But do you really want to live without fear? Do you want the pilots in front of your aeroplane to be fearless?
Nothing would scare me more.
There are only two kinds of people who don’t feel fear: psychopaths and the dead. If you’re wondering what the costs at either end of the neuroticism scale are, this is an excellent way to think about it. Too high, and it kills your quality of life. Too low, and it kills you.
Something we could all do well to work on is changing our relationship to fear. Fear is our friend – our ally.
He’s just not a terribly intelligent one. He was made during a very different time in a very different environment. So you have to remain kind but objective.
But you can reframe your relationship to fear. You can befriend it. Often it is a powerful indicator – telling us exactly what we should do.
Something you can do is zoom the lens out and imagine how much worse your life will become if you continue to let fear dictate all your decisions.
Now that really is frightening!
If you can paint a very vivid picture then that fear becomes greater than your stage fright or that awkward conversation you’re putting off.
What you’ve done is put that fear behind you. It’s no longer a headwind. It’s a fucking tailwind.
Now here’s something interesting.
Neurotic types who work hard on becoming more conscientious have a surprising health advantage. The self-discipline of being conscientious counteracts unhealthy neurotic behaviour.
A survey of 1,054 adults found that those who were both neurotic and conscientious had lower levels of inflammation. Of course, inflammation is heavily linked to depression.
Dr. Nicholes A. Turman, the study’s first author, speculated that this is because conscientious or “healthy” neurotics may be hyper-vigilant about their lifestyle.
I come bearing more good news for the overly neurotic.
Higher levels of neuroticism are often linked with higher levels of creativity “because the brain which is linked to creativity also has the tendency to overthink and worry.”
Remember what I said?
The gifts that God gave you often come with the devil attached. What matters is how you relate to the devil.
How to Lower Neuroticism
So, you soothe a baby by picking it up and holding it. Babies may die without human touch, even if given enough food, water, and shelter. Those who receive minimal human contact growing up are significantly compromised in their future development.
This is because human touch is palliative. When we feel down it’s imperatvie that we talk to someone. If your friend or family member is grieving, you should hug them – IT HELPS!
You can tell if a child is well adjusted by how willingly they play. If your household is well structured, your child will be comfortable knowing that all their needs are taken care of.
The reason a child may not be comfortable is because of some perceived threat. Anxiety disrupts a child’s willingness to play.
An American psychologist named Jerome Kagan studied temperament in toddlers and found that the more reactive children took longer to warm up to new individuals. He found those same toddlers were equally high in neuroticism years later.
The good news is, he also found that voluntarily active exploration normalised anxious children’s behaviour. To the greatest extent possible, a parent should encourage this in a child. You want to set boundaries but you want to let them explore and push the edges of those boundaries. That’s a healthy thing.
An adult is no different.
With that in mind, I’ll finish this post with a three-step plan for those who suffer from anxiety.
First: Make a plan.
Not having a plan is another primary source of anxiety – of course, it is! We need a why otherwise, why get out of bed?
Having and implementing a plan reduces the anxiety that something terrible might happen. But we need a plan that has a reasonable probability of success. So you should make it simple.
Baby steps are essential.
It’s worth asking yourself what task you are willing to do? Even if it’s something as small as tidying your room or putting on a load of laundry. Just start with that.
Taking action is no small thing for someone in the throes of depression. In fact, I would argue, it is everything.
When you move toward a goal, the positive emotion system in your brain releases dopamine – the feel-good hormone. This encourages you to do more of the same. The same emotion causes you to binge-watch NETFLIX or obsessively check your social media feed. You want to use this feedback mechanism to chase positive rewards instead of negative ones.
Something as seemingly minor as tidying your room is an excellent mental health exercise. It can have cascading effects leading to improvements in other areas of your life.
Second: Build a routine.
A critical aspect of implementing a plan is having a routine. Concentrating less on the outcome so much as showing up and doing something – anything – pushes you toward positive change.
I suggest you start with sleep. Go to bed and wake up at the same time. Try to meditate, exercise, and eat at the same time too. Make it so small you can’t fail to begin with. 5 minutes of meditation – 5 pushups, etc.
You want to place some scaffolding into your day – some predictability – from which to build and explore.
Third: Confront the dragon.
You want to voluntarily seek out the dragon and take it on. You want to push yourself into uncomfortable situations willingly.
This part should come last. Build towards it slowly – simply sharpen your sword, to begin with. Don’t tell yourself to take on the whole dragon in one go.
You must negotiate with your anxiety – find the task that scares you but that you are willing to do – and encourage yourself to do it. Then really praise yourself for having done it.
Only by exposing yourself to a threat or obstacle will you break down the belief that you can’t overcome it. By facing the thing and approaching it – however minor the step – you start to indicate to your anxiety system that you’re more competent than the thing is dangerous.
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is a wrap. Next up: Conscientiousness.
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