The upside of being neurotic

It's not exactly going to win personality trait of the year, but it's possible to use neuroticism to your advantage.

Last Updated: 10 May 2018

If you got to choose your personality, what would you go for? Look at psychology’s ‘big five’ personality traits and pick which ones you’d prefer to score highly in:

Conscientiousness – reliable, prepared, organised. Surely a good thing.

Agreeableness – friendly and compassionate. What’s not to like?

Openness – curiosity, adventurousness and imagination. Invaluable.

Extroversion – thrives in the company of others. Perhaps a little loud, but undeniably useful.

Neuroticism – prone to negative emotions and instability, highly sensitive to threat. Erm... well it’s not exactly going to win personality trait of the year, is it?

Sadly, we can’t choose our personalities – these traits set in at a very early age. But you can manage them. So, rather than crawling into the corner of the office and hyperventilating into a bag, MT made its way to the well-worn couch of psychiatrist and coach Dr Amy Iversen, in search of some silver linings.

The dark cloud

First, the bad news. Highly neurotic people really do have a lot on their plate, especially as the world of work is becoming faster paced and more uncertain. ‘They cope less well when the going gets tough,’ says Iversen.

‘When things go wrong – even a little bit - they may get more stressed, more uptight, and less able to be a team player. If they are in a senior role, they may struggle to demonstrate their true leadership and management skills,’ she adds. This can lead to a vicious cycle, where poor performance begets further poor performance.

But there are upsides. Many of the most successful people in history have been posthumously identified as neurotics. Albert Einstein, Isaac Newton, Winston Churchill... Steve Jobs’ obsessive micromanagement didn’t come from an excess of agreeableness, did it?

‘Neuroticism gets a bad press, but the self-same traits that cause people distress and disability with neuroticism can also, when harnessed properly, predict great success. The world would be impoverished without the dynamism and creativity that neurotic people bring,’ says Iversen. ‘Research even suggests that there is a link between creative thinking/imagination and neuroticism in terms of brain areas which are activated.’

Crucially, neurotics are also often ‘strivers’, which Daniel Nettle explores in his book Personality: What Makes You The Way You Are. The fear of failure, which neurotics feel more keenly, can be a powerful motivator. And self-criticism, another feature of neuroticism, can drive relentless self-improvement.

What you can do

If you are neurotic (and one imagines most neurotic people will have done the test by now), the key is to play to your strengths. ‘The most successful neurotic individuals do two things. First, they learn to control some of their less helpful ways of operating – they get candid feedback from those around them, they get advice, they get help from a coach or therapist. Second, they work hard to find a niche in which their unique blend of strengths can be recognised and used,’ says Iversen.

When it comes to managing the downsides, you could do worse than emulating Winston Churchill, who was often beset by low mood, hypochondria and anxiety*.  He used an elaborate preparation routine to overcome his fear of public speaking, and took up brick-laying and painting to manage depression. He also made a habit of writing down a half dozen things that were worrying him.

‘Two of them, say, disappear; about two nothing can be done, so it is no use worrying, and two perhaps can be settled,’ Churchill reportedly said.

As for finding your niche, there are a few obvious things you might want to avoid. Research has long shown that neurotic people tend to avoid ‘dangerous’ jobs (so bomb disposal expert is out...) in favour of analytical or creative roles.

Nettle writes that neuroticism ‘unleashes the power of rumination... the greatest tool of the scholar’, which tends to make neurotics well suited to knowledge work.

For suitable inspiration, Iversen points to Isaac Newton, no less. ‘He once wrote that he solved problems by turning them over and over and over in his mind,’ she says. ‘For an entrepreneur, that same rumination can be channelled into obsessively thinking through a user experience, advertising strategy, or how to pitch a new idea, in the same way a creative could use this energy to memorise every line of a film script, or hone the finest detail of a play’s production.’

So don’t worry. Being neurotic isn’t all doom and gloom. As with most things, it’s not the cards you’re dealt, it’s how you play them.

*Churchill also drank like a fish. It’s inadvisable to emulate your role models in every respect. 

Image credit: VladOrlov/Shutterstock


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