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Neuroticism: The Cost of Consciousness

The Cost of Consciousness

Neuroticism is the trait associated with negative emotions. It can be broken down into the following two aspects: Volatility and Withdrawal. 

Those high in withdrawal may be described as anxious, self-conscious, depressive and easily overwhelmed. Whereas those high in volatility may be described as touchy, irritable and unstable.

In contrast, those low in both may be described as calm, happy, easy-going and self-confident. So, it’s clear to see why you would to be lower in neuroticism with rare exceptions.

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. Something I can painfully attest to.

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?

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. That has proved a high cost to bear.  Arguably it’s this uncomfortable truth that drives most of our actions.

I think part of the problem is our relationship with death. It’s broadcast to us at every turn. On the news and the tv shows we like to watch.

We’re like a moth to the flame. We can’t help but look at it, yet no one wants to talk about it. But one day, the worms will eat us up and spit us out!

I believe it’s a very healthy thing to meditate on death. To see why it’s necessary for the circle of life. I believe this helps us transcend the ego.

Another high cost to self-consciousness is shame. Having to come to terms with our very real limitations. Knowing that we always fall short of what we could be.

Shame is very different from guilt. It has everything to do with anxiety. 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, any mistake is seen as a reflection that the self is fundamentally flawed.

So, “Instead of a desire to confess, apologies and repair, shame causes a desire to vanish, escape or strike back.”

Much of modern psychology is obsessed with raising self-esteem for this reason. A good question to ask yourself is whether you should work on transcending the ego or building it up?

The answer, I believe, is both.

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. 

The answer is survival. (Thanks Sherlock.)

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 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. But do you really want to live without fear? Do you want the pilots in the front of your aeroplane to be fearless?

Nothing would scare me more.

Something we could all do well to work on is changing our relationship to fear. Fear is our friend – our ally. Really! 

It’s just not a terribly intelligent one. It was made during a very different time in a very different environment. So you have to remain kind but objective.

But you can change your relationship to fear. You can befriend it. Often it is a powerful indicator telling us exactly what we should do. 

Herein lies a neurotic person’s superpower. Using your fear. You can do this by zooming the lens out and imagining 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 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 else that’s 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 come with the devil attached. What matters is how you relate to the devil. 

How to Lower Neuroticism

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!

We need to be seen, heard, and felt.

You can tell if a child is well adjusted by how willingly they play. 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 “voluntary 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 test 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 my fellow neurotics.

First: Make a plan. 

Not having a plan is another source of anxiety. 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.

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 – that pushes you toward positive change. 

I suggest you start with sleep. Go to bed and wake up at the same time. 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 straight away. 

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 bit by bit, step by baby step, you start to overcome the devil within.

This is part of a series on the Big Five personality traits. Pleased find other posts below:


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11 thoughts on “Neuroticism: The Cost of Consciousness

  1. I thought this was a great post, a mixture of not just description of a mental condition, but also a practical plan. As someone very high in neuroticism, I appreciate that.

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