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Reflections on Neuroticism

Now available in audio format too – just hit play on the player above or visit my feed on your smartphone: https://shawnpowrie.com/feed/podcast

(I dedicate this article to my friends high in neuroticism; you know who you are 😉)

The Job Interview

I walk out of the third round interview of a prospective employer. I had just found myself face to face with two CEOs from two different organisations.

During the interview one of the CEOs had asked me regarding the circumstances surrounding my departure from my previous company, where I had been COO, prospective shareholder and part of the executive team. Clearly, I had been in a good spot, and it may have seemed surprising that I’d chosen to leave right in the middle of the COVID crisis.

I fumbled through a delicate explanation. The circumstances were complex and nuanced. I wanted to be honest and considerate of all parties while still recognising I was in an interview with people who don’t know me and I needed to present my best self to them.

As I’m sure many people who have neuroticism would understand; I wasn’t satisfied with how I worded it. Sometimes I way prefer writing where I can obsess about the use and implications of each word chosen.

At the end of my explanation, one of the CEOs commented “Interesting, funny how that worked out”. I wasn’t sure if he was talking to me or the other CEO.

Behind the scenes my mind immediately started racing:

  • What does he mean “interesting”? Is that genuinely interesting or is that the barely concealed judgemental “interesting…”
  • What does he mean “funny”? Is that “funny, that was an intriguing tale” or “funny, that’s a very unbelievable story?”
  • What does he mean “worked out”? I have no job. Is he being sarcastic?

I take a breath and put back those questions. I maintain a cool front, thinking to myself:

“Surely we can wonder about that stuff at 3 AM tomorrow morning Shawn, now’s not the time!”

What is Neuroticism?

Neuroticism is a personality trait identified by the Five Factor Model (FFM). Neuroticism is described as a measure of “general sensitivity to negative emotions”.

People high in neuroticism are described as being more likely than average to experience feelings such as anxiety, worry, fear, anger, frustration, envy, jealousy, guilt, depression, and loneliness. They tend to focus on negative elements, anxieties, and uncertainties of the past, present and future. They are also more likely to be unhappy, anxious and irritable when just thinking or remembering, and when they encounter a genuine problem.

Those are the technical definitions of neuroticism. But I’ll add to them my own from my personal experience – which at the risk of being less scientific, may be more relatable and digestible:

  1. Obsessing or worrying about minor details, E.G spending excessive time before and after a conversation thinking about “how it went”
  2. A tendency towards perfectionism. Very high/exacting standards. Always needing everything you do to be highly polished, and the accompanying constant undertone of dissatisfaction.
  3. A lot of concern about how others think about you. Frequently spending time trying to figure that out. Lots of reading into subtle cues.
  4. Sensitive to the judgements of others.
  5. A rollercoaster sense of self-worth. Sometimes great because I did something great and people loved it. Other times low.
  6. Having a train of thought that is unable to be derailed. Circular, endless rumination. Same thoughts over and over again.
  7. Frequently checking in for re-assurance from others, including and especially perceived authority figures. “Am I doing a good job? How about now? How about now?”. Ironically the reassurance doesn’t last long, quickly falling back into an insecure state.

Another useful way to frame the idea of neuroticism comes from the website 16personalities.com. While the personality profiling system on that site (Myers-Briggs) is less scientific/academic than the FFM, the categories do roughly correspond with each other. On that website high neuroticism is described as being highly “turbulent”:

When I’ve done FFM tests, I’ve actually been rated as low in neuroticism. Notwithstanding, as I hope to prove in this article, I think I still deserve a good amount of “street-cred” when it comes to this trait. I believe it’s still as much a part of my life as it may be for those higher in it. I’d rate myself as having a kind of “subtle neuroticism”, I might have a lid on it (most of the time), but the lid is not sealed tight. Certainly in my private life it is a regular feature.

So I write this essay, as much for myself as for you. I’d love to get a better hold on the practical implications of my neuroticism.

The downsides of neuroticism

I wake up at 3 AM to go to the bathroom. I return to bed afterwards but I can feel I’ve entered into the “touch and go” zone. There’s a good 50% chance I won’t be able to fall asleep again.

My mind starts wondering. It’s becoming more and more awake. The thoughts are getting stronger, more captivating, more dominating, more obsessive. After tossing and turning for 30 minutes, I realise it’s too late.

I must go for a walk.

I’m in the strange zone of being simultaneously really tired and really stimulated. I put on my shoes and start walking on the streets near my home. I whip open my phone and start a video journal entry. If you ever hear a random person talking to themselves out on the streets in the middle of the night – yeah, that could be me.

These 3 AM walks occur regularly in my life. Depending on my average stress levels at the time, I’d say I wake up 1-2 times per month at night and can’t sleep. I’ve learned to surrender and accept it early. I’ve often found it’s either toss and turn for 2+ hours, OR take a 30-40 minute walk and be able to fall asleep straight thereafter.

They’re torturous, but they’re also some of the times I gain the deepest insights into the storm inside. It’s as though my body & mind told me “Hey! You need to take some time out to process this!”

These nightime awakenings tend to take two shapes:

  1. (Most regularly) heavy processing of negative emotions. Circular Rumination. Replaying the same script over and over again. Stuck in a thought-eddy.
  2. (Less often, and more pleasant) huge bursts of creativity and idea generation. Inspiration and deep ideas. Looking up at the stars, listening to grand, inspiring music.

Whatever they are, and regardless of how necessary they may be, I just wish they could stop. I don’t enjoy waking up in the middle of the night but I’ve accepted it as part of who I am.

These evening walks are just one example of the downsides of neuroticism – which, as anyone high in neuroticism can attest, are substantial.

People high in neuroticism are generally more sensitive to negative emotions and tend to feel stuck within them for longer than other people. A bad word, a bad tone, or negative interaction can bother you for hours (or even days). So much of life can be wasted in the negativity.

From an external standpoint, another downside of neuroticism is that it can actually annoy other people. For example, my daughter’s gymnastics instructor is highly neurotic and can sometimes annoy parents of children she teaches with her 2000 word emails about what they need to do!

Ironically, it’s very counter-productive to beat yourself up for being so neurotic! Only neurotic people are obsessed with how neurotic they are. A low neuroticism response would be to say “meh, I’m neurotic, so what?”. You can’t beat obsession with more obsession.

But before we talk about how to deal with the downsides, let’s first acknowledge the upsides…

The secret powers of neuroticism

Neuroticism is about negative emotions and so, naturally, it gets quite a negative rap.

But all traits in the FFM have upsides and downsides, even neuroticism.

Many of my close friends are high in neuroticism. I say that with the utmost affection – it’s true. They’re also some of the most talented people I know. I think that’s no coincidence.

I’m reminded of a quote I saw recently on LinkedIn:

“All creatives are sensitive.
All creatives are insecure by nature.
All creatives have impostor syndrome.
All creatives are afraid of the white page.
All creatives think they’re not that creative.
All creatives wonder if that’s the last idea they would ever have.
You’re not alone.”

I see a huge correlation between neuroticism and talent. It’s as though all of that self-criticism can’t help but produce extremely high standards. Think about it this way – who’s going to create the better art? The artist who opens up for feedback & criticism or the one who ignores it all and just does whatever they like? Sure, the self-criticism can be bad, even psychologically unhealthy, BUT, it leads to higher skill, talent and detailed work.

As one of my talented designer friends says on her profile that she likes creating “meticulous visual interfaces”. That’s the pro of neuroticism – being meticulous about quality and detail.

Returning to my own story, I have seen the blessings of high neuroticism. To use examples from my professional life as a digital marketer, neuroticism helped me:

  1. Obsessively study and focus on SEO – spending years sorting the truth from the BS, and thus becoming a really competent SEO.
  2. Obsessively think about how people would react to my marketing, resulting in carefully thinking through every single word I use (sound familiar?). Caring what other people think, and having a well-developed sense of empathy can be an effective tool for a marketer.
  3. Obsessively think about how I can make a business better, resulting in reading tons of books about business and management.
  4. Obsessing about how I can support people better as a manager, resulting in being open to feedback, accepting responsibility & blame, and genuinely caring for people.
  5. Obsessing about my worldview on multiple subjects – resulting in spending countless hours reading about various topics and building a highly polished viewpoint on certain subjects.

In my career I’ve encountered many people who, in some sense, I’ve “competed” with. Perhaps it’s a competitor who’s pitching for a common client, or someone else who’s being interviewed for the same role as me. When I come out on top, neuroticism deserves its due. When I “smash the competition” it is with neuroticism by my side. While you may not need to be neurotic to have attention to detail, it was neuroticism that drove my obsessive attention to fine details along the way.

On the worldview front, neuroticism leads me to endlessly seek to make sense of the world and myself. I relentlessly and critically question everything. While it’s important to manage the downside of this (cynicism), the upside is clear thinking on many subjects and a vision of how the world could be better – an essential and valuable trait.

Neurotic people can have the blessing and curse of clear understanding of how things could be better. This makes them good employees and workpeople. As a manager I hired a good number of people and I, unintentionally but organically, did hire a few people higher in neuroticism. I always appreciated their attention to detail and dedication to getting things right, their openness to feedback and sensitivity to other’s opinions. Neurotic attention to detail is the hallmark of many a successful entrepreneur, scientist or artist.

“Sometimes”, I later thought to myself “I’d rather hire a neurotic person and spend lots of energy supporting them, than hire a chilled-out person who doesn’t strive or take feedback”.

To wrap up this section, here’s a great quote from Alain De Botton’s book The Joys and Sorrows of Work, to illustrate the point, referring to “Sir Bob” the billionaire:

“Whatever his stated strengths, it appeared that the one area in which Sir Bob excelled was anxiety. He was marked out by his relentless ability to find fault with others’ mediocrity – suggesting that a certain kind of intelligence may at heart be nothing more or less than a superior capacity for dissatisfaction.”

Acceptance and integration

“Hello neuroticism, my old friend”

A few years ago I watched a wonderful horror film called The Babadook. A scary monster enters into the life of a family and haunts their home, until eventually it is challenged and defeated.

However, after being driven back, at the end of the film we are shown a disturbing scene. The protagonist goes into her basement with a plate of food and … there it is! The monster is now living in her basement. What’s more – she’s feeding it!

But that’s not the full story. It’s now trapped in the basement. It doesn’t come out. It no longer disturbs her or her family. She feeds it, and it’s calm.

The Babadook is a metaphor. In this movie it represents grief. But it could just as easily refer to neuroticism. The solution isn’t to defeat neuroticism – it’s to tame and integrate it.

The truth is that Big 5 traits remain quite stable throughout your lifetime. If you’re a high in neuroticism, it’s likely you will always be. The more you fight it, the more fuel it gets. The more you hate neuroticism, the more neurotic you are being. You can’t fight fire with fire.

Rather: accept neuroticism. Harness it. Be bigger than it. Integrate it. Feed it just enough so that it stops growling at you and stays in the basement, while appreciating the gifts and benefits that it brings you. See it as your ally – recognise the strengths it brings you. Frame neuroticism as the inevitable downside of your unique talents. Develop a positive relationship with neuroticism.

Here are some ways you can do that.

Idea #1: Meditation

Meditation is the practice of adopting an observatory stance prior to the arising of thought – prior to being swept away, caught up by or feeling strongly associated with thoughts. For example, in the happiness trap the example is given of adopting a stance of visualising the thoughts as text appearing in your visual field.

Look – thoughts are just text appearing in consciousness! They’re just sounds, feeble echos. How could this flow of text be so compelling?

For my life, daily meditation has been greatly helpful in curbing the downsides of neuroticism.

Idea #2: Journaling

Where meditation is about seeing the story for what it truly is (just words flashing across your mind), journaling is about learning to tell the write story. Paradoxically, these two are a potent combination. Journaling has a strong ability to help you process information and the things that happen in your life.

I’ve kept a daily journal for over 10 years, and find it hugely beneficial to grant perspective and reframe events in useful ways. When I am neurotically obsessing about something, I like to take a walk and journal about it (sometimes, at 3 AM). Journaling helps me get it all out in the open, giving the emotions and thoughts space to “just be”.

More advice about journaling here.

Idea #3: Acceptance

Along with meditation and journaling, the final idea is to just accept who you are. It’s one of the toughest things for a neurotic person to do because of all of the self-criticism. Learn to accept your neuroticism. Accept it. Again, frame it as neuroticism being the inevitable downside of your talents.

Conclusion

In the beginning of 2020, as with many years before it, I set out to achieve a bunch of semi-ambitious “New Year’s Resolutions”.

But halfway through the year, I revisited them. I was indeed achieving them reasonably well, but I came to realise I should adjust my goals.

So I set only one new goal: “lower neuroticism”.

I realised I have an ongoing relationship with neuroticism, and “I’m working on it too”.

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