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What Is Neuroticism?


i would like to know if neuroticism is a form of personality disorder

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Neuroticism, also known as Emotional Stability is not a personality disorder, but rather one of the facets of normal personality. I will try to explain what I mean by these terms, which have fairly precise meanings to psychologists that may be different than how you understand them.

Every person is a unique individual (even the most conforming of us is a unique individual). Most people use the term "personality" to describe the ways that people are different from one another. Psychologists also use another term that has roughly the same meaning as personality: "individual differences". Psychologists have spent over a hundred years trying to understand how to best model and explain individual differences; the different parts of human nature that make people different from one another.

One of the fruits of this long study is the distinction between personality and temperament. Temperament is the part of personality that is inherited, or at least which seems to be biologically manifest and which is present at birth. A person’s ultimate personality results from temperament (which is each person’s starting place), and how temperament gets modified by experience as each person lives their lives.

Another result of this study is the distinction made between normal and abnormal aspects of personality. The phrase ‘normal personality’ is used to describe the ways that people end up being different from one another when they don’t have substantial psychological or psychiatric issues they are dealing with in their lives. Abnormal personality occurs when psychological or psychiatric issues are present for a person which end up distorting their behavior to cause them to act in a way that normal (non-disordered) people generally would not. There are two ways that abnormal personality gets divided up as well. Chronic distortions of personality that are stable and lifelong are thought of as ‘personality disorders’. More temporary distortions of behavior, such as which result when a person who was non-disordered at one time later becomes depressed and then still later starts to feel better again, are not considered personality disorders, but rather simply ‘clinical disorders’ where the focus is on the underlying disturbance that is influencing the behavior rather than on the behavior itself which is seen as a mere symptom or sign of the underlying problem.

Most psychologists today support (with some minor disagreements here and there) what is known as the five factor model of normal personality. The five factor model, variously formulated by Lew Goldberg, and Costa and McCrae among others, suggests that normal personality is best divided into five more or less independent components That there are five components is a somewhat arbitrary number. There are many models where the five major components are themselves subdivided into smaller parts. It really comes down to where you want to draw lines. But the behaviors characterized by the five factors are almost always identified as important by independent psychologists studying the problem. So, the consensus is that it makes sense to say that there are five major components of personality.

The five components of normal personality described by the five factor model are Neuroticism, Extroversion, Openness to Experience, Conscientiousness, and Agreeableness. I won’t go into detail about all of these facets here, as the question pertains to Neuroticism only.

In most everyone’s analysis, Neuroticism ends up coming out as the biggest and most important component It explains the tendency to be vulnerable to anxiety and depression feelings when faced with potentially stressful situations. People vary high to low in terms of neuroticism; they may be very emotionally vulnerable and easy to push into a painful mood, or they may be quite emotionally stable and resistant to experiencing mood disturbances.

Neuroticism is similar but not identical to the same thing as being "neurotic" in the Freudian sense where most people first hear the word. Many people confuse the two terms. For this reason, some psychologists prefer to call Neuroticism ‘Emotional Stability’ precisely to differentiate it from the Freudian term ‘Neurotic’.

Freud distinguished between two general categories of psychological problem; the neurotic and the psychotic. People with psychotic problems were out of touch with reality, deeply and profoundly disturbed and often unable to function in society. Neurotic people were people who had persistent problems but of a minor, quirky, nature; they were able to function in society just fine although they might not be all that happy. It is likely that people who are neurotic in the Freudian sense are also high in Neuroticism in the five factor model sense, but it is not a direct or necessarily causal relationship.

Unlike Neuroticism, which is an aspect of normal personality that everyone has to some degree or not, a personality disorder is something that most people do not have. A good way to think about personality disorders is generally to see them as cases where people do not develop the normal range of flexibility of coping in their personality and end up viewing and treating every situation in a similar manner. This rigid coping style may work in some areas of life, but it generally doesn’t fit at all in others, and the person (or the people dealing with that person) ends up having problems as a result.

There is usually some core issue that the personality disorder revolves around. For people with Borderline Personality Disorder (BPD), that issue is the constant threat that someone might abandon them. People with BPD will tend to get very emotional and frantic in response to the threat of abandonment (real or imagined) and they will experience great anxiety and depression. It is probably the case that the majority of people who have BPD also are high in terms of Neuroticism, as high levels of Neuroticism probably function as a vulnerability that people can have to being susceptible to developing clinically relevant emotion regulation problems like BPD, but it certainly is not the case that everyone who is high in Neuroticism is also BPD. High Neuroticism may be a predisposing vulnerability for the development of BPD, but it is definitely not a sufficient cause and may not even be necessary for the disorder to occur.

More "Ask Dr. Dombeck" View Columnists

  • Thomas

    Hello Dr. Dombeck,

    Ive got a question. I had serious problems in the past with depression. I recently took the Neo-FFI. I got more than 90% on Neuroticism and about 1% on Extravasion, which means that only 10% are more neurocistic and less than 1% at my age are more introvertive than me (agreeability and consciousness were okay but openness was a bit low too). Now my question is, is it possible to change this personality structure?

    Editor's Note: It's hard to say really. The short answer is that there are probably some degrees of freedom in which to work wherein you can reduce your tendency towards Neuroticism (which is really reasonably thought of as a propensity or vulnerability to anxious and depressive states), but that you might not expect to ever be as free of this tendency as someone who simply was never loaded for it at all. My understanding is that neuroticism is shaped by biological factors (it runs geneticially in families), but that this biological componant is only a part of the total factors that make it happen. Environmental and developmental factors are also important. Even given the presence of a genetic partial cause, it needs to be remembered that the body and even the brain is somewhat plastic- it can take on new shapes in response to the environment and to demands placed upon it. If you want to exercise your degrees of freedom (and i use that word deliberately), I think you would want to develop a training program for yourself which would incorporate elements of stress management and mindfulness and work this into your daily routine as a prophylactic force to counter-balance your tendency to get worked up.

  • sharlene brown

    Dr. Dombeck,

    Are you familiar with PADS? (Post adoption depression syndrome?) I just came through a long "bout with what I just discovered even had a name: PADS. I wish there was more education out there on this very difficult condition.

    If you have heard of PADS, could it be a biological response? I don't see where it could be horomonal. All I know is I fought it with everything I knew, and I could not change it. I hated myself beyond words for feeling it.

    Do you know anyone who has studied this area?

    thank you,


    Dr. Dombeck's Note: I have not heard of this before. Can you describe it please or provide some link to a definition so that I can get a better sense for how exactly this particular route into depression is supposed to operate? For instance, is this something suffered by children who are adopted when they become old enough to realize that fact, or is this something experienced by adoptive parents during or after an adoption? These would be two very different scenarios with different potential explainations for depression occurring.

  • Alyrica

    Dear Dr. Dombeck

    After taking the Neo FFi the counselor told me I scored high on Neurotism (40) and I think I'm online searching for answers because it's bothering me. First of all is 40 that high? What does a 40 mean in general.

    I do not like labels but I do have a great curiosity about knowledge and self exploration. So true to the neuroticism in my personality, this is causing me anxiety now I guess because of the perfectionism in my personality.

    I have a degree in psychology (without internship work)and I have a beautiful gift for creative writing and poetry People ask me why I have nothing published when they hear it.

    I have also had many surgeries and gone thru physical/sexual abuses as a child in foster care. I am wondering how I BECAME A NEUROTIST? I hope I termed that right. Anyway, I'm in therapy (just started) to deal with my past abuses and anger from feeling these doctors/rapists hurt me and got away with it. I live in chronic pain daily (fibromyalgia, belly adhesions, endometriosis, etc - you get the picture) & I believe these environmental issues have plagued me so long it affects my ability to be an effective/productive writer and use my gift to heal others. Lately, it's like I care about others but I don't prefer their company or trust them. I can either lash out at people or be their best friend but it usually depends on what my mind is preoccupied with at that moment. I am by no means selfish and actually that bothers me too. I rarely put me first and if I did maybe I could write more and publish a book or two. (Hmmm????)

    So in addition to if my abusers caused this change in my personality traits, or increased my depression I was wondering if I'd always think like this underneath what I present to others. I don't want to go thru life feeling like a victim or being superficial. (Hince the reason I am in therapy.) nOh my biological mother was depressed my entire childhood and my father, whom I didn't know, was an alcoholic. So I do recognize the genetics.

    Thank you kindly.


  • lorraine

    hi i took a test and my test said score of 87% neuroticis,,yes i was abuse with worlds and hitting ive tryed everything to get help iam 44 and dont want to live like this iam not happy,,,,where can i go to get help which doc do i see i need to know if there is anything to do with me or am i going to be like this for the rest of my life plz help me..

  • Bhargavi

    hello doc,

    i'm 18 year old girl who recently scored a 84 in neuroticism...for things seems to get really worse because of this i'm having a really bad time....during my school days i used to hit my friends if they irritate me so much....i even hit my mom when she scolds me...recently i hit my friend really bad and said her bad words...later on i realized my mistake and i wrote her a sorry with blood....i cut my hand...i have a really hard time in getting friends....people do talk with me nicely and i'm friendly with them too but i don't actually closer to any of them....i shout at mom or closer friends when i'm angry...not every1 tho....i get depressed over many i get away from all this??....i really hate being like this....should i get treated?? do i change my mentality???.....PLEASE help me out

  • Matt

    guyz you cannot change your personality. You were born neurotic , than neurotic you will be for the rest of your life ..... it's not so bad ... im also neurotic and its preety cool

  • Ang

    I took several personality tests, including the big 5, and my score is very high - 92%.

    However, in my research it says that people who are highly neurotic also have low emotional intelligence? I have a very high EI, in fact, I actually work in the helping profession counselling families.

    I am so surprised by my score, because I thought if anything perhaps I was suffering from a general anxiety disorder. I seem to be getting worse as I get older and more 'stable' and 'successful' - at 32 years old, I am very mistrustful of friends (I have ended several in the last few years because of clashing ethics, and calling people out) and now I dont' trust myself to even approach a friend to say I'm upset for fear of.. I just expect too much from people? Am I oversensitive? I am living in a new area, and very scared to make friends, I actually push people away by not pursing outings etc. And now it's starting with my husbands family. I recently got married and his family (who are actually very good people) did some hurtful things like, my mother in law did not hug, congratulate, or compliment me on our wedding day, and my husbands entire family left early at the dance. Anyway, I digress, my point is, I am really struggling in social situations with family members and potential friends.

    Normally I am a very rational, caring, insightful person: the kind others go to for advice. But now I am doubting that I can handle intimate relationships. I am fine with my wonderful husband, daughter, and my own mom and dad... but it's other people I don't trust- it's like I see people's true motives and colors easily and it scares me. Is this neuroticism talking or is it just insightfulness? I am really excellent at seeing the root of motive/issue/problems, and awesome at finding solutions... but with myself.. well.. not so much right now. I am a highly driven person, but enjoy balance in my life so I like enjoy me time, family time, etc.

    I have been suffering from general anxiety for over two years now, with one major panic attack due to a stressful situation. I am scared to talk to a doctor, scared that they might prescribe meds, and mistrustful that I will find a counsellor more insightful/intelligent that myself (not out of being cocky, just being realistic).

    What the heck is going on with me? Is this biologically based, or environmental? Is it just that I've been burned so many times? Am I just really insightful and have a hard time dealing with the fact that people aren't perfect & at the core, quite selfishly motivated?

    Dr. Dombeck's Note: To clarify just a bit, neuroticism is the first and most major personality factor that falls out of the 5 factor model. It differentiates people on the basis of whether, by nature, they are calm or alarmist. Neuroticism is *highly* correlated with anxiety and depression. Emotional Intelligence, is not the same thing less an emotional disposition and more of a form of awareness. You can be highly neurotic and still very much emotionally intelligent displaying good social skills, etc. Emotional intelligence and neuroticism are independent traits what we call "orthogonal".

  • Girl A


    i hope you can advise me on how I can learn to be calm, happy, content, let life taker it's course.

    I'm a pretty girl and I get pursued by many gorgeous, lovely guys. My issue is textiquette and etiquette. I play games - constantly! and i'm constantly feeling rejected! i feel it's my fault - that i feel this way, and that i am in that situation to begin with - i put myself out there to be rejected, when there's been no indication that the guy is malicious.

    I will be pursued, then I will play it cool and turn them down a few times, they will stop texting me, I will text them in a couple of days, they will not reply (and I knew they wouldn't the whole time but I had to text them because life is to be lived) and they do not reply - and io am left hurt! rejected again! I take it so personally.

    In a few weeks, another goregous guy takes my liking... the cycle repeats itself. This even happened once, this same cycle, when a guy rocked my world, totally fell in love with him, and I totally rejected him, or perhaps did not express my feeelings. I was hoping he would jut know..? I feel like a failure. Like, un-able to function.

    I want a happy relationship (my past relationships - always unsatisfactory) i score hgih in extravbersion (nearly 100%) high in openness and high in neuropticism. my agreeableness is one third, my conscientiousness is half.

    Please advise, please help balance my personality.

    i am open (obviously) to whatever therapy, but i am aware that perhaps mainstream on-the-couch extensive therapy can maybe be damaging to a person like me? Because I am consious of and dislike parts of my personality already (I feel like a harsh person, yet a crushingly emotionally vulnerable one, it cripples my romances - or am I imagining this??) and sitting there, a sort of 'mental health patient'... I don't know. every therapist has their own theories and preferred methods don't they.

    i would appreciate yours, sir.

    Kind reagards,

    a frustrated girl.

  • Anonymous-1

    This is self obcessing, this is bad, this is compounding the problem I know and I need to take my mental focus away from me.

    But I live with myself, am stuck with myself, and hate myself every day.

    I'm like a yo-yo, bursting with joy one minute, nervous the next, shuddering with gloom and sadness before the hour is through - all completely reative. All it takes is a look that says "I dont like you" or a hug that comes from the heart and my mood is determined in that moment for the rest of the day, I'm terrible at hiding it too. Wear my heart on my sleeve.

    I'm constantly trying to prove myself to people, desperate to be accepted I act the irritating extrovert then come home and thrash around with my fears and anxieties in some sort of horrible emotional nightmare - replaying every moment in my mind and cringing and trying to crawl away from it. I have on occation harmed myself imagining in someway that making the pain physical gives me a degree of control over it. I would NEVER tell anyone this. Never.

    I can't tell anyone how I feel. I dont want anyone to know, building relationships is difficult - I don't need anymore barriers.

    Don't talk about yourself, try to be funny. Why can't I make people laugh? The insecure person detector that people seem to wear starts flashing the moment I walk into the room. Why is it that the harder you try the harder it gets....?

    I'm a good person. I like everyone. Hate myself. depend on approval of others for happiness. Want to feel comfortable in my skin.

    How can I help myself?


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