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What Is Neuroticism?

Question:

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

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Answer:

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.

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