NeuroticismNuria is furious. Here she is at her favourite restaurant, having finally managed to snag a great table, and what happens? Her so-called friend Stacey has just called to cancel their lunch date. Now her day is ruined, and she can’t even leave because she’s already ordered a drink. Can she call the waiter over and cancel the order? No, better not — he’ll give her that disapproving look the waiters here do so well. But if she stays at the table alone, everyone in the restaurant will feel sorry for her. Nuria can’t make up her mind, and starts to panic when she sees the waiter approaching with her drink. She tries to remember the word for “cancel” in the local language, but her mind goes blank. This kind of thing always happens to me, she thinks miserably. Leaving her wine untouched on the table, she flees the restaurant in tears. Back home, she breaks into her chocolate stash and broods over her latest humiliation in a country where she seems to fall flat on her face no matter how hard she tries. 

Several hours later, Stacey sits alone in a different restaurant, relaxing with a cup of tea. She’d been on her way to meet Nuria when she got the call about her son’s playground accident. After spending the afternoon at the clinic (sprained ankle, nothing serious) and finally getting her son down for his nap, she headed into town to stock up on his favourite foods before taking her tea break. When she asks the waiter for the bill, he gives her a disapproving look that makes her suspect her pronunciation wasn’t quite right, but she doesn’t really care — the staff at the clinic had no problem understanding her, and she feels she’s doing a great job settling in here.

What is Neuroticism?

Neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative emotions. Sub-traits include anger, depression, and anxiety. Like Nuria, neurotic people are particularly susceptible to stress, and don’t perform well under pressure. Change is difficult, and surprises are unwelcome.

They are highly reactive: something they hear often is, “you’re blowing this out of proportion.” Their emotional instability may cloud their judgment because they experience difficulty thinking clearly when stressed. This means decision-making can be torturous.

The neurotic worldview tends to be pessimistic, and this negativity colours their experiences and may distort their understanding of others’ motivations. They are high self-monitors (they care a great deal about what others think of them), and are very sensitive to the possibility of looking foolish. This self-consciousness can make them somewhat socially awkward.

The opposite of Neuroticism is Emotional Stability. Stable people are unlikely to experience chronic negative feelings. Instead, they tend to be more emotionally resilient. Because they regulate their emotions, they aren’t overly expressive when it comes to feelings — positive or negative. They are usually relaxed and optimistic. They don’t break under pressure; they remain calm. Making decisions is easy, and unexpected turns of events don’t faze them. Their self-esteem is high: they don’t need the validation of others in order to feel good about themselves.

What does Neuroticism mean for expats?

Whether you’re an expat or not, neuroticism is exhausting. (Take it from someone who scored a 94 on this scale.) It’s no picnic for the neurotic’s loved ones, either. Emotional Stability has been linked to high levels of life satisfaction, and that makes perfect sense: negativity has a way of sucking the joy out of everything it touches.

Studies have found that neuroticism is strongly related to difficulties with expatriate adjustment. Building a life in a new country — adapting to different rules, language, and standards of acceptable behaviour — is stressful, and neurotics tend not to cope well under pressure. Pessimism further complicates things: it’s hard to make progress socially, psychologically or physically when you can’t see the point of making an effort.

Wanting to fit in is advantageous for expats: it forces us to observe local customs carefully so we can try out the behaviours that are socially acceptable in our new environment. But neurotics’ extreme self-consciousness can bring this process to a screeching halt.

Let me leave you with an example. Let’s say you’ve spent your entire life nodding your head up and down to signify yes, but in your host country a side-to-side nod is the norm. That’s a big change to get used to. It’s even harder if you’re neurotic, because wagging your head back and forth makes you feel silly. The unfortunate result is that the fear of looking undignified makes you resist adopting this gesture. To make matters worse, clinging to your familiar way of nodding marks you as a foreigner, and this knowledge makes you even more self-conscious.

How does your location on the neuroticism/emotional stability scale affect your expat life?

Please remember that personality is multi-faceted, and that each of the Big Five traits is made up of many sub-traits. Focusing on a single trait without taking into account the complex interplay among the many aspects of personality can lead to a distorted impression. Also keep in mind that Nuria and Stacey represent the extremes of the neuroticism spectrum, while most of us are found somewhere in the middle. That said, scoring high or low is neither inherently good nor inherently bad — it just is.

This is Part 5 in a series on how The Big 5 affects the expatriate experience. Previous posts in the series are:

Next up: Openness to Experience

Ali, A., van der Zee, K. I. & Sanders, G. (2003). Determinants of intercultural adjustment among expatriate spouses. International Journal of Intercultural Relations, 27, 563–580.
Ward, C., Leong, C-H. & Low, M. (2004). Personality and sojourner adjustment: An exploration of the Big Five and the cultural fit proposition. Journal of Cross-Cultural Psychology, 35(2): 137-151.

About Maria

I'm a Canadian repatriate, former expat spouse, mother to two TCKs (and one yellow Lab), mentor to new immigrants, writer, reader, world traveller (grounded for now). I write about expat/repat issues and am still trying to figure out my place in the world.
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9 Responses to Neuroticism

  1. heide says:

    Hahaha! I could be Stacey. I got a 7 on the Neuroticism scale. I don’t think that I have everything under control and I suffer from anxiety sometimes when I can’t even point to a reason, but generally, I’m Stacey.

  2. This is great – I did not realize neuroticism is the tendency to experience negative emotions. Saying ‘less emotionally stable’ is a really loaded label; perhaps ‘less emotionally centered’ is preferable? Since being less emotionally centered is in part wholly tied to personality type and not easily changed, what are ways in which a person can cope/compensate?

    • Maria says:

      I’m sure that neurotics (I can’t type that word without Woody Allen’s face flashing before my eyes) can find all sorts of tricks to help them compensate. One that’s worth looking into is cognitive behavioural therapy, which uses the ABC model formulated by Albert Ellis. It helps people recognize the ways in which they negatively distort their thinking, and gives them the tools to dispute negative thoughts. You can find information about it all over the Web. Here’s one site that explains it clearly for those of us without a psychology background:

  3. Crystal says:

    I have bipolar disorder, so I often have to try and stop before my emotions go into a spiral and figure out if there’s a good reason to be reacting the way I am.

    I’ve built up a great deal of confidence, but I’ve found it can be fragile. Not knowing how to react can make me panic beneath the surface, or be more testy with those I love.

    I’ll be relieved to go back on my meds once the baby is born and breastfeeding is over. Been a rough 9 months off them.

  4. amblerangel says:

    Hey Maria- This explanation you give really helps me understand the behavior I see in myself and others. I am a 7 on this- and I do view my interactions with local folks as fun even when I’m at a complete loss for the words or am lost or am in any of the other 100 situations I’ve found myself in since being here. Additionally- my other view is that it’s funny. Like the time my son put his metro card for the subway in the wrong slot and shut down all the turnstyles in the train station during rush hour which I thought was HILARIOUS. My kids were terrified until they realized no one was going to die as result of their mistake, saw my reaction, and immediately calmed down. Which is how I calm myself down- will someone die as a result of this mistake? If the answer is no- I don’t sweat it. I’ve had to adjust that a tad since we live in Japan but that’s another story….

    • Maria says:

      Being at a loss for words or being lost (especially being lost) are catastrophic events for me. Life would be so much easier without all this neuroticism I’m carrying around! I envy you your 7….

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