Dear Spider Kid,
I am writing to you almost as a last resort because I have a problem that seems unsolvable, and I’ve all but given up on it. The problem pertains to my personality. In summary, here is my dilemma: I have come to believe that neuroticism is a fundamental and permanent part of me, which I will have to live with for the rest of my life. The prospect makes me feel absolutely, tragically awful.
In my third year of high school, I took a class that gave me my first major exposure to psychology, and with it, a cursory lesson in personality types. It was then that I learned about the “Big 5” OCEAN categories: Openness, Conscientiousness, Extraversion, Agreeableness, and Neuroticism. In the classroom, our teacher showed us sample questions with which to quiz ourselves. At the end of the test, I was the only person in the classroom whose results determined predominantly neurotic, besides which, my Neuroticism score was much higher than everybody else’s.
I still consider that moment one of the most profound among all my teenage years. I was terrified at that result. I knew I was suffering from some form of depression. But it was one thing to call myself momentarily depressed, and quite another to discover that I had a personality that practically guaranteed emotional instability for life and that made me more prone than everyone else to sadness, anger and anxiety. I left the classroom that day thinking, “Oh my God. Oh my God. There’s something wrong with me!”
That sense of feeling like a creature of bad design and an oddball lasted far longer than my dwelling on the subject of OCEAN personality types. Without ever forgetting that I was different in a bad way from others, I forgot about OCEAN almost entirely… until this year. This year, various events have revealed to me the necessity of recognizing how deeply influential people’s personalities are in determining their ideal lifestyles.
As far as I know, every other Big 5 category in OCEAN has advantages. I feel I need not explain how the following qualities can serve excellent purposes: daringness, organization, sociability, friendliness. Now, Neuroticism—increased tendencies to get anxious, angered or depressed—where are the strengths in that?
I tried looking it up online, trying to figure out if there were at all any advantages of scoring high on the Neuroticism scale. I found exactly one, and it is so far of a reach that I can’t even take it seriously: a couple of sites told me that people who score high in Neuroticism tend to live longer because their anxiety prohibits them from taking many risks, and thus increases their chances of long life purely through the conscious avoidance of dangerous circumstances. They are telling me that the only thing useful about my predominant personality trait is that I’m afraid of everything, and that my reward for being afraid of everything is long life. Especially ironic, considering how much time I have spent in my life wanting to not be alive.
The night of the Google search that led me here, I got so discouraged and felt so useless that I could only cry myself to sleep. Every attempt to ask the internet for tips on how to live one’s best life as a Neurotic person met me with a result regarding how to live one’s best life while facing the unfortunate problem of living or working with a Neurotic. (Translation: Being Neurotic itself is an unsolvable problem. The best you can do is hope that everybody else can figure out how to tolerate you.)
Given that I identify as a Christian, my theology is usually involved in the way I think about identity. Because of my faith, I believe in intentional design. From a Christian perspective, it is normal for me to believe that God forms human beings with specific personalities for His glory—that people are given different strengths to fulfill their individual purposes. It’s also not a foreign idea that people are given weaknesses—thorns in their flesh—for God-serving purposes. But what happens when your “weaknesses” constitute the very bedrock of your personality? In what way could this possibly be designed to serve one’s Creator?
I will willingly admit that outside of my personality, I am blessed with many good qualities, including but not limited to boldness, intelligence, and creativity. Yet it is near impossible to put such things to good use when I am almost always preoccupied with anger, depression or anxiety, even outside of clinical diagnosis.
At the end of all my restless thinking, these are the ultimately discouraging points I am left with:
- The secular world cannot find advantages to being predominantly Neurotic.
- I am a burden to those who love me enough to tolerate me and a blemish to those who would rather not have to deal with a personality like mine.
My concluding question to you, Spider Kid, is as follows: As a Neurotic Christian, what in heaven’s name am I supposed to do with myself?
I was immensely pleased to receive your letter the other day, regarding personality and Christianity because it is a topic I have been burning to address for a while. Since you have given me the privilege of having outlined your practical and theological worries on this matter, I hope to return the favor by addressing both in my reply.
Let me begin, as you have done, with the practical—which, though not explicitly so, is far from mutually exclusive from the theological.
In your message, you assert that, according to OCEAN analysis, there is nothing advantageous about having a Neurotic personality. However, I want to make it clear from the very beginning, that even if that claim were true—even if there wasn’t anything particularly useful about highly Neurotic personalities, it does not mean in the least that there is nothing particularly useful about highly Neurotic people. And this is the first point I want you to grasp: Your personality is not the entirety of your personhood. While a personality may influence the way one responds to stimuli, and/or our unconscious patterns, nobody ought to be enslaved by it. I suspect you may be feeling enslaved by yours.
Recently, I too have been doing some research into personalities, in order to better understand myself. I’ve found that a personality categorization system that at last seems sufficiently complex and comprehensive to gain my trust is the Enneagram. I would recommend you doing some research into it. You may find it enlightening, and much less rigid or damning than OCEAN. While learning about how the Enneagram system works, I came across the concept of Levels of Development. Within any single personality type, there are levels of healthiness and unhealthiness. It turns out that it is when we are unhealthy that our personalities tend to govern us; but when we are healthy, we can govern them. Check out this quote from the Enneagram Institute’s page:
One of the most profound ways of understanding the Levels is as a measure of our capacity to be present. The more we move down the Levels, the more identified we are with our ego and its increasingly negative and restrictive patterns. Our personality becomes more defensive, reactive, and automatic— and we consequently have less and less real freedom and less real consciousness. As we move down the Levels, we become caught in more compulsive, destructive actions which are ultimately self-defeating.
By contrast, the movement toward health, up the Levels, is simultaneous with being more present and awake in our minds, hearts, and bodies. As we become more present, we become less fixated in the defensive structures of our personality and are more attuned and open to ourselves and our environment. We see our personality objectively in action rather than “falling asleep” to our automatic personality patterns. There is therefore the possibility of “not doing” our personality and of gaining some real distance from the negative consequences of getting caught in it.
This, for me, is even more proof than I needed that our personalities do not encompass the entirety of our personhood. We are, as humans designed by an Intelligent Creator, far more complex than that.
I haven’t heard this topic spoken of much from a Christian perspective, but I happen to have the privilege of seeing a therapist who shares my Christian faith, and there is something she has made clear to me which I would like to make clear to you, in my own words. Given that we live in a fallen world—a word plagued by sin due to man’s fallen nature—there is more than enough cause to be anxious, depressed and angry. High neuroticism consists of an above-average tendency to respond to stimuli in those very ways. What I’m trying to say is this: Neuroticism is not completely baseless. On the contrary, in fact, I would say that in a fallen world, it is the most appropriate personality type one could have.
Or at least it would be—if not for Jesus. Even before his human birth, the fallen world already had hope, in the promises of God. Take, for instance, the prophet’s words in Habakkuk 3:17-19.
Though the fig tree does not bud
and there are no grapes on the vines,
though the olive crop fails
and the fields produce no food,
though there are no sheep in the pen
and no cattle in the stalls,
yet I will rejoice in the LORD,
I will be joyful in God my Savior.
The Sovereign LORD is my strength;
he makes my feet like the feet of a deer,
he enables me to tread on the heights.
From everything the prophet is describing, it doesn’t seem like he has any occasion to be joyful. From his circumstances, I think anxiety, depression and anger would be far more appropriate. Yet, he reacts in an entirely inappropriate way because neither his joy, strength, nor assurance is dependent on the circumstances of the fallen world. Admittedly, we can’t be sure if Habakkuk was born Neurotic or not, but I daresay it doesn’t matter. Whether he was excessively predisposed to negative emotions or only normally predisposed to them doesn’t change the relative irrationality of his reaction to stimuli around him.
And if a man could think like that in the Old Testament, how much more now, when the work of Jesus in conquering the world is actually finished? How much more for a person who may call herself saved? In the words of Jesus Christ, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world (John 16:33).” Bear in mind that Jesus said this to his disciples right after informing them that they were all about to be separated and isolated from each other—and prior to that, that the world was about to hate and brutally persecute them. Cheerful guy, this Jesus.
The point is that, while there are several factors that would make anxiety, depression and anger appropriate, the salvation of Jesus allows us to maintain contrary stances such as those rooted in love, hope and faith, no matter how inappropriate the context.
Furthermore, allow me to posit that, as a Christian person, the greatest advantage of presumably having few to no inherent personality advantages is precisely this lack of advantages. Neuroticism may be one of the greatest opportunities for God and his Spirit to work through and within a person. When you’re Neurotic, your moods threaten to govern your life. The fruits of the spirit (Galatians 5:22), love, joy, peace, kindness, patience, goodness, faithfulness and self-control are rather difficult to feel or exhibit when we’re being erratic or being pulled down anyhow by our blasted natural inclinations. and if the fruits of the Spirit are at work in a naturally neurotic person, think how striking it would be. The glory of the Lord is so much more evident when the glory can’t be attributed to the vessel through which it is displayed. This may be a rather unfavorable analogy but humor me and kindly consider it anyway: If a detergent company wants to show off the power of its stain-removal abilities, the detergent’s power is going to be most evident if they test it out not on an already clean piece of fabric, but on one with a particularly difficult-looking stain. If said stain disappears, well—glory to the manufacturers. The detergent is no less powerful if it is applied on clean fabric; the difference is in the evidence of its power to onlookers. Contrast just so happens to have a large impact on the human mind. It is no wonder, then, that our Creator is fond of using miracles to catch people’s attention. And what is more miraculous or contradictory than an astonishingly stable Neurotic?
Now, to combine the practical and theological in order to answer your brilliantly blunt question on what in heaven’s name you are to do with yourself: You might be surprised how often—especially in non-clinical cases—depression, anger and anxiety have to do with the mere thoughts inside your head. While it may be extremely difficult or near impossible to spontaneously change how you feel, I believe it is not nearly as hard to play around with the primary thoughts taking up space in your head at any given moment. As much as personality might be much too permanent to shed, habits can be almost as stubbornly difficult to break—and it is a very learnable habit to reorganize one’s thoughts. I speak from experience, since I have been frequently using a new trick I developed with my therapist’s help. The trick is based on Philippians 4:8:
“Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things.”
When I am threatened by my own feelings, I counteract them with my thoughts. I create lists of everything that happens to be both contextually relevant and true, or noble, or right, or pure, lovely, admirable, excellent or praiseworthy, and I dwell on them until my emotions realize they can’t win. I’m not saying it works like magic and my emotions instantly switch. I’m saying that however valiantly my emotions may fight, it is my thoughts that are on the winning side, and that’s often sufficient to keep me moving. I have used this trick often enough for it to become my default. Reorganizing my thoughts is a new habit I never before thought I could form.
This is what I’m trying to tell you: that you can govern over your personality once you develop a strategy that works for you and make it a habit. As a habit, it ought to become so automatic that you begin to stop noticing when it’s happening; when it might start to feel like the way you have trained yourself to live is the way you have lived all along.
Like any other kind of habit, a psychological habit may turn out to be just as hard to form as it is eventually difficult to break. And if you’re a similar kind of Christian to me, you might want to base your new habits upon scripture and faith.
Regarding the points to which your restless thinking led you: I’d suggest you scrap them and put these in their place:
- A person predisposed to neuroticism need not define themselves by their neuroticism, and that includes you.
- Whether or not the secular world can find advantages to neurotic personalities has nothing to do with you and the value of your personhood.
- Our theology has many useful responses to the things that aggravate you, not least of which are that:
- Your salvation permits you to respond irrationally.
- The Holy Spirit works within you to produce fruit that stand in stark contrast to the fruits produced by neurotic predisposition.
The healthier you get, the more you can triumph over your personality—especially if you choose to adopt psychological, spiritual habits that antagonize your predisposition.
To conclude, I would like to sincerely thank you for your letter once again, and hope that mine will be of use to you, even in the smallest way possible. I’ll remember to keep you in my prayers.
The Spider Kid.