If you landed on this post with its admittedly somewhat “click-baity” title, it’s probably because you’ve been curious about or already diagnosed with anxiety. One cool thing about people with anxiety is that they are interested to learn and know more about what might be anxiety. It might even be a function of their anxiety itself. Or is that natural curiosity more of a personality trait?
Out of the gate, it’s important to question why the distinction matters. (Though if you are too eager and just want to see the traits, scroll down. No judgment.)
That requires us to consider what personality is and how it develops. Like most things in the field of psychology, the 37 theories that exist make it perhaps far more complex than it needs to be. What most of the theories of personality would say, however, is that it is a pattern of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that characterize someone uniquely.
How unique we actually are is a question that researchers and theorists are often trying to answer. Can we cluster people into personality “types,” for example? Do tests like the Meyers Briggs or Big Five effectively describe us and help us predict our future behavior? There is a lot of evidence to support such tests, but also evidence suggesting that such tools are culturally biased and self-fulfilling. They also depend on how we are conceptualizing personality. Is it more about what we do over what we think and feel, or the opposite? Bottom line? Proceed with caution in interpreting them.
Most psychologists would agree that personality includes temperament – the aspects of ourselves that we seem to be born into the world with – and traits that develop through our early life experiences. The combination of nature and nurture results in a particular character that we take into the world.
And this is where the question of whether what looks like personality could actually be anxiety comes in.
We traditionally think of our personality as fairly stable, representing qualities of who we are. For some of us, that can take on an almost spiritual bent, so important are our traits in defining us as individuals.
But we think of anxiety as a condition, a mental health disorder that impairs our functioning and ideally gets treated through medication, therapy, or a combination of both. We tend to think of anxiety symptoms as thoughts, feelings, and behaviors that we don’t want in our lives and that we actively try to change.
Thus, if we conceptualize these traits as symptoms, rather than core parts of who we are, we might decide that we can and want to address them. This can be powerful in that it can give us a sense of awareness and agency to alter something we’d thought of as more immutable.
But let’s talk about some of those “traits”:
Analytical – Assessing issues from all angles can be an attempt to prevent any possible unknown or negative outcome. Sometimes a more analytical approach can result from pure interest or a curious mind, but if it’s stemming from a need to control the outcome absolutely, it’s likely anxiety-driven.
Highly Empathic – I find folks are a little hesitant to acknowledge empathy in the camp of anxiety, and indeed it can be a lovely quality and one we need more of in the world. However, over-empathizing with others can stem from an avoidance of sitting with our own feelings and a need to for showing up for others to confirm our own self-worth.
Perfectionistic – I never tire of helping people see how perfectionism is a coping mechanism for fear. We can have a temperament that prefers order and predictability, things that perfectionistic behaviors can give us. But perfectionism as a way of being is almost always about fear of failure, unrealistic expectations of self and others, and an attempt to soothe a disconnect inside.
Catastrophizing – Where are my planners at? Folks who spend inordinate time imagining the future – especially all the potential negative outcomes that could befall us in the future – can be highly useful. But they also are likely functioning with a high level of anxiety, secretly expecting that all of the mental hell they put themselves through to imagine the worst will keep us safe.
People Pleaser – Difficulty disappointing others or allowing them to feel their natural feelings is very often an anxiety-driven response to experiences where others’ reactions felt dangerous, unpredictable, or overwhelming. It’s not just about keeping people “happy” – it’s ultimately about keeping us feeling safe and secure.
Emotionally Sensitive – Each of us are born with a temperament for how sensitive we are to our environments. We generally can’t change that innate part of this quality. But some of us have developed acute awareness and sensitivity on top of that in-born sensitivity as a function of anxiety. This might be because we had to stay aware and attuned to avoid bad things happening or to ensure that we could feel safe and valued.
Whether you decide that these are symptoms or traits – or neither or both – you are still left with the even more important question: Is this working for me?
If the answer is no, the beautiful news is that these are patterns that can be addressed and potentially changed through healing work.