If you’re an intellectual you’re sexy, but if you intellectualize you’re using a defense mechanism.
The problem is that it’s not so easy to know which side I’m on, and when that is happening. Start with the definition. Intellectualization is defined as an attempt to keep yourself removed from feeling emotions. As we can guess, the line between when you’re using your mind for wise action and when you’re using it for emotional suppression is often blurry.
Check out mindfulness. At a very high level, doesn’t mindfulness ask us to watch our automatic thoughts, impulses and feelings from the place of “observing” them instead of “being” them? In a sense, mindfulness is saying you don’t have to “be” your feelings. Isn’t intellectualization trying to do the same thing?
Intellectualization fails to protect us
What if I come with an innate personality trait that just makes me process information and subtleties very deeply? In the head, that’s a whole lot of intellectual stimulation for about 20% of the population. Could it be that what’s normal and innate for me has been confused with intellectualization?
What about IQ? Studies after studies show a high correlation between someone with anxiety to also have a high IQ. This high IQ gives many rewards. We solve problems, we get creative and make shit happen. If we’re trying to solve our troubles, what’s wrong with that?
I prefer to shift the discussion from what is right vs wrong to goals and intentions. What are you trying to accomplish when you use your mind to solve your pain? It is here that we start to see that when my goal is to “discipline” the mind from creating feelings by way of arguing with it through logic and intellect, then the strategy backfires in the long run.
In other words, when we do anything to suppress the mind as opposed to allowing it, we set ourselves up for disappointment. Intellectualization makes us feel smart and wise, but bury anything beneath that surface, the picture becomes quite different.
Here are 5 reasons why intellectualization fails to protect us, and what we can do instead.
1. Intellectualizing emotions does not make them go away
Most of us are terrified of difficult emotions. Fear, anger, sadness and grief are not just painful psychologically, but also physically. How should we find solutions to this pain?
If my tooth hurts, I’ll go see my dentist. If I get stuck in traffic, I’ll reschedule my meeting. If I lose my job, I’ll move to a cheaper state. If X was the problem, I found Y as the solution.
Problem-solving works, doesn’t it? When I have a problem, I will fix it. When I fix it, the problem seems to go away. My tooth does not hurt. My rescheduled meeting turned out fine. Moving to a cheaper state saved me the money I didn’t have in the first place. Problems got solved. They cease to exist.
The problem is that emotional pain cannot be problem-solved in this way, if the end goal is to get them to “cease to exist”. Intellectualization is trying to do that. When we intellectualize, we are bargaining with the mind. We’re saying “Hey mind, look here. You are wrong. There is no need to feel “this” and here are a 100 reasons why.” Look at your own experience. Does any kind of bargaining with the mind – so that it does not create the emotions you dislike – work?
When you “tell” your mind to not feel jealousy when your best friend gets married before you, does it listen? If you “explain” to your mind that its fear of meeting new people is unwarranted, does it stop itself from feeling afraid? If you “analyze” your painful past memories and trace it to your abusive childhood, do the memories show gratitude to your “aha” moments by never coming back again? If you “argue” with your mind that its obsessions and compulsions are faulty, does it stop creating them?
Probably not. If they did, intellectualization would be classified as a “treatment” and not a “defense mechanism”.
2. Don’t assume it’s therapy or the “adult” thing to do
Think about it. What appears to happen in therapy? We talk, talk and talk some more. We psychoanalyze our childhood, analyze “cause” of behaviors, and try to come up with a plan to not make the same mistakes again. This is important work. It does make sense that if we don’t know the why of our problems, how can we know the solutions to fix them?
But good therapy recognizes that when the “intellect” is trying to reject emotions, it backfires. A competent therapist will urge you to learn how to shut up (they don’t say it like that) and feel your pain. Sometimes therapy doesn’t reach that far, even if we’ve spent years doing it. Much of what we ending up learning is that we need to “talk” out our problems. Even if we secretly suspect that this talking and analyzing are not helping that much, we don’t know what else to do. So we talk some more. Dr. Campbell, I need an emergency session with you this week.
Talking is also more acceptable than crying. It’s the “adult” thing to do. I’m a grown up, I can handle it. I’m not going to cry like a baby. Sure, don’t cry if you don’t want to. No one is asking you to. But find a way to figure out what else to do with and for your emotional pain, because could it be that intellectualizing it sure as hell isn’t helping either?
So if problem-solving internal pain doesn’t work, then what does?
3. Make space for your emotions by allowing them to just be
What our emotions are begging from us is a little bit of permission and space to exist. Sure, we may not like some of them or always understand why they have to show up (or still show up) in our lives.
But part of the reason they show up in the first place is because you’ve demanded them not to. That’s the reason for their hissy fit. Research makes it very clear that similar to thought suppression, emotional suppression produces counterproductive results. Our logical solutions to push them away end up creating the very scenarios we want to avoid. We become entangled in them even further.
So then if difficult emotions can’t be whisked away, then what am I supposed to do?
Allow them. The more we allow our difficult emotions by way of accepting them, the less likely they are to bite us.
The reason we don’t allow them is because we’ve made terrifying assumptions of what our life will look like if we “allow” our emotions.
4. Getting closer to your feelings is not going to sabotage your life
I believe this is the real source of our struggle. At some level, we are aching to just allow ourselves to be. We are tired of intellectualizing our pain but the alternatives seem terrifying.
We imagine a tug of war. Our difficult emotions are the monster on one side and “I” am on the other. I know I’m not really winning this war, but at least pulling the rope trying to win it, is still a whole lot better than giving up and being sucked into that deep, dark, bottomless pit between me and the monster. Right?
What are we so scared of? What do we imagine will happen if we let our emotions have a little space? Are the emotions going to sabotage my life? Will I fall into clinical depression? Will I lose my mind, abandon my responsibilities and retire into an ashram? Will I make decisions whose repercussions I’m not prepared to handle? Will I become a self-consumed narcissist or maybe a silly, clingy, whining little child again?
It’s usually not so dramatic. The way you decide to feel your emotions is totally up to you. Some choose meditation or yoga or cooking, others choose a sport, while others prefer crying on a friend’s shoulder. While the style of feeling emotions differs, the intention either way is a good one. I’m trying to connect with how I feel instead of distancing myself from it through denial and intellectualization.
Why is feeling it better?
For starters, it’s more respectful of yourself. Even if that pang of jealousy is unwarranted, it shows up for a reason. Figuring out the reason is important, but if you’re attempting to not feel it (with intellectualization), what you’re saying to yourself is this. You don’t have permission to be a full human. It’s no surprise then that your human mind will start a war with you.
Secondly, distancing yourself from it may have protected you now, but feelings have a way of catching up in the end. It’s horrifying in the long run that despite your loud and confident intellect, you still feel like shit inside 10 years after your wife left you.
Thirdly, “feeling” it instead of denying it gives you a chance to see your own coping and resilience. It’s really an opportunity. We push pain because we’re don’t have faith in our ability to handle it. With time and willingness, we get to see that feeling emotions didn’t indeed hijack my life, on the contrary it opened it up.
5. Don’t be afraid to think
None of this is meant to get you scared of thinking itself.
If you are human, you will think. The mind chugs along in the background doing its thing. It analyzes, predicts, forecasts, concludes, warns and evaluates. If you’ve spent enough time living on this planet, your mind has enough fodder to feed on. If you’re an HSP or someone with an analytical mind, you are likely to be thinking even more than the average person. Don’t be terrified of the mind. Because then you will try to suppress it, which only makes matters worse.
The trick is to “watch” this mind when you can. That’s what mindfulness is asking you to do. And that’s the difference between mindfulness and intellectualization. Mindfulness will ask you to separate yourself from your thoughts by allowing them to exist. Intellectualization tries to rationalize every reason in the book why they shouldn’t. Which never sits well with our mind.
Intellectualization is terrified of feeling emotions. But is that really an authentic life? Is that even a good enough life when you’re scared of your own self?
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