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5 Reasons to Quit Intellectualizing Your Emotions

5 Reasons to Quit Intellectualizing Your Emotions

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?

There’s more.

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.

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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?

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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.

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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.

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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?

Featured photo credit: www.shredfat.com via shredfat.com

More by this author

Namita Gujral

Anxiety Coach

HSP, Highly Sensitive Person 6 Decisions a Highly Sensitive Person MUST make (Part 3/3) The Biggest Fight of the Highly Sensitive Person (Part 2/3) How to Thrive, Not Hurt, as a Highly Sensitive Person (Part 1/3) 5 Reasons to Quit Intellectualizing Your Emotions How to Overcome Anxious Thoughts With Milk, a Hat, and a Post Office

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Published on November 23, 2020

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

How to Develop Big Picture Thinking And Think More Clearly

Your neighbors downstairs are playing loud music. Again. How do they not get tired of partying? And why do they choose songs with such a heavy downbeat that the glass in your cupboard is vibrating every two seconds? What can you do to get some peace that you deserve? What should you?

Human mind tends to go in circles whenever faced with a problem without a clear solution. It becomes easy to forget the big picture and get lost in anger and self-pity, wasting our precious time, energy and enthusiasm.

Would it not be nice if we always remembered to put things in perspective?

Would it not be more efficient to face all kinds of problems, from tiny annoyances to life-changing emergencies, with a calm demeanor, sharp focus and fearless determination to promptly take the most efficient action possible?

Alas, humans are not like that. All too often we let anxiety or greed get the best of us and make a rushed or shortsighted decision that we quickly come to regret. Other times, we spend weeks or months at an impasse, rehashing the exact same arguments, unable to accept the compromise required to move forward with any of the available options.

Buddhists talk about getting lost in the “small self.” In this state of mind, we literally forget the big picture and focus on the small one. We start taking our daily problems too personally and, paradoxically, becomes less capable of solving them in an efficient manner. And this is the opposite of big picture thinking.

Let me share with you a story related to big picture thinking…

In 1812, the French army of Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Russia.[1] After a decisive Battle of Borodino, the capture of Moscow and therefore Napoleon’s victory in the war seemed inevitable.

Unexpectedly, the Russian Commander-in-Chief Mikhail Kutuzov made a highly controversial decision of retreating and allowing the French to capture Moscow. Much of the population had been evacuated taking supplies with them. The city itself was set on fire and large parts of it burned into the ground.

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After waiting in vain for Russia to capitulate, Napoleon had to retreat in the middle of a bitterly cold winter. He won the battle but lost the war. The campaign ended in a disaster and the near destruction of the French army.

What can we learn from this historical lesson?

1. Focus on the Consequences

Napoleon focused on the important part: capturing Moscow. Nobody could accuse him of thinking small. Yet he overlooked that the Russian army could still fight even after giving up the country’s most important city.

So was Moscow not an important target after all?

Success expert Brian Tracy has a litmus test: things are important to the extent that they have important consequences. Things are unimportant to the extent that they have no important consequences.[2]

When faced with a choice, ask yourself, what would be the consequences of each option?

  • Want to spend an hour studying or watching the new series on Netflix? What would be the consequences of each option? Netflix can sometimes be a better choice, but it helps to put things in perspective.
  • Want to maintain your apartment by yourself or to pay a cleaning service? Would would be the consequences of each option?
  • Want to meet up for coffee with this acquaintance of yours or catch up on your work instead? What would be the consequences of each option?

The choice can be different for different people. An aspiring filmmaker may have a legitimate reason for choosing Netflix. Personally, cleaning your own apartment can be relaxing and nourishing even if the economics of hiring a cleaner looks compelling because you are earning a high hourly rate.

This is where you will need a basic idea of who you are — what are your goals, values and aspirations.

2. Flip Defeat Into Victory

Kutuzov managed to turn Russia’s defeat into a historic victory by recasting the problem in a wider context: losing Moscow need not mean losing the war.

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Despite the symbolic meaning attached to the Kremlin, the churches, the priceless treasures that had been stored in the city for centuries, the outcome of the campaign was ultimately determined by the strength of the remaining armies.

If you can adopt this result-oriented perspective, many of your personal defeats may be flipped into victories as well. Few events in a human life are absolutely good or absolutely bad, and it usually takes many years to recognize in retrospect, what role a particular encounter did play in your story.

Therefore we have every reason to look for the good in the things that happen to us.

This is a very practical attitude, far from baseless “positive thinking.” After all, if something unfortunate has happened to you and you find good sides in this circumstance, you will then be better positioned to take advantage of those good sides.

Say your noisy neighbors are affecting your productivity. What if it is a blessing in disguise? How can you turn this defeat into a victory?

  • Perhaps you are too serious about life and could learn how to have more fun. Join your neighbors or go out for a walk instead of working;
  • Perhaps you only wanted to be productive while instead procrastinated on social media. Now that your procrastination has been interrupted, stop and acknowledge this much greater obstacle to your productivity;
  • Perhaps you are too sensitive to interference. Take this opportunity to practice ignoring the noise and doing your best anyway;
  • Perhaps you have a victim mentality and the feeling of unfairness drains you more than any actual nuisance your neighbors might have caused. Try accepting this lapse in your productivity the way you would accept bad weather.

Get used to finding opportunities in your problems. This is the quintessential big picture thinking.

3. Ask for Advice

Both Napoleon and Kutuzov had trusted advisers to discuss their affairs with. In general, getting a different perspective — or several — can only help inform your understanding and lead to better decisions. Just ensure that the people giving you advice are competent in the particular area where experience is needed.

Paying money for advice can also be a wise investment. Lawyers, tax accountants, medical doctors spend years learning how to assist people like yourself in living more successful, more fulfilling lives.

A quick legal consultation can save you a fortune down the line or even keep you out of big trouble. A medical check-up can uncover potential issues and help keep you healthy and active for years to come.

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Even big, complex dilemmas at your job or in your romantic relationship can be tackled more effectively by partnering up with a coach or a therapist or, of course, with the help of a wise friend.

4. Beware of Biased Advice

Many imperfect decisions occur in response to an imperfect piece of advice that you choose to act on. This advice often comes from a biased party.

For example, we are often encouraged to buy something that we supposedly need:

  • Protect your skin from harmful UV rays by using a special lotion.
  • Fortify your health by taking multivitamins.
  • Connect with your friends by sending them elaborate gifts.
  • Brighten your weekend by consuming a delicious pastry.
  • Become more productive by getting a faster computer.

However, most purchases are unnecessary.

Some, such as the sunscreen, do have legitimate benefits when used properly.[3] Others, such as multivitamins, only make a difference for a small group of people.[4]

Advertisers of those benefits inevitably want to narrow your focus in order to overstate the importance of their product. They frequently present it as the only solution to your problem, whether real or imaginary.

After all,

  • Skin can also be protected from the sun by wearing appropriate clothing.
  • Health can be better fortified by consuming a balanced diet and getting regular exercise.
  • Spending time or talking on the phone with your friends is the foremost way of connecting with them, and it is virtually free.
  • Your weekend can be brightened by doing something that you love.
  • You can become more productive by focusing on the tasks that have the most important consequences. A faster computer can, in fact, decrease productivity by making it easier to multitask and by enabling your favorite distractions.

There are other sources of imperfect advice. Politicians also frequently want us to focus on a particular “big picture,” to the exclusion of the alternatives.

Even loving parents can be guilty of the same. They can advise their children to pick a career path that is safe and respectable, based on their “big picture” that in life one has to make a living. A child may disagree, however, based on another “big picture” that one’s life has to have meaning and fulfillment.

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Bottom Line

It is human nature to make rushed, emotional decisions based on incomplete information, then regret those decisions later on.

You can protect yourself from poor judgment by striving to attain the big picture when careful consideration is called for.

Focus on the consequences of your decision before considering how you feel about it.

Play with the cards you’ve been dealt, but look for opportunities in each situation and you will find them.

Ask knowledgeable mentors for advice, but beware of biased people who have an opinion, but do not necessarily have your best interest in mind.

Yet remember, true big picture thinking comes from hard-won experience. Legendary military commanders Napoleon Bonaparte and Mikhail Kutuzov were both injured on the battlefield.

Clear thinking comes from putting your big picture to the test of reality.

More Tips on Thinking Clearly

Featured photo credit: Haneen Krimly via unsplash.com

Reference

[1] Wikipedia: French invasion of Russia
[2] Brian Tracy: No Excuses!: The Power of Self-Discipline
[3] American Academy of Dermatology: Say Yes to Sun Protection
[4] Harvard Medical School: Do multivitamins make you healthier?

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