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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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Last Updated on March 30, 2020

How to Tap into Your Right Brain’s Potential

How to Tap into Your Right Brain’s Potential

You may have heard someone say they are “totally right brained” or that they’re “a left brained person.”

There is a pervasive myth that’s been making its rounds for over a century: people have two hemispheres of their brains, and if they have a dominant left brain, they’re more analytical; and if they have a dominant right brain, they are more creative.

Before we go debunking this theory and then giving some tips for how people can access their creative brain centers, let’s first take a look at where the left brain/right brain lateralization theory comes from.

The Left Brain/Right Brain Lateralization Theory

In the 1800s, scientists discovered that when patients injured one side of their brains, certain skills were lost.[1] Scientists linked those different skills to one side of the brain or the other. Thus began the left brain/right brain myth that continues to this day.

Then, in the 1960s and 70s, Roger W. Sperry led 16 operations that cut the corpus callosum (the largest region that connects both brain hemispheres together) in order to try to treat patients’ epilepsy. Sperry wrote about the differences in the two hemispheres as a result of those surgeries.[2]

Sperry’s work was popularized in 1973 with a New York Times article about his lateralization theory—that people were either right brained (read: logical) or left brained (read: creative). From here, Sperry won the Nobel Prize for his work and numerous other publications spread the right brain/left brain myth.

Debunking the Right Brain/Left Brain Myth

If anything, the lateralization theory of the brain is a gross exaggeration. It is true that people have two hemispheres of their brains. It is also true that there are differences in the composition of those two hemispheres.

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However, the hemispheres are actually much more interconnected than Sperry’s work initially made it seem.

In a 2013 study,[3] scientists scanned over 1000 people’s brains, checking for lateralization. They confirmed that certain brain functions occur predominately in one hemisphere or the other but that, in reality, the brain is actually much more interconnected and complex than the right brain/left brain lateralization theory makes it seem.[4][5]

A New Metaphor for Right Brain/Left Brain

How do we get past this right brain/left brain myth?

First, let’s look at what contemporary cognitive science says about brain regions, and creative and logical modes of thinking.

My background is as an improviser and improv researcher. I wrote Theatrical Improvisation, Consciousness, and Cognition and think looking at improvisation and the brain can shed light on a new model for talking about unlocking the brain’s creative potential.

Functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) brain scans have shown that while trained improvisers improvise (musically on a keyboard, rapping, and comedic improvisation) an interesting shift happens in their brain activity. [6]

A region called the dorsolateral prefrontal cortex decreases in activity and creative language centers such as the medial prefrontal cortex increase in activity. The dorsolateral prefrontal cortex is linked with conscious thoughts—that inner voice that tells you not to say something or criticizes you when you do.

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The medial prefrontal cortex is among the brain regions linked with creativity. So, instead of thinking about right brain and left brain, perhaps it’s more current and correct to think about more specific brain regions instead of hemispheres. Perhaps, it’s more useful to think about which activities and strategies will allow us to inhibit our dorsolateral prefrontal cortexes and allow our medial prefrontal cortexes to flourish.

How to Enhance Your “Right Brain” — Creativity

Whether we’re talking about right brain versus left brain, creative versus logical, or medial prefrontal cortex versus dorsolateral prefrontal cortex, we still know enough to talk about strategies to tap into your creative brain’s full potential.

So, now that we’ve dispelled the right brain/left brain myth and looked at a more contemporary, cognitive neuroscience theory of brain regions and creativity centers, let’s look at how to tap into the potential of your creative brain.

1. Performing Arts

One way to tap into your creative brain centers is to participate in the performing arts. Whether you improvise, act, or dance, the performing arts allow you an embodied experience that will help you snap out of your habitual, logical thoughts.

Another benefit of the performing arts is that it changes your attention. Attention and creativity are inextricably linked. When we improvise, act, or dance, we have to focus intently on our fellow performers. This means we are forced to focus less on our conscious, logical thoughts. This frees us up for more creative thinking and expression.[7]

One of the conclusions of my research on improvisation is that focusing intensely on fellow improvisers and the task at hand makes it more likely that we experience a flow state. Dr. Csikszentmihalyi,[8] a Professor of Psychology and Management defines flow as an optimal psychological state when our skills match the difficulty of the task at hand. Our perception of time is altered as we get into the zone and become more present and in the moment during our chosen activity.[9]

A flow state is a creative state. It’s the opposite of crunching numbers and forcing ourselves to work out a problem with the conscious regions of our brain. So, get up, improvise, act, or dance to access your creativity.

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2. Visual Art

Art teacher Betty Edwards[10] wrote a book called Drawing on the Right Side of the Brain. Here again, we see that a shift in our attention can lead us to an increase in our creative thinking.

Edwards’ book gives art students tricks to shift the way they see the world. For example, one exercise encourages students to literally flip whatever it is they’re drawing upside down before they draw it. This forces budding artists to literally see the object in a new way. This shift allows them to focus more on the individual components and patterns of the object, which allows them to draw it better.

Shifting how we see things is another way we can access our creative brain centers. Take an art class to shut off your conscious, critical thoughts and start seeing things from a new, more creative perspective.

3. Zone Out

If there’s one thing creativity doesn’t like, it’s being coerced.

I think we’ve all felt that awful feeling of trying to force ourselves to be creative. When we force it, we’re really trying to force our logical brain regions to be creative. It’s like asking your gardener to perform your appendix surgery. It’s just not what she does.

Instead, stop forcing it. Take a break. Take a long walk or a relaxing bath or shower. Let your mind wander.

Whatever you do, stop forcing it. This break lets your creative centers rise to the surface of your attention and get heard.

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4. Practice Mindfulness

The final trick to start accessing your so-called right brain is to practice mindfulness.

Now, there’s a lot of different ways to go about mindfulness. You can take a more physical approach with a yoga class. Or you can try meditating to become more aware and in tune with your thoughts and feelings: Meditation for Beginners: How to Meditate Deeply and Quickly

You could also try to incorporate fun mindfulness exercises[11] into your everyday routine like forcing yourself to go on detours or pretending you’re a detective who needs to examine people and places closely.

Any way you do it, mindfulness exercises and training can help you become better versed in how your brain works and what your normal thought process is like on a day-to-day basis. If we’re ever going to reach our optimal creativity, we have to become an expert in how our individual brain functions. Mindfulness is one way to become your very own brain expert.

Mindfulness also has added benefits like calming us, slowing our breathing, and helping us become more observant, which are also great ways to start tapping into our creative potential.

Final Thoughts

So, it may not be correct to say that our right brain is our creative brain, but it is still a valid pursuit to try to optimize our creative brain centers.

The key to do so is to relax, become observant, shift your perspective, move your body, try something new, and, whatever you do, don’t force it.

Creativity can feel slippery. It can abandon us when we need it most, but by slowing down and looking at things from a new perspective, we can give ourselves a better chance of tapping into our ultimate creativity, even if that doesn’t exactly mean our “right brain.”

More Tips on Boosting Creativity

Featured photo credit: Kelly Sikkema via unsplash.com

Reference

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