Why Intellectualization Is Not Always Healthy
By Danni Peck
Updated December 12, 2018
Reviewer Dr. Angel Faith
Do you find yourself avoiding emotions, especially negative ones? Maybe you even avoid admitting to positive feelings you have. Whenever feelings become too much to deal with, many of us turn to habits designed to avoid those feelings.
These habits can protect us in the short term, but in the long term, we all have to face our emotions and deal with them rather than hiding from them.
Fortunately, this article gives you tips on how to recognize if you intellectualize your emotions and what you can do to start addressing your feelings and healing yourself instead.
Before you know why intellectualization can be unhealthy for you, you need to know what exactly intellectualization is in the first place. In the psychological sense, intellectualization is ignoring the emotional significance of an event or phenomenon by excessively focusing on an intellectual or rational explanation.
Let's be clear. Being logical and rational is not a bad thing. But ignoring the emotional side of things can be.
The Intellectualization Defense Mechanism
Habits or behaviors used to avoid the experience of unpleasant emotions are called defense mechanisms. That is what intellectualization is - a defense mechanism.
We use intellectualization to take ourselves emotionally out of a stressful situation for the purpose of making the difficult situation easier to deal with. If you catch yourself addressing only the facts of a stressful situation (without acknowledging feelings) this may be what you are doing.
Intellectualizing is similar to the defense mechanism called rationalizing, and they are often confused or used interchangeably, but they are not the same thing. Intellectualizing involves looking at the real facts of a situation objectively and distancing oneself from emotion while rationalizing is a form of hiding the real facts from yourself by trying to justify your desires, behaviors or emotions. Rationalizing uses logic, but not necessarily the truth.
In intellectualizing, you are using the truth, just not all of it.
All defense mechanisms are used for the same reason. It's to cope with stress and grief without becoming overwhelmed. They can be helpful at times when we would otherwise be overwhelmed by emotion, however they can also slow down the process of acceptance and recovery. Defense mechanisms do not get rid of it of a problem, they simply postpone it. The stressful event is still there, and eventually, you will have to process those emotions.
One reason some people turn to intellectualization as a defense mechanism is that it makes them less vulnerable to others. Showing emotion makes us feel vulnerable, and hiding those emotions feels like protection. Of course, sometimes we need the help of others, and when we intellectualize, it can look like we don't need their help at all. That can make people who intellectualize their emotions feel quite lonely and unsure of how to get the help they need.
If you're having trouble expressing your emotions to others, you can turn to a mental health professional for a safe place to talk.
From the outside, a person who is intellectualizing their emotions appears to be calm and have everything under control. They are the person who is delegating responsibilities and taking care of things when other people are panicking. This doesn't mean they aren't panicking on the inside. And when the burden becomes too much, it's possible to snap instantaneously from the built up stress and pressure.
Individuals who find it difficult to express their emotions are especially susceptible to this defense mechanism. As a friend, you can encourage someone to express themselves if you think they are intellectualizing their emotions. Let them know that you are a safe person to talk to, without judgment. When someone becomes emotionally vulnerable to you, respect that it is a serious compliment, it means that they trust you. Try not to judge the feelings they are trying to express, simply provide support.
Most people turn to some form of psychological defense mechanism at some point or another. It's not wrong or bad, and it's nothing to be ashamed of. They can, in fact, help you to cope with anxiety. That being said, knowing which particular flavors of psychological defense you tend to turn to can help you in making sure you don't bottle things up for too long.
Using Intellectualization to Cope
Here's how intellectualization helps as a coping, or defense, mechanism. Focusing just on the facts makes it easier for some people to cope with stress. It's a mistake to think such a person is a robot or incapable of feeling emotions. The truth is they probably feel emotions quite deeply, and that's part of why it's so difficult for them to deal with those feelings.
The person who intellectualizes to cope is blocking out their feelings until they think they are strong enough to address them. That may not always be a bad thing. Sometimes it is helpful to contain emotions until there is an appropriate time and place to work through them. However, it is important that the emotions are not held in too long. The emotions must be processed at some point. Turning to intellectualization too often can sometimes cause more challenges down the line.
Here's an example of how someone might use intellectualization as a coping strategy. Breakups are difficult emotional times for many people. When a relationship ends, a fountain of emotions can erupt. But those feelings may be difficult to handle.
In that case, a person may focus logically on the things they can do now that they couldn't do during the relationship. For instance, now you have time to do more things with your friends. Again, recognizing these logical effects of the breakup are not a bad thing, but it may mean that you are avoiding looking into the emotional pains that need attention and healing.
Another example is if a grown child leaves home for college or to live on their own. The parents may feel some grief that the period of childhood is over and their child won't be living with them anymore. Instead of addressing this feeling, they may instead focus on the logical tasks that need to be taken care of, such as calculating budgets for college expenses.
Or consider if you lose a job. It's understandable to feel a lot of negative emotions in that situation. But if you cope with intellectualizing your loss, you may focus instead on all the tasks you need to do. You think about looking at job postings, updating your résumé, and making sure you got all your stuff out of your old desk. You focus on concrete objectives instead of taking time to mourn your loss. Again, taking action is great. It's even better if it coincides with emotional processing rather than being used as an avoidance strategy.
Your body's fight-or-flight response may trigger intellectualization. You're probably familiar with this. It's the tendency to address stress with either confrontation or fleeing. Intellectualization is a type of psychological fleeing from a situation. You retreat from the difficult emotions you are feeling.
Likewise, if you notice someone else using this coping strategy, the kind thing to do is to back off and recognize that they are stressed. Maybe there's something you need to discuss with them regarding the situation, but you should ask yourself whether it would be better to wait until a time when they are in a position to better handle their feelings.
Dealing With intellectualization
Once you are aware that you use intellectualization as a defense mechanism, you can begin finding ways to do so less often and healthily process your emotions. Why would you want to do that? Maybe you think you're perfectly happy and healthy avoiding those pesky feelings. Unfortunately, intellectualizing your emotions does not help you in the long run.
Here's a breakdown of why intellectualization is not a replacement for processing your feelings. It fails to protect you. The emotions don't go away. If you break a bone, you go to a doctor. You don't pretend the bone isn't broken. Likewise, you can't pretend your emotions aren't there. Like going to the doctor for a broken bone, you have to find a real solution to the emotional problem.
What you can do instead is talk to someone. In the meantime, allow yourself to feel your feelings. Even if you don't admit them to anyone else, admit them to yourself. Accepting what you are feeling can greatly help in working through emotions and feeling better. Constantly struggling to push your feelings away is likely to make you think about those unwanted thoughts even more. And that's a recipe for chronic anxiety.
Don't be afraid of your feelings. Intellectualizing is not the same as being intelligent. It's a show you put on both for yourself and for others. And it keeps you distant from human connection and from loving yourself. Addressing your emotions is not going to send you into a spiral of anxiety and depression. In fact, releasing those emotions may be the best way to relieve your anxiety.
Feelings can sometimes feel like a horrible monster hiding in the back of your brain that you keep trying to fight. But honestly, do you want that monster hiding inside you for the next five, ten, or fifteen years? When something stressful happens in your life, you can acknowledge it and move on, or you can carry pieces of the emotional burden with you into the future.
Addressing our feelings can feel very hard in the present moment, however it is the healthiest option as a long term plan.