Why Intellectualization Is Not Always Healthy

By Danni Peck

Updated September 25, 2019

Reviewer Dr. Angel Faith

Do emotions seem like obstacles when you are under pressure? Do you shut them out in favor of being coldly rational? You may be intellectualizing to help deal with the stress of a situation. This can be great for getting through immediate trouble or giving yourself time to process certain events. However, if you find that you never step out of logic-mode, even during day-to-day conflicts, you may be unknowingly trying to avoid dealing with your emotions. Unresolved emotional pain can turn into ongoing mental health issues like anxiety and depression, but learning to face uncomfortable feelings gives us the chance to move on in a healthy way.

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What Is Intellectualization and Why Do We Do It?

Intellectualization happens when we ignore the emotional significance of a situation by focusing only on its rational parts and explanations. When the going gets tough, intellectualizing can help us remain cool and collected, but it doesn't minimize the emotional impact events can have on us. Treating all painful situations as problems to solve in which your feelings are irrelevant can prevent you from learning how to handle difficult emotions. Why is this an issue? Life's challenges are sometimes unexpected; you may find yourself dealing with a parent's death or another event in which ignoring or repressing our emotions can be dangerous for your physical health.

Studies have shown that avoiding our emotions can make us more prone to stress, anger, and chronic mental health issues, while accepting them can reduce even our physical pain and give us more resilience.

How Defense Mechanisms Harm and Help Us

Intellectualization is one of the many defense mechanisms people use to avoid experiencing unpleasant emotions. These are unconscious habits our minds have picked up to protect us from being overwhelmed by stress and grief. It's completely normal for us to need that from time to time. By taking emotions out of painful situations, intellectualization makes them easier to deal with. This doesn't mean someone who intellectualizes does not experience emotions; in fact, they may feel emotions quite deeply, making it hard to work with them during a crisis when action is needed.

It makes sense why we would want or need to intellectualize during difficult times in our lives. We don't always have the luxury to feel fear or pain as things are happening. Focusing on the facts of a situation can give us a greater sense of control over circumstances that might otherwise seem unbearable. In addition, traumatic events and abuse may have taught us that experiencing negative emotions is a weakness. For some people, intellectualizing is something they had to do to get their needs met while growing up.

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But awareness of our emotions doesn't make us weak or any less rational. In fact, learning how to hold difficult feelings actually improves our ability to work through them. It may seem counterintuitive at first, but studies show that accepting our emotions can help us recover from negative experiences more quickly. We might not purposefully set out to avoid our emotions, but exploring why you may intellectualize and noticing when it happens are powerful steps in learning to process emotions more skillfully.

How to Recognize Intellectualizing

Rational problem-solving alone is not a defense mechanism, but when we constantly use it to get out of dealing with painful emotions, we can deny ourselves the chance to heal from them. There are many ways we might intellectualize away our feelings. It can look like endlessly researching the details of a major illness to avoid the anxiety and sadness of the experience. Or you might list the benefits of being single again instead of facing the pain of rejection after a breakup. It can also be busying yourself with funeral arrangements to the point where you have no time to grieve.

Unlike other defense mechanisms, intellectualization can make it seem are though we are dealing with the reality of a situation. For example, intellectualizing is sometimes confused with a defense mechanism called rationalization. Both attempt to use logic to work around our emotions, but while rationalizing bends facts to justify our desires, behaviors, or emotions, intellectualizing involves looking at facts objectively to distance ourselves from emotions.

In this way, intellectualizing appears to be based in the truth, just not all of it. Logic has a necessary role in dealing with life, but our emotional experience is also essential as we navigate the world. Like physical pain, emotional distress alerts us to something within ourselves that needs our attention. Emotions can't be qualified as good or bad, nor can they be defined as something you're permitted to experience or not. They are simply your response to living through something. It's how we choose to handle an emotion that determines how it will affect our lives.

What Can I Do Instead?

In tough moments, intellectualization can be a useful defense mechanism for keeping yourself together when action is needed. If, however, you find that you can't stop it, it's worth exploring other ways to manage your emotions without completely shutting them down. Being fully mindful of our experiences, learning to identify our emotions, and finding support from the people in our lives can help us change our go-to patterns.

Mindfulness. Practicing mindfulness can help us become aware of what we're feeling in the moment. This involves noticing your thoughts, emotions, and body without evaluating or trying to make sense of them. You just acknowledge sensations as they happen. Non-judgmental awareness can give you clues about whether anxiety is influencing your mindset. Are you holding tension anywhere in your body? Where is that strain coming from? Can you sit with unease without pushing it away?

Over-Analyzing Can Hurt You. Intellectualization Can Harm You. Learn More.
Talk About Your Emotions With An Online Therapist

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Emotional Clarity. When you're used to intellectualizing emotions, there seems to be little difference between how we think about a feeling versus how we experience one. Telling yourself, "I'm just tired" as a stand-in for sadness or frustration muddies your ability to know what you're actually feeling. Being able to clearly communicate an emotion, even if it's only to yourself, can help show you how to relieve it. Different emotions call for different responses. Working out which emotions are truly behind catch-all labels like "stress" (for example, anxiety or grief) improves our ability to handle them.

Ask for Support. Difficult feelings tend to make us isolate ourselves, but social support does wonders for our emotional wellbeing, especially when we're struggling. Studies show that receiving support from the people in our lives improves our ability to cope with challenges like anxiety, illness, and loss. When we ask for support, trusted friends and loved ones can provide a safe place to talk through our experiences. This can give us a fresh perspective on things, point us to behavioral patterns we may not have noticed, or simply give us the opportunity to feel heard.

However, sometimes the situations we need help with are not something we're comfortable bringing up with the people in our lives. Talking with a mental health professional can be another source of support, and it offers the added benefits of expertise, insight, and resources for learning new ways to approach your emotions.

Explore New Ways to Handle Emotions

We may be so used to a defense mechanism that we don't fully see how it affects our lives. If you've never been shown how or allowed to sit with difficult feelings, it's understandable that you might need a bit of help learning how to connect with your emotions in a way that feels comfortable and easy for you.

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The counselors on BetterHelp can give you tools and guidance for exploring new ways of handling emotions. Defense mechanisms are often rooted in very painful experiences. It can take time, patience, and practice to change the lifelong emotional habits that we've used to survive bad situations. Having a remote, affordable expert to support you allows you to move at your own pace, trying new coping strategies and working through difficulties that may arise along the way. Read the reviews below to learn how BetterHelp counselors have helped people in similar situations.

Counselor Reviews

"One session in and I really appreciate Jennifer's skill at helping me start working through my anxiety and better understand the mechanisms at play. She has already given me a tool that I'm finding helpful. Looking forward to continuing to work with her."



"Valeh has been instrumental in helping me process emotions and challenging situations. She has been an incredible help and guide in navigating my emotional well being."


Conclusion

Rational problem-solving and emotional awareness are equally valuable for a healthy life. Intellectualizing can give you the time and space you may need to keep going during a painful situation, so you can process your feelings afterward. However, it can also be an unhelpful defense mechanism when overutilized. Learning to tend to our emotions skillfully builds our overall resilience and supports long-term mental wellness. Take the first step today.


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