Intellectualization In Psychology

Updated January 19, 2023by BetterHelp Editorial Team

The Psychology Of Intellectualizing: Intellectualization Explained

In psychology, intellectualization is one of several types of defense mechanisms. Defense mechanisms are a construct first proposed by Sigmund Freud and later elaborated by his daughter, Anna Freud, to explain subconscious psychological strategies for managing anxiety and other uncomfortable emotions. When someone intellectualizes, emotions seem like obstacles, and they shut them out in favor of being emotionally detached, rational, and intellectual. People use intellectualization to keep stress and anxiety at bay.

Intellectualization can help you get through immediate trouble or give you time to process certain events. However, if you never step out of intellectualization, you may be unconsciously avoiding difficult emotions, including those that are a routine part of daily life, such as frustration and anger. Unresolved emotional pain can become a mental health condition like anxiety and depression. However, learning to face uncomfortable feelings allows us to move on and live a psychologically healthy life. 

This post explores intellectualization and how to overcome it and regain a healthy connection to your emotions. 

Benefits Of Accepting Emotions: Feeling Your Feelings When They Happen

Awareness of our emotions does not make us weak or any less rational or intellectual. On the contrary, learning to experience and process complicated feelings can improve our ability to see the world around us and respond appropriately. It may seem counterintuitive initially, but studies show that accepting our emotions can help us recover from negative experiences more quickly and increase our ability to later rationally understand similar situations. Of course, we might not purposefully set out to avoid our emotions, but exploring why you may use intellectualization, and noticing when it happens, are potent steps in learning to process emotions more skillfully.

Do You Avoid Challenging Emotions Through Intellectualization?

Examples Of Emotional Avoidance By Intellectualization

Intellectualization and rational problem-solving alone are not necessarily defense mechanisms. However, when we constantly use these strategies to avoid painful or confusing emotions, we can deny ourselves the chance to process, heal, and fully learn from our feelings. There are many ways we intellectualize away emotions.

For example, intellectualizing might happen if someone endlessly researches the details of a significant illness to avoid the anxiety, fear, and sadness of receiving a diagnosis. Another example is repeatedly listing the benefits of being single instead of facing the pain of rejection after a breakup. Intellectualization could also occur if you busy yourself with funeral arrangements to the point where you have no time to grieve the loss of a loved one.

Intellectualization Is A Defensive Mechanism

Unlike some of the other defense mechanisms, intellectualization can make it seem like we are dealing with the reality of a situation. In addition,  intellectualization is sometimes confused with another defense mechanism called rationalization - both attempt to use logic to work around emotions. The difference is that rationalizing bends facts to justify desires, behaviors, or emotions,  and intellectualization involves looking at events objectively as a means to distance ourselves from emotions that seem overwhelming.

In this way, using intellectualization appears superficially to be based on truth, just not all the truth. Logic plays an indispensable role in managing 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 are not good or bad in themselves, nor should we think of them as optional. They are simply one particular response to living through a given experience. The crucial point is how we choose to handle an emotion that determines how it will affect our lives.

What Can I Do Instead Of Intellectualization?

Intellectualization can be a useful defense mechanism for keeping yourself together when you need to take action in challenging circumstances. However, if you cannot stop intellectualizing, it is worth exploring other ways to manage your emotions without completely shutting them down. 

Some techniques for getting past intellectualizing and healthily engaging emotions include:

  • Becoming aware of our experiences through the practice of mindfulness or meditation

  • Learning to identify and name our emotional responses

  • Seeking support from others who can help us face challenging emotions and get through them. 

Mindfulness And Meditation

Practicing mindfulness or meditation can help us become aware of what we feel in the moment. Mindfulness involves noticing your thoughts, emotions, and body without judging or trying to make sense of them. Instead, you acknowledge sensations, feelings, and ideas as they happen. Non-judgmental awareness can give you clues about whether anxiety is influencing your mindset. As you practice mindfulness, you can ask yourself questions: Am I holding tension anywhere in my body? Do I have recurring thoughts? Am I judging myself for what I feel?

Naming Our Emotions 

When we become used to intellectualization as a defense mechanism, there is little difference between how we think about a feeling versus how we experience that emotion. Making excuses for how you feel, for example, by telling yourself, "I'm just tired," or, “I just feel stressed,” can be a stand-in for sadness, frustration, or another emotion, muddying your ability to know what you really feel. 

One solution is developing the ability to communicate and name emotions, even if it is only for yourself. Becoming clear about the nature of our feelings can lead the way to resolve them. In addition, different emotions call for different responses. Asking yourself for more details about what you are feeling, instead of hiding the emotions behind catch-all labels like "stress" or “feeling tired,” can improve your ability to understand, experience, and release that emotional experience.

Journaling can be an excellent way to uncover what you feel, and journaling does not need to involve writing in a notebook that you keep. For example, if you are trying to understand your emotions, you can write down whatever comes into your mind and then throw the paper away. However, a notebook you retain allows you to go back and reexamine entries later, which can lead to more clarity about your emotional responses. 

Asking for Support

We may be so used to a defense mechanism such as intellectualizing, we do not fully see how it affects our lives. Suppose no one taught or allowed you to sit with unpleasant feelings when you were young. In that case, it is understandable you might need help learning how to connect with your emotions in a way that feels comfortable and healthy as opposed to intellectualizing.

Problematic feelings tend to make us isolate ourselves, but social support can be crucial for emotional well-being, especially when we are struggling. Studies show that help from 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 support can give us a fresh perspective on our feelings, point out behavioral patterns we may not have noticed, or allow us to feel heard and accepted.

Another option for getting support is talking to an in-person or online counselor about your struggles. A counselor can offer the benefits of expertise, insight, and resources for learning new ways to approach your emotions that friends and family sometimes cannot provide. Studies show that internet-based therapies are especially effective for treating depression, which often is an underlying condition for people who intellectualized their emotions. 

Do You Avoid Challenging Emotions Through Intellectualization?

Online therapy platforms like BetterHelp.com make licensed, professional therapists are readily available to anyone who wants to overcome intellectualization and explore their emotions. Defense mechanisms like intellectualization are often rooted in painful past experiences. It can take time, patience, and encouragement to change lifelong emotional habits we have used to survive damaging situations. 

Having a remote, affordable expert to support you in the comfort of your home and at a time that best suits you allows you to move at your own pace. A counselor can help you to learn new coping strategies to overcome intellectualization and work through difficulties that may arise along the way. 

Takeaway

Intellectualization is a defense mechanism we unconsciously use to defend our psyche against powerful feelings such as anxiety and stress. It involves pushing down emotions and approaching a situation with logic and reason rather than emotion. In some circumstances, intellectualizing can help deal with challenging problems. However, if you resort to intellectualizing much of the time, you can be left with unresolved emotions, potentially leading to more serious mental health conditions. You can overcome intellectualization by using mindfulness practice, clarifying and naming what you feel, and talking to people you trust for perspective and support. If those approaches are not enough, consulting with a therapist can help you accept and process emotions that might be difficult for you. 

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