Have you noticed how people react differently to stressful situations? Some are calm and rational, whereas others are anxious and emotional. Intellectualization could explain the difference.
What Is Intellectualization?
Intellectualization is a defense mechanism whereby a person views a stressful situation intellectually. They deal with the stress using cold, hard facts and remove the emotional content from the situation.
Now, you might say hang on, you are talking about logical and rational problem-solving here. Well, not exactly.
Let’s look at it this way.
If I have a problem, I look for answers to solve that problem. What will not help solve my problem is to get all emotional and hysterical or to overdramatize my problem. I use logic and rational thought to analyze the issue, then I can come up with a solution.
That’s all well and good when I need to process information and navigate my way through everyday experiences.
For example, I’m travelling to a new destination for a meeting. I will plan out the route in advance and check out parking in the vicinity so that I arrive on time.
But that’s not intellectualization. Intellectualization is when you use this type of analytical thinking to deal with an emotional or traumatic situation.
Intellectualization is the conscious act of blocking out your emotions so that you don’t have to deal with the stress and anxiety of the situation. Instead, you focus on the facts and remove yourself emotionally from the problem.
When Is Intellectualization Healthy?
Now, in some situations, intellectualization is helpful. For example, look at the work of paramedics, surgeons, scientists, or the police.
A paramedic cannot let his or her emotions get in the way of treating a patient who is in a life or death situation. Being able to work in a calm, methodical, and unemotional way is key to achieving the best outcome.
So when does it become unhealthy?
When Is Intellectualization Unhealthy?
You keep suppressing your feelings.
Blocking your emotions does not make them go away. It merely suppresses them. Suppressing something for long enough causes it to fester and grow.
These emotions will have to escape at some point, and you might not be able to control them in a healthy environment or manner. You might lash out at a partner or your children because you never had the chance to resolve your childhood trauma. You may turn to substance abuse because you cannot cope with your feelings.
Emotions are not things to be ‘fixed’. They are things to be lived through, experienced, coped with, and understood.
Only by going through our emotions do we realize that we come out the other side. So what happens if we continue to intellectualize our problems?
You always live in fear.
“Fear grows in darkness; if you think there’s a bogeyman around, turn on the light.” Dorothy Thompson
If you don’t face the thing that makes you anxious or grief-stricken or stressed-out, how will you ever know how the situation progresses? It’s a little like being in a constant state of shock but moving forward with your life anyway.
When we are dealing with a traumatic event, our minds will often shut down in shock because we cannot cope with such a harrowing experience. But eventually, we have to handle the situation because life moves on.
What this means is coping with all the messy, ugly, and frightening emotions that overwhelm us. Because if we don’t, we never learn that eventually, these overwhelming feelings very gradually start to subside. Over time we can manage them.
You end up making the same mistakes.
“Knowing your own darkness is the best method for dealing with the darknesses of other people.” Carl Jung
By not acknowledging how we feel, we are not addressing the things that are creating these feelings. If we don’t know why something makes us feel a certain way, we can never learn from our mistakes. We end up repeating the same behavior over and over again.
In my own life, I can see how this has played out. My mother was a cold and unemotional person who didn’t pay me any attention. As a result, as a teenager, I would say terrible things to shock her so that I would get her attention.
Even now, as an adult, I have to stop myself from saying something crude or hurtful that I know will shock. But, if I hadn’t recognised that my behavior stemmed from my feelings of hurt and abandonment from my mother, I would still be saying nasty things to people today. I had to acknowledge the emotional neglect from my mother hurt me so that I could move past it.
Feeling emotions helps you learn about yourself.
“Someone I loved once gave me a box full of darkness. It took me years to understand that this too, was a gift.” Mary Oliver
You are allowed to feel the way you feel. It is normal to feel devastating grief after a loved one has died. You are not going mad. You are supposed to feel bereft, lost, and hopeless. All those feelings mean that you loved with all your heart.
If you accept happiness as part of your life, then you must also accept sadness. When my boyfriend died a few years ago, I felt overwhelmed by emotion. I wanted to give up, to fade away, and go to sleep. I didn’t want to deal with the world. I felt betrayed, lost, and shattered. What was the point of carrying on? For days, weeks, and months I existed.
Now, seven years later, I have learned that you don’t get over the loss, you live a different life without them.
So how do you know if you are using intellectualization too much?
4 Signs You Rely Too Much on Intellectualization
1. You only use facts when you argue.
Facts are great tools in an argument, but it is a sign of a lack of empathy to rely on them too much. It shows that you are ignoring the other person’s feelings if you only ever use facts in an argument.
2. You don’t let the other person speak.
Not allowing someone their chance to put their views forward shows that you want to maintain a position of power and control. It’s your way or the highway. You have spoken, and that is all that matters.
3. You keep returning to your viewpoint.
Like a broken record, you repeat your point of view until the other person gets frustrated and gives up. Going back to your point of view indicates an unwillingness on your part to listen. Why have a discussion in the first place?
4. You are calm during the most emotional outbursts.
Remaining calm during an emotional scene is admirable, but it can also come across as dismissive and detached. You don’t care that your partner is upset.
I think people rely on intellectualization because it’s safe. I mean, who wants to deal with all that messy, awkward stuff that makes us uncomfortable? But we are not robots. It is these very emotions that make us unique. Both the happy and the sad ones. To acknowledge one and ignore the other negates all emotion.
I think this final quote from TV producer of the Twilight Zone Rod Serling sums it up perfectly:
“There is nothing in the dark that isn’t there when the lights are on.” Rod Serling
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