Intellectualization: The Danger of Using Logic to Block Emotions

Do you ever think your way out of difficult emotions rather than feel them? In psychology this is known as intellectualization. Let's explore what it entails.

What is Intellectualization?


Negative emotions are like a wedgie.


They are uncomfortable and something we usually want to fix right away. 


Sometimes people manage their negative feelings through a process known as intellectualization. Let's explore what intellectualization and how it can affect the way you process emotions and recover from challenges.


Disclaimer: This information is not a substitute for the professional opinion of a licensed psychologist, psychiatrist or medical doctor.


What is Intellectualization?


In psychology, intellectualization refers to a defense mechanism whereby an individual becomes excessively dependent on logic as a way to avoid having to confront distressing emotions.


In other words, it is when we use logic to escape uncomfortable emotions like sadness, disappointment and anger.


Intellectualization is a form of dissociation because it involves separating oneself from the problem at hand and taking a pseudo-objective viewpoint.


The process of intellectualization has been described as a "flight into reason" because a person who intellectualizes their feelings runs away from their feelings, under the guise of rationality.


A person will usually turn to intellectualization as a coping mechanism because it allows them to distance themselves from beliefs that challenge their sense of self.


What does intellectualization look like in practice?


A person who is intellectualizing their feelings may be quick to make statements such as "It's not a big deal", "I'll get over it" or "I'm being too emotional", just moments after experiencing an emotionally distressing event such as a breakup or loss.


Such behaviour is intellectualization because it is an attempt to defy the normal emotional reactions that invariably follow these experiences.


Here are a couple more examples of intellectualization: 


  • A person who focuses all their energy on funeral arrangements as a way to avoid confronting the pain and grief of losing their spouse.


  • A person who starts either working overtime or overextending themselves socially after a breakup, as a way to avoid time spent alone with their thoughts, so they don't have to process the end of the relationship.


  • A person who is diagnosed with a chronic disease spends an excessive amount of time reading books, watching informational videos, and trying to figure out all the intricate details of their condition as a means to avoid coming to terms with how the diagnosis makes them feel.


Why Intellectualization is Dangerous


Humans are sensitive, delicate creatures.


Our incredible capacity to recognize and feel emotions is a key trait that distinguishes us from other living creatures. 


Intellectualization is dangerous because it turns a human into an automaton.


And the thing is: we weren't designed to be automatons.


We weren't created with an "off switch" for our emotions.


Emotions demand to be felt, and if you try to push them away with logic, those emotions don't actually disappear. 


They just grow and fester inside you, until they are so powerful that they burst forth in ways you cannot control.


Take for example, the feeling of depression.


Here is a quote by Carl Jung, the Swiss psychiatrist who is known as the father of analytical psychology.


It happens to be one of my favourite quotes:


"Depression is like a woman in black. If she turns up, don't shoo her away. Invite her in, offer her a seat, treat her like a guest, and listen to what she has to say."


When confronted with a difficult emotion such as depression, you cannot solve it through intellectualization. 


You probably can relate to this deeply if you ever have been in a depressive mood and had someone say to you: "Cheer up! You shouldn't be depressed! Your life is great."


Sure, in theory, your life may be great.


You may have the job, the house, the relationship - everything may look perfect on the outside. 


But you may still be depressed...and that's allowed.


If negative feelings come up, you don't have to scold yourself for feeling sad, despite everything. 


You are allowed to feel. 


You are allowed to sit with those emotions without rationalizing them away. 


Very often, the only way out of difficult periods of our lives is through. That means sitting with unpleasant emotions and listening to what they have to teach us. 


Because there is always something you can learn if you give yourself a moment for introspection and reflection.


The Difference Between Intellectualization and Emotional Regulation


Now, let's make it clear: there's a difference between intellectualization and emotional regulation


Just because you have the capacity to feel the entire gamut of human emotions, it doesn't mean that you have to act on every emotion you feel. 


While intellectualization involves avoidance and dissociation from negative emotions, emotional regulation involves the mindful acknowledgment and integration of negative emotions as part of a healthy and fully developed sense of self.


You can be aware of, and accept your emotions without giving them free rein on your actions.


The important thing is to acknowledge your emotions without trying to repress them or feeling shame that you feel the way you do. 


Final Thoughts


It can be fine to put off an emotional burden for a period of time - in fact modern life often necessitates it. 


For example you may delay reflecting on a painful event that happened yesterday if you have to prepare for a final exam tomorrow.


It can also be useful to sometimes think of problems in abstract, logical terms to avoid making impulsive, emotion-driven decisions. 


However, balance is required.


If emotions are never addressed - they can build up overtime and become a big ugly monster that later bites us in the backside. 


So it pays to choose the route that brings us greater peace of mind in the long term: Tonight we might forgo sleep - crying and screaming into our pillow over an emotionally distressing situation - but it may be just what we need to have a sound, peaceful sleep tomorrow.


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