Forcing yourself to put on a brave face and discount your sadness because you know that, all things considered, you should count yourself as lucky is called intellectualization. It's a psychological defense mechanism that allows you to emotionally disassociate when you’re under stress and duress. "Intellectualizing is a defense we use to create more distance from our emotions," says licensed family counselor Melissa Divaris Thompson, LMFT. "When we feel a negative emotion, we call on our defenses to help us feel less of the negative feeling."
Intellectualization as a defense mechanism or coping strategy can be very useful for blocking feelings rather than letting them flow during a pandemic when days can feel like a rushing river of crushing personal blows, squashed dreams, and canceled joys. Sometimes calling upon intellectualization is necessary to just get through your day. Except, intellectualizing is meant to get you through a short challenging moment of time. When you’re constantly—over the course of months or beyond—overpowering losses with logic, what happens?
Here's close-up look at using intellectualization as a defense mechanism
I spent the last two years planning an April 2020 trip to Paris that obviously never happened. When I had to cancel, I went straight into intellectualization mode. I was sad, but the world was crumbling around me. Lockdowns were being enforced; New York City, where I live, was a global virus hotspot in terms of cases and deaths; and my brother, roommate, and millions of other Americans were getting laid off. In light of all of this, I felt that my privileged disappointment needed to be underplayed: "Everyone’s cancelling everything," I told friends. "It’s a bummer, but I have a travel waiver."
If the cancelation of my trip happened in a vacuum, with nothing else going on, it would’ve ended me; again, I had been looking forward to it for years. But among a wave of other many stressors swirling, my mind diverted with logic to soften the blow. And in practice, that psychological response isn’t necessarily a bad thing, so long as you recognize that it's happening.
"Intellectualization can be a wonderful coping mechanism in the short-term," says clinical psychologist Carla Marie Manly, PhD, author of Joy From Fear. "If we are aware that we are being overly intellectual in order to cope, the strategy can be helpful in avoiding feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, and depression. Staying too cerebral in the long run, however, can minimize and even deny the important emotional components of the situation."
"Being overly intellectual in order to cope can be helpful in avoiding feelings of overwhelm, anxiety, and depression. Staying too cerebral in the long run, however, can minimize and even deny the important emotional components of the situation." —Carla Marie Manly, PhD
Also be sure to keep this in mind when your friends are venting or expressing their troubles, because you certainly don't want to accidentally dismiss or belittle their feelings. For instance, if your sister is having a meltdown because she can’t find her favorite hoodie and you have to remind her that people are dying, you’re not allowing for empathy or connection. After all, breakdowns of this sort are rarely actually about the hoodie, but rather a manifestation of a different problem. Also, people need compassion right now. "When intellectualizing, we may come across as cold and unemotional," Thompson says. "It may also be difficult to have a productive, authentic, and healing conversation with someone else."
Whether intellectualizing your own emotions or those of others, doing so regularly can give way to feelings of isolation and a tangled web of negativity. To over-intellectualize our emotions is to rationalize and push them aside—day-in, day-out—never to be felt in earnest.
How to stop over-intellectualizing and actually heal
Maybe you've gotten used to waving off each successive disappointment in quarantine with faux ease, but doing so doesn't actually soothe your negative emotions. Instead, by not allowing yourself to grieve, you carry the negativity and grievances with you. To tend to these losses effectively instead of intellectualizing them, clinical psychologist and author of I Know I'm in There Somewhere, Helene Brenner, PhD, offers a sustainable long-term strategy for processing:
"Stop what you’re doing for a few minutes and sit with it," says Dr. Brenner. "Observe it. What does this upset feel like? How does this upsetting feeling show up in your body—what are the sensations of this feeling? Is it tightness in your chest? Is there a tear in your eye? Whatever feeling, word, or phrase you’ve come up with, check that word or phrase with the feeling in your body."
For example, maybe you're feeling crushed because your favorite restaurant is closing. In this case, you may benefit from putting this situation into perspective by noting that there are other restaurants around that you do like and that the restaurant closing is neither the end of your world or even the most alarming news of the day. Putting your feelings into a context can be a legitimate way of processing, but that doesn't mean you can't still process your real feelings of grief about it.
This exercise allows you to communicate with your full self, not just your keen-to-rationalize mind. Communicating with your full self should help you draw conclusions about the emotion behind the loss, and save you from the instinct to intellectualize for a long-term solution that won't serve you.
To return to the example of a closed restaurant, investigate your emotional roots even more deeply by asking yourself probing questions like, "What’s the core of this?" or "What’s the worst, scariest, or most hurtful, or most maddening thing about this?" Maybe the answers to these questions remind you that the restaurant is where you had endless nights breaking bread with friends, where you had your first date with your S.O., where you made countless memories in a world that doesn't exist anymore.
And then lean into it. Grieve it. Allowing yourself to feel isn't selfish, and doing so might just help you get through to the other side and actually move forward.
We need to give ourselves permission to feel, because emotions are relative
At the beginning of quarantine, I felt that giving up various comforts and joys would be much easier than I do now. There was an immediate goal of needing to do my part to flatten the curve. But given that the virus is acting like trick birthday candles that we can't seem to blow out, that goal is ongoing and is, in effect, exhausting. That exhaustion may well be due to my intellectualization of losses big and small, which, again, isn't meant to be an ongoing solution.
So now I'm feeling my feelings. Not traveling to Paris is a privileged grievance, but it was how I planned to close the book on a difficult year ahead of my birthday. I've worked hard to get to where I am, but in many ways, I haven't moved, and in this climate, it's tough to trust that I'll get to where I'm going. I still know I'm lucky, and I now know I'm also allowed to feel angry when I feel angry and sad when I feel sad—even if there are other big, pressing reasons for feeling angry or sad.
And if you, like me, give yourself permission to feel your feelings, you'll have less to carry with you on your journey to get to where you're going, regardless of when you'll ultimately get there. Because in the meantime, no one needs the extra emotional baggage.
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