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Intellectualization: Are you a procrastinator when it comes to feelings?

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Intellectualization is one of those defense mechanisms that many of us you from time to time. But like other defense mechanisms, over-reliance on this can also lead to major problems. During this post we will look at what is intellectualization, when is it useful, how it can lead to a problems and finally as a therapist what steps you can take to help a client whose intellectualization is coming in the way of therapy.

Intellectualization: Case Study

Doctor: I’m sorry to inform you that you’ve got lung cancer.
Patient: Okay. So what kinds of medications in this case are likely to increase the survival rates?
Doctor: There are a few pills I’ll be putting you on. I understand if this has come to you as a shock and you’re upset…
Patient: Thank you! I would like to know if I will be put on chemotherapy. What are the side effects of this treatment?
Doctor: No, we can’t say if chemotherapy will be required as of yet. However, it does bring about a few physiological changes. If you would like to inform your family and friends…
Patient: Sure. What is the general trend of expenditure in the course of this treatment? It would be only appropriate to have a word with my insurance company.


Do you notice something out of ordinary here? Isn’t this reaction totally unexpected? Wouldn’t you expect  some element of shock or sadness instead of the patient’s apparent poker face expression to the news of his cancer?

Is it possible that the patient is using ‘thinking to avoid feeling? ‘

What is the defense mechanism of intellectualization?

Intellectualization: Are you a procrastinator when it comes to feelings?In psychology, this behavior pattern is referred to as intellectualization, a defense mechanism, which according to Freud involves engrossing oneself so deeply in the reasoning aspect of a situation that you completely disregard the emotional aspect that is involved.

Another example would be that of a college going student who loses her father but is extensively involved in the funerary procedures without shedding a drop of tear. Instead of being shattered by imagining a life without her Daddy, the 17 year-old worries about getting the right venue for her father’s post-funeral gathering.

How intellectulization helps?

The conscious analysis of a devastating event helps people to emotionally distance themselves from the anxiety-provoking stimuli.

Coming back to the above story, notice the words being used by the patient. Survival rates. Chemotherapy. Side effects. Expenditure. Insurance. Don’t you think that a little less technical sounding words would generally have been used by someone else in a similar situation? I would’ve been more likely to ask the doctor in a panic-stricken voice, “Am I going to die?”  And I would sure as hell not bring up the scary topic of chemotherapy so quickly after receiving the shock of my life. These individuals make the choice of words that they do because the use of complexity helps them to further achieve the goal of behaving in a cold, clinical manner—subsequently also reducing the stress that they feel is building up.

Intellectualization: Are you a procrastinator when it comes to feelings?

Rationalization & Intellectualization

People at times incorrectly use the words rationalization and intellectualization interchangeably.

Rationalization is unconscious justification of unrealistic thoughts and consequent actions.

While during intellectualization, the person is consciously aware of the situation but simply become “emotionally away”(unconsciously keeping their feelings at bay). They neither live in denial nor do they try and justify that whatever has happened to them makes sense at some level.

It’s like cutting a piece of cake and saving it separately. At most times the person is not even aware of this chunk lying in the fridge as he / she is focused on the distribution of the rest.  It is however important for one to eat his/her cake in time or else it might rot.

In other words, it is imperative to deal with the suppressed emotions before they can become too dangerous, interfere with our well-being and cause a breakdown.

What is the purpose of Intellectualization?

Remember, emotions can be disruptive. Intellectualization basically buys us some time before we decide to face the music!

It is possible to assume that this is done so as to eliminate our frightening thoughts or reduce their intensity instead of  letting the sense of helplessness or hopelessness creep in following the diagnosis of a fatal disease or death of a loved one or any similar negative circumstance that life throws at us unexpectedly.

It is important for us to understand that different people react to difficult times in different ways. Intellectualization is just one of them. Like other defense mechanisms, intellectualization can been useful in the short run but can lead to problems in the future.

Now that you understand what is intellectualization, if you were to look back at some of the major negative experiences in your life, what would you say, have you used intellectualization?

Therapist Niche: Working with Intellectualization

Intellectualization: Are you a procrastinator when it comes to feelings?At first glance it may seem appropriate to allow the client and to some extent even help the client intellectualize an intensely negative experience, specially the one’s that the client may not have the skills or the emotional maturity to deal with.

But it is important to remember that intellectualization could lead to breakdowns (psychosomatic health issues) in the long run.

Potential Problem to consider

  1. In the light of these long run negative consequences, it may also seem appropriate to make the client experience and deal with these negative emotion that they’re desperately trying to avoid. But a closer look and experience says that such confrontational tactics at least in the initial phase of therapy has a huge potential to complicate the therapist-client relationship.
  2. Confrontation without proper “bounce-back” mechanisms in place may lead to the client actually losing trust in their therapist. They may also conclude that such confrontation is indicative of the fact that their therapist doesn’t get them or see things as they see.
  3. The worst case scenario may not just be that the client will quit therapy without any significant results but that as a result of this confrontation they might not want to go to another therapist as well.

Way forward

It is thus imperative for the therapist to guide the client to access their emotions at their own will rather than forcing them into doing so.

The therapist also needs to make sure, though over a period of time, that the client doesn’t simply talk about their feelings but also experience the same.

Before the client experiences these feelings, it is important to help them develop the required skills and emotional maturity.

How therapists can help clients move past intellectualization?

  1. Intellectualization: Are you a procrastinator when it comes to feelings?The mental health professional needs to first teach the client certain ways of relaxing and coping in the face of hardships. When this is done, the client automatically falls into a better position to deal with the anxious feelings that gush in with confrontation initiated by the therapist. Under such situations if confrontation is used, it may yield comparatively better results.
  2. Another way of accomplishing this task is by making use of free association (corrective therapy & SVIT™ are techniques we recommend for this) and leading the client to stumble upon blockages which they’re not able to cognitively explain right away.
  3. To work it through then, the client has to engage in reflection of his feelings. Helping the client acknowledge their true feelings and impulses felt in response to a traumatic event as well as coaching them in relaxation techniques & coping skills can be done using techniques from Hypnosis and Neuro-Linguistic Programming (NLP).
  4. One can also ask the client to write about their entire experience in detail. Writing requires more time than simply speaking. This means the client has to spend more time with the experience while writing it, thereby creating a greater scope for not only stating the experience but actually getting in touch with the emotions associated with the experience.
  5. Once the client gets in touch with these emotions and experiences the same; the therapist could begin with different techniques (like hypnodrama, circle therapy, submodalities, inner child therapy) help the client release these emotions.
  6. With the help of SOFT SEA and future pacing the therapist can also help the client identify and develop the skills required to move ahead in life.

If you would like to develop skills to help your clients move beyond intellectualization and other defense mechanisms, so that they can accept, acknowledge & resolve their problems do join us for our comprehensive course on Cognitive Hypnotic Psychotherapy™. It is a unique course that seamlessly integrates different apporaches to psychotherapy (cognitive, behavioural, psycho-dynamic and humanistic) with techniques from of Clinical Hypnosis, NLP, Mindfulness and Metaphors. The Program can literally help you take your therapeutic skills to the next level.