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A young female in a pink shirt and jeans on her phone. She intellectualizes instead of feeling her feelings.

Signs You’re Intellectualizing Instead of Feeling Your Feelings

6 min.

Intellectualization is a defense mechanism used to stop feeling negative emotions. Keep reading to review the signs of intellectualization and learn tips for processing emotions healthily.

By: Dr. Rasna Kaur Neelam

Clinically Reviewed By: Don Gasparini Ph.D., M.A., CASAC

September 18, 2023


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Table of Contents

What is intellectualization? 

Intellectualization is a psychological term describing a tactic meant to “defend” ourselves against negative emotions. Here’s how it works: Instead of allowing ourselves to feel, express, and process negative emotions after something bad happens, intellectualization involves concentrating only on logic and reasoning. By setting aside difficult emotions, our mind uses intellectualization to remove itself from the stressful event, trigger, or thought. 

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What does intellectualization look like? 

Here’s an example of what intellectualization may look like:

Vera is abruptly dumped by their partner of two years, whom they loved very much. A few weeks later, a friend asks how they’re doing after the breakup. Vera says they have been taking self-help tests about compatibility and communication in relationships and learned they weren’t a good match with their ex-partner. The friend—who knows how painful a breakup can be—is happy Vera is doing well but is surprised they didn’t have more to say about their feelings. 

In this case, Vera is intellectualizing their breakup. They are using self-help tests about compatibility and communication to rationalize the breakup, focusing solely on the logical reasons for the split instead of their feelings about losing someone they loved. In this case, intellectualizing is a way for them to avoid the pain that the breakup likely caused. 

Is intellectualization healthy or unhealthy?

In short, it depends. Intellectualization can sometimes be a healthy coping strategy, but it can also be an unhealthy tactic to avoid emotions. If a person doesn’t have the time or space to process challenging feelings, intellectualization can be a healthy way to set the emotions aside temporarily. Later, at a more convenient time, when they have the right support system, they can process the feelings. 

For example, think about a nurse who had to deliver negative test results to a patient’s family. Because they have to see other patients, it may be tough to process their difficult emotions of grief and sadness. Instead, they might intellectualize the situation—thinking about survival rates and reviewing different medications that the patient can take. Then, when they get home, they can talk with their family about how the case made them feel. In this case, intellectualization is a useful tool to help the nurse get through their day. 

However, intellectualization can become unhealthy if a person never confronts the negative emotions they are pushing aside. These feelings will build up and can cause or worsen mental health conditions like anxiety, mood disorders, and panic disorders. Returning to the example above, if the nurse works in an emotionally demanding ward like an intensive care unit—where painful situations constantly arise—they could experience burnout, anxiety, or depression if they continuously intellectualize and ignore their feelings.

What are other defense mechanisms? 

As mentioned, intellectualization is a “defense mechanism,” otherwise known as a way that our mind reacts to try and shield us from distressing or negative news and feelings. According to psychiatrist George Eman Vaillant, defense mechanisms fall into one of four main categories: mature defense mechanisms, neurotic defense mechanisms (the category under which intellectualization falls), immature defense mechanisms, and psychotic defense mechanisms. He posits that some of these defense mechanisms are healthier than others. Keep reading for examples of each of the four kinds of defense mechanisms and ask yourself which you recognize in your own behavior or the behavior of those around you.

Mature defense mechanisms

Neurotic defense mechanisms

Immature defense mechanisms

Pathologic defense mechanisms

Healthy and take years to form

Have short-term advantages but can be harmful in the long term

Unhealthy and often make people tough to deal with

Unhealthy and often point to larger mental health concerns

Mature defense mechanisms

Mature defense mechanisms are considered the healthiest among the four main defense mechanism categories. These defense mechanisms, though, often take years to form. Examples of mature defense mechanisms include: 

  • Altruism: Serving others to bring them joy
  • Anticipation: Planning for future discomfort 
  • Humor: Allowing negative feelings to become something funny

Neurotic defense mechanisms

The defense mechanisms that fall into this category can have short-term advantages but be harmful in the long term. As mentioned, intellectualization falls under this category. Other examples of neurotic defense mechanisms include: 

  • Displacement: Redirecting a harmful feeling into something healthier 
  • Repression: Preventing the negative emotion from entering our minds 
  • Reaction formation: Convincing our minds that we feel the opposite of the negative feeling

Immature defense mechanisms 

Immature defense mechanisms are unhealthy and often seen in people with personality disorders or mood disorders. These defense mechanisms may make people challenging to interact with. Examples of immature defense mechanisms include: 

  • Acting out: Being disruptive without knowing why
  • Passive-aggressive behavior: Indirectly expressing hostility  
  • Projection: Shifting one’s thoughts or feelings onto another person 
A young female in a black jacket and grey shirt. She is learning about intellectualization.

Pathologic defense mechanisms

Pathologic defense mechanisms are abnormal and unhealthy ways to process any difficult emotion. As with the immature defenses listed above, pathological defense mechanisms are unhealthy and often a sign of larger mental health concerns. Examples of pathological defense mechanisms include:

  • Delusional projection: Holding onto beliefs that are clearly false 
  • Denial: Ignoring or refusing to accept reality 
  • Distortion: Coming up with fake truths to make oneself feel better 

How to stop intellectualizing your emotions

As mentioned above, intellectualization can be a helpful defense mechanism in some circumstances. And, as shown in the list of defense mechanisms above, it isn’t inherently harmful. However, it is not sustainable to use intellectualization and rationalization continually instead of dealing with your feelings—they will come up one way or another. Knowing how to address painful emotions or situations head-on is important, as they are a part of life. Here are some tips for how to stop intellectualizing your emotions and learn to strike a balance between rationalization and processing. 

Lean on trusted loved ones

When you find yourself intellectualizing your difficult feelings and struggling to express them, leaning on people you trust can be helpful. It can be hard to be vulnerable or share negative feelings that you’re dealing with, but talking openly with friends and family members can help lighten the mental load. These trusted people can listen and help you process your feelings. By leaning on a trusted loved one, you can learn to express your feelings and reduce the need to use intellectualization as an unhealthy defense mechanism.

Practice self-care 

Self-care plays a crucial role in managing painful emotions and reducing reliance on intellectualization. Establishing daily routines and practices that promote relaxation can help you connect more with your feelings—whether that’s trying a mindfulness meditation, taking a bath, or going on a walk. When you care for your body and mind, you may find it easier to connect with and express your feelings directly rather than depending on intellectualization as a coping mechanism.

Learn about healthier defense mechanisms 

Not all defense mechanisms are created equally, and some can actually help you process your feelings in a healthy way. Consider educating yourself on healthy defense mechanisms, like the mature defense mechanisms mentioned above, and see if there’s a way for you to cope with difficult feelings other than intellectualizing. 

Seek therapy

Working with a licensed mental health professional can help you understand why your brain works the way it does—including why you tend to intellectualize your feelings. A therapist can help you explore the underlying causes, past experiences, or thought patterns contributing to this rationalization behavior. Through therapy, you can develop a deeper understanding of your true emotions and learn healthier ways to process and express them, ultimately reducing the need for intellectualization.

Moving beyond intellectualization at Charlie Health

It’s important to process your feelings, and if you’re struggling with intellectualization and want to get more in touch with your emotions, Charlie Health is here to help. Our virtual Intensive Outpatient Program (IOP) combines group sessions, family therapy, and individual therapy to help young people who need more support than once-weekly therapy. Fill out this short form to get started today.

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