Your way of coping with the world is to intellectualize. You use your logic to talk yourself out of feeling a certain way. You’re able to stay away from the vulnerabilities inside by managing the situation with reason, problem solving, logic, and planning. Sounds pretty good, right? What could go wrong?
Intellectualizing feelings often means you’re telling your anxieties that they don’t make sense. Rather than creating space for that worry, you’re able to come up with reasonable explanations. That rude comment your friend made? No biggie, he’s having a bad day.
When you attend therapy, you can remain logical. You can list details about the traumatic event. It all feels matter of fact. No need to cry big tears about these things; it’s all in the past. In fact, it’s quite annoying that the therapist keeps asking about your feelings. You just want some tips and tools so you can move on.
Your logical brain is brilliant. It quickly steps into problem solving and reasoning. It figures out how to get rid of crummy situations and feelings. It’s a beautiful defence mechanism. The problem, however, is that the tough emotions and vulnerabilities don’t go away. No amount of logic actually fixes this problem.
The positive intentions behind intellectualizing feelings
Before we dive in, let’s take a look at what this logical brain of ours is trying to do. Internal Family Systems therapy recognizes that this pattern of intellectualizing as a part. Meaning, it is a part of our personality with its own agenda, fears, and perspectives. Sometimes, intellectualizing is a manager part that is trying to prevent a vulnerability from getting triggered. For example, you need to have that awful conversation today to ask your partner to help out more around the home. This stresses you out because you know it may lead to conflict. Rather than dealing with your fears of conflict, your intellectualizing part starts planning instead. It comes up with a schedule for what needs to get done, who will do what, the acceptable quality of completed chores, and so forth.
Sometimes, this intellectualizing part plays a firefighter role. It jumps in to extinguish those extreme emotions and vulnerabilities when they are triggered. For example, your baby is up for hours howling and refusing to go to bed. Your mind starts spinning about how you’re a terrible parent and how you’re not cut out for this whole newborn phase. Your intellectual part steps in to put out the fire and settle your insecurities. It goes down the Google rabbit hole of researching sleep training ideas.
This pattern of intellectualizing is a protective attempt to reduce the vulnerability underneath. We don’t have to sit with our our fears of conflict or deal with our insecurity of being a lousy parent. This logical part is aware that addressing these vulnerabilities feels too challenging. So, it comes up with a way to rationalize out of the situation. Having a plan feels more comforting than sitting with distress. So, how could this possibly go wrong?
What happens when you suppress feelings
Our vulnerabilities don’t go away just because we’ve intellectualized our feelings. While coming up with a plan may feel like we’re addressing the issue, we’re not actually getting to the root of the matter. Sure, your logical part may have a bunch of wonderful ideas, encouraging you to take a deep breath, see things differently, or research further. Doing these steps, while helpful, does not stop your heart from pounding, your mind from racing, or that sense of dread from taking over.
Unfortunately, your head cannot win over your heart forever. Despite using logic to push away or minimize emotions, that vulnerability keeps coming back up. If we’ve been suppressing these insecurities for a long time, they tend to erupt out of us in the most inconvenient ways. Despite sleep training research, you feel overwhelmed with helplessness whenever you’re around the baby. Irrespective of the chores list, you become fraught with guilt and start to doing everything yourself. That resentment towards your spouse continues to fester and grow.
This is the hardest consequence of using logic to address our emotions. While coming up with a coping plan works in the short-term, that vulnerable feeling is still left unaddressed. Those feelings keep showing up, reminding us over and over again that we still feel awful. We are simply pushing aside our fears for one more day, without actually dealing with those feelings.
When intellectual parts try to lead therapy
Sometimes our intellectual parts know therapy. They’ve been in enough sessions that they have a strong understanding of how they ought to be thinking or behaving. These parts will pipe in with comments like: “I know I should be more compassionate towards myself,” or, “If only this anxious part stopped showing up, I know things would get better.”
Our logical parts are really helpful and aware. They have good insight, and it’s important we listen to them. However, when they lead therapy, little transformative work gets done. Knowing something is different from feeling it. I can say, “I should be more self-compassionate”, but it doesn’t mean I have an iota of self-compassion when I’m anxious, or overwhelmed, or scared. Often times, these intellectual parts share feedback of what is the logical next step. But, rather than create change, these comments lead to more frustration that change is not happening. We rarely see improvement or healing despite knowing what to do.
Working with your intellectualizing parts
Get to know their fears:
Take some time for self-reflection. What is it that this logical part fears will happen if you get to the messiness underneath? Is it worried that you will become overwhelmed? Does this part feel like it’s pointless to review the past? Is it worried that others will judge you if you become emotional? When we understand why this intellectual part is stepping in, we can better support its fears and concerns.
Work with the fears in a safe way:
Once you understand the fears that trigger these intellectualizing parts, you are more aware of what is needed to build safety. This step will look differently for each person. For example, if your intellectualizing part is worried you’ll be judged if you were to open up, this part may remain cautious until the other person has gained your trust. One possibility is to open up about safer topics and see how the other person reacts. This helps your intellectualizing part continue to monitor for judgment. When it receives enough evidence that it’s okay to open up to this person, it will step back.
Addressing the core wound:
Until the underlying vulnerabilities are resolved, our protective system will want to keep protecting. This means actually working with the parts that feel like a lousy parent and the parts that fear conflict. The way to support these wounds will vary depending on the therapist you meet. The modalities I use to address these wounds include EMDR and IFS. These are just two therapy styles and there are many other options that different clinicians will take to work through these difficult, stuck points.
If you have any questions about the above details, reach out for a free consult. Your intellectualizing parts are working over-time. Therapy can offer a safe way to work with your intellectual parts and the vulnerabilities they are trying to protect.