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Intellectualization as Emotional Avoidance

Questions I hear as a therapist when people are experiencing emotions:

How do I make this emotion stop?

How do I make this go away?

This thing happened so long ago why am I feeling this way?

What good is this feeling?


I'm a therapist but also a human being. And I don't have any magic answers for making feeling emotions any easier. Because the reality is, sometimes feeling the feelings is just HARD. Often times the best thing we can do for ourselves when we are experiencing powerful emotions is to identify (with words and body sensations) them, hold nonjudgmental space for them, and allow them to run their course. We don't need to change them, make them go away, or sometimes, even understand them fully.


Intellectualization

Stack of textbooks on a distressed table in a white room

Identifying our emotions is only part of actually processing an experience. And to be clear, often times, if people haven't been taught about emotions (emotional intelligence), identifying/labeling emotions can be really hard. If no one has ever talked to you about where you feel an emotion in your body or how to describe the sensations, this concept might feel foreign and silly. Let's slow down a minute though. Think about the last time you felt really angry or frustrated by something. What did the muscles feel like in your body? What was your body temperature like? Did you have an urge to get up and move or crack your knuckles? All of these sensations give us clues as to what we are actually experiencing and are just as important to acknowledge as the label of "angry".


For those who like to have order in their lives, the why or reason connected to an emotion can sometimes become a sticking point.

If there is an identifiable reason for why an emotion comes up, then the thought is that we can do something about it.

Understanding the reason for an emotion is useful for identifying triggers.

The why is meant to give us information to take care of ourselves.

But in the moment, the why is not always the most helpful thing to focus on.


Just because you can identify and understand logically why you are experiencing an emotion, does not make that emotion go away or even reduce the intensity. Emotions demand to be felt. So simply identifying and understanding what brought up an emotion doesn't actually help us move through it. It would be lovely to expedite the emotional process we all have if we could just logic our way through it. Humans would "act out" a lot less frequently and feelings wouldn't be hurt so often.


My ice cream cone fell in the dirt.

My eyes are watery and I have a pit in my stomach. I am sad my ice cream is gone.

Makes sense. The end. No more sadness. Onto the next thing.


Avoidance

Ice cream cone with pink wrapper melted on the pavement.

When we expect to be able to acknowledge the feeling briefly, then justify it with logic before making it "go away" we are intellectualizing. People intellectualize (a defense mechanism) as a way to try to protect themselves from feeling the full impact of an emotion. If you've ever really let yourself feel a big and strong emotion, you know just how powerful it can feel. So, sometimes, people will try to avoid feeling "out of control" of their emotions through intellectualization. It's important to remember that just because we suppress something in the moment, doesn't mean it's gone away for good.


Putting emotions in the very back of our mental file cabinet or on the top shelf in our mind out of view doesn't actually allow us to let go of those emotions. It just gives them a holding place until they are noticed once more. That's because emotions don't only exist in our mind, they live in our body too. We NEED to FEEL them to release them. To move through emotions we need to give them space. Space in our minds and our bodies. We also need to give them time to be felt and honored.

There is no way to rush the process.

Emotions will take as long as they need to.

I understand that there are some emotions that can feel unpleasant for people, I think we all have different ideas of which ones are harder to sit with based on our experiences and as a result react more strongly to avoiding some emotions compared to others. Ultimately though, feelings are going to stick around (even subconsciously) until they are processed.


Emotion Acceptance

Brunette woman wearing a white shirt with finger nails painted red, with her hands crossed over her heart.

We are unable to be in our emotions when we are focused on using our logic. And as hard as it can be to sit with emotions, it is equally as hard to deal with strong emotions days, weeks, months, or even years after something occurs. Intellectualizing only delays the inevitable--emotions making themselves known. Here are a few tips for dealing with your emotions.


  1. Name the sensations in your body and just focus on them without pushing them away or judging them. Emotions and sensations run their course and then move on. Be patient.

  2. Talk to someone in your support network who can hold space for you. I emphasize hold space because this person doesn't need to fix or reduce the emotion, they just need to be willing to be with you as you experience it.

  3. Give yourself a hug. Sometimes it just feels nice to have some compassionate touch when we are feeling overwhelmed. If a self-hug doesn't feel right, you could try putting your hand on your heart or some other comforting touch.

  4. Embrace the emotion and allow your body to do whatever it needs to expel the energy from the emotion (ie: run, yell, cry).


Feeling your emotions is HARD work. And we live in a society that doesn't allow us a lot of time or space to be human. Make sure you are making that time for yourself.


Brooke Halliday, MA, LPCC

Owner of Redbird Counseling

Certified EMDR therapist


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