Intellectualization

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Intellectualization is a defense mechanism where reasoning is used to block confrontation with an unconscious conflict and its associated emotional stress, by ‘using excessive and abstract ideation to avoid difficult feelings.’ It involves removing one’s self, emotionally, from a stressful event.

Intellectualization may accompany, but ‘differs from rationalization, which is justification of irrational behavior through clichés, stories, and pat explanation.’ It is one of Freud’s original defense mechanisms. Freud believed that memories have both conscious and unconscious aspects, and that intellectualization allows for the conscious analysis of an event in a way that does not provoke anxiety.

Intellectualization is a ‘flight into reason,’ where the person avoids uncomfortable emotions by focusing on facts and logic. The situation is treated as an interesting problem that engages the person on a rational basis, whilst the emotional aspects are completely ignored as being irrelevant. In ‘On Negation’ he described clinical instances in which ‘the intellectual function is separated from the affective process….The outcome of this is a kind of intellectual acceptance of the repressed, while at the same time what is essential to the repression persists.’ Freud also described an unsuccessful analysis which ‘went forward almost without any signs of resistance, the patient participating actively with her intellect, though absolutely tranquil emotionally…completely indifferent.’

Anna Freud devoted a chapter of her book ‘The Ego and the Mechanisms of Defence’ (1937) to ‘Intellectualization at Puberty,’ seeing the way the ‘increased intellectual, scientific, and philosophical interests of the period represent attempts at mastering the drives and the connected emotions’ as relatively normal. She considered that only ‘if the process of intellectualization overruns the whole field of mental life’ might it be ‘already pathological.’ Jargon is often used as a device of intellectualization. By using complex terminology, the focus becomes on the words and finer definitions rather than the human effects.

Intellectualization protects against anxiety by repressing the emotions connected with an event. A comparison sometimes made is that between isolation (also known as ‘isolation of affect’) and intellectualization. The former is a dissociative response that allows one to dispassionately experience an unpleasant thought or event. The latter is a cognitive style that seeks to conceptualize an unpleasant thought or event in an intellectually comprehensible manner. It allows one to rationally deal with a situation, but may cause suppression of feelings that need to be acknowledged to move on.

Vaillant divided defence mechanisms into a hierarchy of ‘immature defences, neurotic defences and mature defences…Immature being less healthy than neurotic.’ The process of intellectualization ‘- we might imagine doing something violent without the violent feelings that would normally accompany that’ – he placed among the ‘neurotic defenses…which are typically used by mid-range people.’ In such a perspective, ‘Intellectualism and rationalization…bridge the gap between immature mechanisms and those of maturity and often persist into adult life without leading to any overt problems.’

Rather less approbationally, English paediatrician Donald Winnicott considered that erratic childhood care could lead to ‘the overgrowth of the mental function…we find mental functioning becoming a thing in itself, practically replacing the good mother and making her unnecessary.’ As a result, ‘Winnicott seemed to imply…the figure he calls ‘the intellectual’ is always retaliating, always backing a grudge’; and that ‘a compulsive preoccupation with intellectual knowledge is an attempt to mother the self exclusively with the mind…emotionally impoverishing.’ Something similar may be found in the character structure described by Bulgarian-French philosopher Julia Kristeva, whereby ‘symbolicity itself is cathected…Since it is not sex-oriented, it denies the question of sexual difference’; whilst Freud had long since indicated how in the obsessional ‘the thought-process itself becomes sexualized…The very high average of intellectual capacity among obsessional patients is probably also connected to this fact.’

One answer to such over-intellectualization may be the sense of humor. Richard Hofstadter suggested that what was needed to prevent the intellect from ‘being exercised in an excessively rigid way…i[s] the quality I would call playfulness.’ It may be no coincidence that ‘Vaillant quotes Freud as saying: ‘Humor can be regarded as the highest of these defensive processes!’

In analysis, ‘a certain kind of resistance consists in the patient always being reasonable and refusing to have any understanding for the logic of emotions,’ while at the same time there are ‘intellectual resistances in which patients try to refute the theoretical validity of psychoanalysis instead of seeking to clarify their own mental life.’ Again, Freud found that there were ‘patients who practice the art of sheering off into intellectual discussion…who speculate a great deal and often very wisely about their condition and in that way avoid doing anything to overcome it.’ Such intellectualizations of the therapy may be part of wider manic defenses ‘of overwhelming importance, since they are primarily directed against the experience of psychic reality, that is, against the whole aim of the analytical process’; while a further difficulty may be that, as intellectual defenses give way and feelings do emerge, ‘the patients, not accustomed to affects, are easily frightened by their new experiences.’

On the other hand, it may possibly be a technical error on the part of the therapist which ‘deflects from the patient’s experience of feelings towards thinking about feelings…This invites the patient to intellectualize.’ The result may be intellectual but not emotional insight: ‘Intellectual insight is usually classified as an OBSESSIONAL DEFENSE since it enables the subject to understand and control elements of himself from which he remains alienated.’ Nevertheless, despite all such difficulties, Jung may have been overly harsh when he said that ‘the most difficult as well as the most ungrateful patients…are the so-called intellectuals…the intellectual still suffers from a neurosis if feeling is undeveloped.’

Freud’s theory of psychoanalysis is a formidable intellectual construct. However the roots and the nature of his intellectual theoretization have themselves been the subject over many decades of fierce controversy. To the less sympathetic eye, ‘the legacy of Freud’s [1890s] neurosis was an extraordinary intellectual grandiloquence…he was a conquistador. His self analysis had laid bare universal truths’; while in the process ‘Freud had developed an autocratic, antiempirical intellectual style’ to expound them.

Others however would valorise the self-same features. ‘The intolerable scandal in the time before Freudian sexuality was sanctified was that it was so ‘intellectual,’ wrote Lacan approvingly, who claimed to ‘recognize bad psychoanalysts…by the word they use to deprecate all technical or theoretical research…’intellectualization.” Lacan himself – with his ‘grafting of an ambitious philosophy of ‘the human’ on to an argument purporting to be a contribution to the study of specific mental disorders’- was of course exposed to exactly the same charge: ‘My own conception of the dynamics of the unconscious has been called an intellectualization – on the grounds that I based the function of the signifier in the forefront.’

Freud himself made no bones about his ‘sort of greed for knowledge’; knew well the process whereby ‘research becomes to some extent compulsive, a substitute for sexual activity.’ He was aware too of the tension in his work between speculation and restraint – ‘the succession of boldly playing imagination and ruthlessly realistic criticism.’ He would probably also have accepted the description of ‘Freud’s habitual thought pattern of going from a minute detail to a high-level abstraction and back again to detail,’ as well as of ‘Freud’s characteristic propensity for turning crushing defeat to brilliant intellectual advantage.’

With the slow shift in psychoanalysis from the way ‘one model seems to stress intellectual understanding’ to the way ‘the other model more clearly acknowledges the value of a patient’s emotional experience in the analysis,’ so too there has been an increasing willingness to look at the ‘Defensive-Restitutive Function of Freud’s Theory of Psychosexual Development.’ We can then perhaps see more clearly the extent to which ‘his elaboration of psychoanalytic theory…corresponded to a setting up of obsessional defences against depressive anxiety’ – his need ‘to defend himself against [it] through such a degree of intellectualization.’

Examples of intellectualization: A) Suppose John has been brought up by a strict father, and he feels hurt and angry as a result. Although John may have deep feelings of hatred towards his father, when he talks about his childhood, John may say: ‘Yes, my father was a rather firm person, I suppose I do feel some antipathy towards him even now.’ John intellectualizes; he chooses rational and emotionally cool words to describe experiences which are usually emotional and very painful. B) A woman in therapy continues to theorize her experience to her therapist – ‘It seems to me that being psycho-analyzed is essentially a process where one is forced back into infantilism…intellectual primitivism’ – despite knowing that she ‘would get no answer to it, or at least, not on the level I wanted, since I knew that what I was saying was the “intellectualizing” to which she attributed my emotional troubles.’ C) A person who is heavily in debt builds a complex spreadsheet of how long it would take to repay using different payment options and interest rates, rather than attempting to understand and then stop his urge to overspend his money. D) A man with ‘an ambiguous conflicted relationship with a female colleague…generated a list of 12 different thoughts and descriptions of their previous interactions. One of these items, titled ‘Info on her,’ had its own list of 12 facts.’ Thus he ‘controlled his feelings by compiling facts and ‘data.’ His problem list and the lists within the list were a way of gaining an illusion of control over difficult feelings.’

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