Wednesday, November 30, 2011

Intellectualizing about Intellectualizing

A loved one recently told me I was "intellectualizing" and my first reaction was to sort of know what she meant and feel both defensive (no I'm not, how can you say that!)  and embarrassed (I probably AM).  And of course, a bit hurt and off balance, as well. 

My second reaction was "but what does that actually MEAN?"  which probably sort of demonstrates the point.   Then after mulling it over for a few days, I went hunting for information on the term on the internet.... thus clinching the case.  I do intellectualize.   Still, it can be useful at times. I did learn something.   And I gained something out of what she said, which I might not have if I had just reacted simply with something like "How could you say that???"

So here's what I gathered:  

Intellectualization is a "flight into reason".   It's often associated with the use of jargon.   It differs from rationalization which strives to justify irrational activity.  Someone intellectualizes in order to consider an event or reaction without feeling the anxiety involved in the full experience.   It's a way of detaching or distancing.  

Some think it is associated with emotional impoverishment or unpredictability in childhood --  intellectual activity becomes a way to self-soothe, to regulate distress.   I suppose that aside from  that, if the family style is somewhat intellectual and a child perceives it, he or she may adopt that style of relating starting at a very early age.  In my case, I have always been very emotional, and often found emotional things very difficult to manage directly.   As a child, I didn't like the results when I did let my emotions loose.  Thinking gave me a certain amount of clarity while feelings alone were just disturbing, as often as not.   It might be as simple as that. 

Apparently the problem with intellectualizing is when it's used not just to modify anxiety or to gain perspective but in order to escape altogether from dis, or to repress emotion. 

While searching, I found another site that gives a list of coping mechanisms.   Wow, there's quite a list there.  There is a section on positive coping.   Because I wanted to know the difference between defensive mechanism and positive strategies, I read that carefully.

The way you cope positively is:  solve the problem, address the underlying root problem,  look for the benefits in the bad things (silver lining, making lemonade, etc), and  use the problem as a way to grow spiritually.   The basic idea with these positive mechanisms is that adversity becomes an opportunity rather than something that weakens you permanently.  So you find solutions, genuinely adapt or grow in response to the bad situation.

Following up on this idea and looking for ways to turn bad things to good, I found a PDF article on positive coping.    I haven't read all of it, but I thought there were some interesting distinctions here: 

Researchers have come up with two basic distinctions, such as (a) instrumental, attentive, vigilant, or confrontative coping on the one hand, as opposed to (b) avoidant, palliative, and emotional coping on the other . A well-known approach has been put forward by Lazarus (1991), who separates problem-focused from emotion-focused coping. Another conceptual distinction is between assimilative and accommodative coping, whereby the former aims at modifying the environment and the latter at modifying oneself (Brandtst├Ądter, 1992). Assimilative coping implies tenacious goal pursuit, and accommodative coping flexible goal adjustment.
I have only the vaguest idea of what might be meant here, but they seem to indicate different styles or approaches to coping.     The article goes on to talk more in detail about that idea of constructive problem-solving.  It seems to depend quite a bit on the confidence that one CAN modify one's circumstances (or at least, adapt to them).  

This still left me a little puzzled in regards to HOW intellectualization is maladaptive.  Couldn't you say that  it gives you more ways to problem-solve and grow?  For example, by this research, am I not finding various strategies and insights that could be helpful? 

I suppose a key phrase there is "could be".   For example, I am often aware that I am spinning my wheels when I go beyond what I could act on and into "information-gathering" mode.  I did that excessive information gathering a lot when I first began homeschooling.  I was anxious about such a new thing, and so to cope I would often research to the point beyond where it was helpful..  Some of the research was useful.    But using it for "comfort", beyond a certain point, was using the wrong tool for the wrong procedure.  I should ideally be researching in order to learn and not to alleviate anxiety (at least, not more than necessary -- so often motives are mixed and obscure in this sort of thing!)

I can also see where the intellectual approach  would be a problem when one person is looking for direct response and the other person is deviating into side tracks.  This would be frustrating for the first person because it's not really acknowledging the situation. 

Seeing that, I started wondering how I could do this differently in future.  I grew up thinking that when two emotional people confronted each other emotionally, usually nothing came of it but harm.  At the same time, I can see where trying to take the high ground and put an intellectual spin on relationship difficulties might just add to the problem.   So what does one do to meet conflict constructively, but without sort of dropping the ball by defensive tactics? 

 I went looking for information on coping with conflict, and found this.   Conflict is one of the types of stressors where many people use their least positive coping mechanisms, probably because different types of conflict are probably way back in the deepest experience of most people who have grown up in families.  

The basic idea seems to be that conflict should be done as constructively as possible.

The problem is, often conflict is very threatening.  Hardly anyone I know handles that kind of threat well.    In fact, what Tolstoy says about every unhappy family being unhappy in its own way seems particularly applicable in terms of relationship dynamics.   There are definitely patterns that you can see -- some people avoid personal conflict and others seem to seek it out, etc.  But everyone seems to bring their unique spin to it, and too often, it's fragmented bits and pieces from their basic temperament, their family's dynamics, and their reactions to their family dynamics, all so pre-rational that it's hard to even understand what is making oneself react in a given way, let alone the other person.   Very often, threatened people cling to a "right way" that isn't necessarily helpful, but that has been more or less engrained in them. 

I don't feel like I understand much better how to manage this tricky kind of life problem.  But I did get a better sense of how one might approach emotional things -- not by distancing from emotion OR getting submerged in it, but trying to figure out how to resolve things in a positive way, and looking at conflicts and life difficulties as things that can be helpful rather than just as dangers and drains to one's well-being.   Not that all conflicts can be resolved perfectly, but even with the ones that don't work out, sometimes you can still grow and become stronger in some way or another by tackling it rather than trying to put it at a distance. 

After writing all that, I feel a bit like one of CS Lewis's "Men without Chests."  He talks about how all the reasoning in the world won't help a man stand firm under fire, or rush into risk to help his buddy..  And that is very true.  I feel like my approach is rather roundabout; all the same, he didn't say never to think, only that reducing everything down to pragmatics left you without even something as pragmatic as good common sense. 


  1. Apparently the problem with intellectualizing is when it's used not just to modify anxiety or to gain perspective but in order to escape altogether from dis, or to repress emotion.

    Interesting... I'm still reading you. I thought I'd say hi!

    I will be reading that PDF. I read about Nietzsche too and enjoyed that post much. Modern or postmodern philosophy like art, I guess, it's as you say centered on the individual. Nietzsche makes for a good philosopher to get quotes, and as you say, there is always value in reading philosophies away from our own believes, but yes, don't expect them to put forth something after debunking. Postmodern thinkers are very chaotic, they are not in the order of things. A friend and I were talking about the Great Gatsby and modern literature, and she said that it's like throwing you into the mud and not even offering you a towel to wipe yourself a bit, that's the impression I get from literature and philosophy, and that's why most of us do not connect with modern art, it's too selfish and based on personal views, it doesn't give you the comfort and rest that you get, and the honorable effort you soak in when you enjoy art or literature or philosophy from prior times.

  2. Silvia,

    I liked your thoughts on postmodernism! For some reason I only saw the first part of your comment when it first posted.

    The PDF turned out to be a little bit jargony -- I had a hard time with it. But I think the research into positive coping is really interesting! Post-post-modern psychology has gotten more solution-oriented so I wonder if literature and philosophy will follow!

  3. I brushed over the pdf a bit... YES, IT'S TRUE, psychology has come a long way. My husband did something called the Linden method, and I was very happy to see it has left Freud behind. Not that psychoanalysis has nothing to offer, but it's to me more a culture now and not such a good solution oriented school of thought, as you say, I also wonder and wish that literature and philosophy follow, because I do not like the place where they MOSTLY reside today, or where I, in my small view, believe it resides.


I would love to hear your thoughts on this!