The Fine Line Between Self Awareness and Intellectualization

Intellectualization, lady holding finger up to her head.

If you’ve read self development books, been to therapy, studied psychology or follow emotional intelligence, therapy or trauma informed accounts on social media, chances are you’ve developed a good deal of self awareness about your “stuff”.

We’ve all been handed experiences or circumstances in our lives that are traumatic or deeply challenging in some way, and learning about the impact of that is CRUCIAL if we want to break generational chains, so we can live and do better.

There is a point of diminishing returns when all we have is an intellectual understanding of it. However, staying in an intellectual place about it can be a defensive strategy in disguise.

Sometimes this is what’s actually in the way of making progress. Let’s break this down.

First, what is Intellectualization?

It’s a defense mechanism. The APA dictionary of Psychology defines it as a defense mechanism in which conflicts or emotional problems are dealt with abstractly or concealed by excessive intellectual activity. This means that in order to avoid emotions that are uncomfortable or cause stress, people use intellectualization to reason about a problem.

Defense mechanisms are unconsciously employed when thoughts or emotions are too overwhelming for the psyche. They are protective mechanisms and if you’re human, you use them. The goal is to know about what they are and which ones you use regularly. (check out our previous blog post for more info on this)

How do you know if you’re intellectualizing rather than simply being self aware?

One way to know if you are intellectualizing is if you feel disconnected from what you’re talking about. For example: you tell a story about a traumatic or challenging experience, but you feel nothing. 

Self awareness is when you can evaluate and manage your emotions and behavior and understand how you come across to others; you are connected to your emotions and can identify them. 

“Intellectualizing emotions, then, is the process of giving emotions to the mind by articulating the emotion — the why and what, the potential causes, the related thoughts and cognition — rather than just feeling it.”  (Derisz, Ricky. “What does it mean to intellectualize emotions?” Goal Cast. www.goalcast.com/intellectualizing-emotions/)

If you feel like you’ve told the story a million times and still don’t see where it’s having an impact in your life. You might say “the past is in the past”.

If you often say things like “I have abandonment issues” and nothing really changes, it might be because understanding them and referring to that understanding is the bulk of the work you’ve done around those issues.  The result of iIntellectualization is staying stagnant. The next step is to work through the feelings you have associated with it. This requires practice.

What to do about it?

First of all, it’s huge to have self awareness in the first place, now you’re just going to build on that.

Notice when you get triggered. Being triggered means you have an emotional reaction to something and it is more than just feeling a little uneasy.  

“Feeling triggered isn’t just about something rubbing you the wrong way. For someone with a history of trauma, being around anything that reminds them of a traumatic experience can make them feel like they’re experiencing the trauma all over again.” (Cuncic, Arlin. “What Does It Mean to Be ‘Triggered – Types of Triggering Events and Coping Strategies” Very Well Mind. March 10, 2022. www.verywellmind.com/what-does-it-mean-to-be-triggered-4175432)

A trigger can come from within (internal) or it can come from your environment (external). It’s OK if you don’t understand your reaction, but notice when it happens. The feeling causing the reaction is the connection point. This is where you can actually make a difference.  For example: if you have abandonment issues, you might feel really triggered when someone doesn’t respond to your messages.  Working with those feelings (rather than just knowing it came from your childhood) is what makes the real difference.

A therapist can help with this. A therapist might do some somatic strategies with you to support you in completing emotion. Or it might be helpful to do artwork (we do art therapy here at One Heart with Registered Art Therapists) to process triggers or emotions or suggest ways to approach healing behaviorally so you can learn to respond to triggers in a more healthy way.

Make sure you are not just using labels like, “well, I self abandon” and then just stop there as if that’s how you’ll always be. Once you have self awareness, it’s important you work with that awareness so you can grow through your experiences rather than simply repeat them.

It can feel so good to understand why you do what you do, which is why it is so helpful to learn about human behavior, trauma, relationship dynamics and attachment styles. Just make sure you don’t stop there with just understanding. It will simply be a cute concept and there will be nothing different, or worse; you “get it” but you still find yourself repeating the same patterns. Then you’ll  feel like all your effort to become self aware doesn’t even make a difference. 

It absolutely makes a difference, there’s just a next step you need to move on to.

Practicing self-awareness will help you become more intentional in how you interact with others and how to live an empowered life. Intellectualization will result in avoiding problems and not allowing yourself to feel necessary emotions so that you can move forward.  Developing healthier coping skills can take time and effort.  Contact us today, we can help!

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