Monday, February 2, 2015

Intellectualization: Defense mechanisms by Sigmund Freud

Intellectualization Defense Mechanism

Intellectualization is a defense mechanism where reasoning is used to block confrontation with an unconscious conflict and its associated emotional stress where thinking is used to avoid feeling. It involves removing one's self, emotionally, from a stressful event. Intellectualization may accompany, but is different from rationalization, the pseudo-rational justification of irrational acts.

Intellectualization 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.

Therefore, intellectualization works to reduce anxiety by thinking about events in a cold, clinical way. This defense mechanism allows us to avoid thinking about the stressful, emotional aspect of the situation and instead focus only on the intellectual component.

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 Concept Development

A common starting point when dealing with the history of the concept of defenses is Freud’s conception of defenses in his 1926 text “Inhibitions, Symptoms, and Anxiety”. There, Freud describes, what is often considered to be the prototypical defensive process, which, he argues, unfolds in several stages. First, a forbidden sexual or aggressive impulse is awakened in the id. The ego un-consciously anticipates dangerous consequences of that impulse, such as loss of love, abandonment, castration, or moral reproach. The anticipation of danger produces so-called signal anxiety, a twinge of discomfort that alerts the ego to the incipient threat. To eliminate that discomfort, the ego attempts to jettison the dangerous impulse and its derivatives from consciousness. The ego’s strategy in doing so is what Freud called defense.

Although Freud does not discuss intellectualization, as such and never actually used the term, he does address the related defense of isolation of affect during discussions of obsessional symptoms. When the obsessional is faced with an uncomfortable experience, Freud maintains, “The experience is not forgotten, but, instead, it is deprived of its affect, and its associative connections are suppressed or interrupted so that it remains as though isolated and is not reproduced in the ordinary processes of thought”. Freud links such “isolation” with the normal phenomenon of intense concentration of thought in which distractions are excluded from attention. Part of any obsessional symptom, Freud is saying, is an effort to exclude unpleasant urges from full awareness by removing their affective charge. The result is the deadpan, emotionless presentation of the obsessional neurotic.

In J. D. Salinger’s famous book “The Catcher in the Rye”, its adolescent protagonist, Holden Caulfield, has an idealistic vision of children in a rye field in danger of falling off a cliff into the evils of adulthood, and of himself as a protector who must catch them before they fall. A common reading of Holden’s idealistic vision is that the child in danger of falling off the cliff is in fact Holden himself, and that the fantasy represents Holden’s unconscious conflicts about growing up. Similarly, for Anna Freud the decisive feature of intellectualization is that it is a process in which a patient masters unconscious conflictual material by translating it into abstract ideas that are within the sphere of conscious control - in Holden’s case, the idea of the catcher in the rye. Anna Freud describes intellectualization as a process in which the ego attempts to gain control of the instinctual drives using thought. To protect itself from overwhelming impulses, the ego “translates” these impulses into abstract ideas. For instance, an adolescent’s feelings about relationships may be intellectualized as philosophical ideals about friendship and loyalty. An important feature distinguishing intellectualization from ordinary thought is that intellectualization is not an attempt to solve external problems but an effort to master internal drives. Consequently, intellectualized thinking is often strikingly impractical and unrealistic. This process of translation consists in a “connecting” of unconscious impulses to thoughts that can be addressed in the conscious mind.


1.       A person who has just been diagnosed with a terminal illness might focus on learning everything about the disease in order to avoid distress and remain distant from the reality of the situation. The doctor may eventually join in, for example, using 'carcinoma' instead of 'cancer' and 'terminal' instead of 'fatal'.
2.       A woman who has been raped seeks out information on other cases and the psychology of rapists and victims. She takes self-defense classes in order to feel better (rather than more directly addressing the psychological and emotional issues).
3.       A person who is in heavily debt builds a complex spreadsheet of how long it would take to repay using different payment options and interest rates.
4.       Rather than confronting the intense distress and rejection, a person feels after his/her roommate suddenly decides to move out, he conducts a detailed financial analysis of how much he can afford to spend now that he is on his own. Although he is not denying that the event occurred, he is trying not to think about the emotional consequences of the lifestyle change.
5.       A man has been brought up by a strict and tyrannical father, and he feels hurt and angry as a result. Although he may have deep feelings of hatred towards his father, when he talks about his childhood, he may say, "Yes, my father was a rather firm person; I suppose I do feel some antipathy towards him even now". So, he intellectualizes; he chooses rational and emotionally cool words to describe experiences, which are usually emotional and very painful.
6.       A person, who is involved in sex with 13-year-old minor girl, may even try to justify it by showing statistics that children legally marry adult men in some cultures and even such things have happened in history.

Defense Hierarchy

George Eman Vaillant, an American psychiatrist and Professor at Harvard Medical School and Director of Research for the Department of Psychiatry, has divided defense mechanisms into a hierarchy of defenses ranging from immature through neurotic to healthy defenses, and placed intellectualization - imagining an act of violence without feeling the accompanying emotions, for example - in the mid-range, neurotic defenses. Like rationalization, intellectualization can thus provide a bridge between immature and mature mechanisms both in the process of growing up and in adult life.

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