Intellectualism as a Coping Mechanism

Photo courtesy of Illinois State University.

Today in therapy, I realized I’ve been using intellectualism as a coping mechanism. That is, I’m able to intellectually articulate, understand, and be aware of my emotions, mental health, depression, and suicidal ideation, but that in intellectualizing it, I’m distancing myself from those things as a way to cope. It is the reason why I can and did rhapsodize about the need to end the stigma around mental health, but suffered from that very stigma in my personal experiences. It is the reason why I can and did convey Brené Brown’s penetrating point about the power of vulnerability, but have difficulty displaying vulnerable emotions in a real world setting.

That was one of those eye-opening moments in therapy today. I always sort of understood I had a certain … contradiction in my head between what I said about stigma versus how it affected me, but the beauty and power of therapy is that sometimes it takes someone saying it in a particular way at a particular time to arrive at that moment where it all clicks.

As for why the need to cope through intellectualizing or otherwise, I think early on when I was still a teen and then into my early 20s, I saw intellectualism as the pathway to “beating” depression. That I could “outthink” it. That if I only got intellectual enough about it — reduced it to its rational parts, to paraphrase my therapist — then I could control it and overcome it. But that was always silly thinking because I was going into the “fight” unprepared. I didn’t yet have the mental tools necessary to take on depression and I certainly didn’t have the mental tools necessary to take on suicidal ideation later on.

But there is more to it, I think. Intellectualizing as coping also means not sitting with uncomfortable emotions or feelings or experiences or even fully identifying what it is I am experiencing. For example, my connotation for the emotion “anger” is negative, and more than that, that experiencing anger is a moral failing of some kind. This, despite knowing intellectually that anger as an emotion and as a feeling is valid and that, for example, trying to suppress that valid emotion in children is unhealthy. As my therapist pointed out, the problem isn’t the emotion itself — all of them, anger, happiness, sadness, etc. are neutral in and of themselves — but what we do with those emotions. So, if someone is feeling angry and then uses that anger to punch someone, that would be wrong. However, if they use that anger to fuel a work-out or a blog post, then that is a positive form of catharsis of that emotion.

Being intellectual is not enough. In a way, it lulled me into a safe space where I thought I was strong enough and capable enough of overcoming emotions I saw as “wrong” and of overcoming a literal disease of the mind in depression (and later, suicidal ideation). Instead, as Brown might say, I needed to truly be vulnerable … with myself. And graceful … with myself. And to put aside the ego within myself, who thought I could intellectually handle it.

Anyhow, I highly recommend therapy. If you find the right therapist, it is far more effective and worthwhile than I think people realize.

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