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  5. If you're not making progress in therapy, you might be intellectualizing your emotions. Here are 3 signs, according to a therapist.

If you're not making progress in therapy, you might be intellectualizing your emotions. Here are 3 signs, according to a therapist.

Kim Schewitz   

If you're not making progress in therapy, you might be intellectualizing your emotions. Here are 3 signs, according to a therapist.
  • The label 'intellectualizer' describes people who analyze emotions, rather than feeling them.
  • It's a coping strategy from childhood environments where expressing feelings felt unsafe.

The label 'intellectualizer' has taken off on TherapyTok to describe a person who understands their unhelpful patterns, but can't change them.

You could be one if you have trouble accessing your emotions.

According to Trisha Wolfe, a Michigan-based therapist who specializes in developmental trauma, it's a coping strategy that people can develop during childhood in response to an environment where expressing feelings doesn't feel safe.

It's known in therapy circles and online as intellectualizing and can lead to problems like feeling disconnected from others, feeling empty, and difficulty feeling present in the moment, she told Business Insider.

Although he never used the term himself, the idea comes from Freud's theory that some people separate their thinking mind from their emotional experience as a defense mechanism, she said.

A child may start intellectualizing their feelings rather than allowing themself to feel them if, for example, they had very emotionally reactive parents whom they felt they had to walk on eggshells around.

It could also be a strategy to avoid being bullied or reprimanded by authority figures or peers by only showing emotions that they deem acceptable.

In essence, it means rather than feeling your emotions in your body, you retreat into your mind to think or reason your way out of them, Wolfe said. You might fixate on understanding why you're feeling this way, why the upsetting situation has occurred, and what you can rationally do to resolve it.

She shared three signs that you might be intellectualizing your feelings and how you can start to feel safe enough to feel them.

You're pragmatic and want to understand the why behind everything

Intellectualizers approach things through a logical, rational lens, Wolfe said. They tend to deal with challenging situations by analyzing, making lists, and creating a plan of action.

If, for example, an intellectualizer's loved one dies, they might throw themselves into planning the funeral and sorting out their estate rather than crying and grieving. Sometime later, they may experience a flood of emotion, Wolfe said, but it will likely feel so overwhelming that it's shortlived and triggers them back into intellectualizing.

Resorting to books and spreadsheets to resolve their emotional problems is also common for intellectualizers, she said.

In one viral TikTok that has 260,000 likes at the time of writing, a therapist impersonates an intellectualizer who says she understands "the why behind everything she feels and does," but can't move past it.

Her way of coping is through extensive research. She even jokes that she considered going to school to study therapy not because she wanted to work in mental health, but because she could learn as much as possible about the different types of therapy and how the brain works.

You appear calm and put together but don't feel that way on the inside

People who are intellectualizers typically appear put together and calm, Wolfe said. "They look so well and so smart and so intelligent, they never show that anything is wrong," she said. This is similar to people with high-functioning depression or anxiety, whose lives often seem perfect on the outside.

That might be why Wolfe said it's common for an intellectualizer client to come to her after they've "graduated" from another type of therapy, but say they still feel stuck in their old patterns.

"These therapists are saying, ' You're good, and you're done, ' but they still don't feel right. They still can't connect, or feel their emotions, or be present," she said.

People with these tendencies may have trouble with therapies such as cognitive behavioral therapy because they involve analyzing thoughts and behaviors—something they've already spent much of their lives doing.

"They'll come in, the therapist will say, here's this CBT worksheet, now go look at how your thoughts impact your behaviors. And they're thinking, I already know how my thoughts impact my behaviors. I already understand that, but what am I supposed to do about it?" she said.

Wolfe recommends therapies that focus on feeling bodily sensations and integrating different parts of yourself, such as Internal Family Systems or the Neuro Affective Relational Model.

"The goal of therapy shouldn't be to force you to feel your feelings. The goal of therapy should be to support when you're feeling safe enough that you want to feel your feelings."

You feel emotionally disconnected from people and things in your life

Feeling a sense of emptiness or disconnection could be a sign you're intellectualizing your feelings.

"You can think about your life and you can think, this is my five-year plan and I'm going to be getting married, I'm going to be getting this job, I'm buying a house, I'm putting money in my 401k, but you never actually feel this sense of happiness, joy, connection to what you're doing in your life," she said.

You may also feel disconnected from the people around you and as if you're putting on a role or wearing a mask in conversations. You're responding normally but you don't feel fully authentic or present because you're thinking too much and you're "stuck in your head."

"You have what you want in your life. You have friends, you understand things, but you feel a little bit empty," she said.

Intellectualizing is a protective strategy, not a fault

It's important to remember that intellectualization is an adaptive protective strategy, and separate from who you are as a person, Wolfe said.

"It is a way that you protected yourself and kept yourself safe for whatever reason in your life. There isn't anything wrong with you if you are an intellectualizer."

Although it's a challenging place to be and it can feel hopeless, Wolfe said she has seen many people learn to feel their feelings safely. It just takes time and practice, she said.