Intellectualisation is a psychological defence mechanism which serves as an escape route from interacting on an emotional level with others, and the outside world in general, into the refuge of ‘the life of the mind’. People who employ this defence mechanism, then, prefer to ‘live in their heads’, finding participating overly in the harsh and unforgiving reality of the outside world somewhat distasteful and, therefore, best, as far as feasible, avoided.
Research shows that people who rely upon this defence mechanism tend to have had disrupted early relationships with their primary carer, especially the mother. Indeed, the psychologist, Winnicott, stated that a compulsive need to gain knowledge could be regarded as a kind of self-mothering – knowledge standing in as a substitute for the mother’s love/care/attention/interest (of which the individual was deprived).
Intellectualisation can also be viewed as a type of dissociation, leading the individual to suppress/repress his/her emotions. This can be problematic as it is usually necessary to feel, and process, emotions connected to one’s childhood trauma in order to fully resolve one’s psychological difficulties that have arisen as a result of it.
The early traumatic experience of not forming a secure attachment to their primary caregiver disrupts affected individuals’ ability to self-soothe in response to stress, and this inability can persist into adulthood.
As a result, such persons’ sympathetic nervous systems can become ‘stuck’ in a permanent and highly debilitating state of overarousal (I, myself, suffered from this for many years – it can be quite agonising).
Alongside this tormenting state of hyperarousal can often exist an unrelenting and merciless sense of profound dread (even though one is often unable to pinpoint why this should be so
The overarousal will inevitably manifest itself somatically and physiologically (i.e. in the body) leading the individual with the need to dissociate, and disconnect, from his/her body and escape into a ‘life of the mind.’ Interacting with others also leads to extreme psychological discomfort.
Therefore, those who suffer in this way will often choose careers involving solitary academic work, computer programming etc. which minimises the need to mix with other people. Or they may become philosophers, possibly becoming great thinkers.
These individuals also tend to be exquisitely vulnerable to the effects of further stress in their lives and can feel like a frightened child forced to masquerade as a functional adult.
They tend, furthermore, to have a weak and hazy sense of their own identity and, as a result, their work can become vital to them as a way of bolstering this poorly formed sense of who they are.
Most distressingly, too, such people often suffer from a deep inner conflict involving, on the one hand, being very frightened of interacting with others, yet, on the other, feeling a profound need to do so. So, they find themselves in the no-win situation of needing intimacy but being unable to tolerate it due to the level of psychological discomfort which it affords them.
As a result, those affected in such a way tend to feel utterly ’empty’. They will usually be aware that their compulsion to follow intellectual activities does not solve this problem, yet be too scared to change their focus in life.
David Hosier BSc Hons; MSc; PGDE(FAHE).
Holder of MSc and post graduate teaching diploma in psychology. Highly experienced in education. Founder of childhoodtraumarecovery.com. Survivor of severe childhood trauma.