What Does It Mean To Intellectualize Emotions?
It can become a form of suppression.
Emotions don’t fit into cookie-cutter templates. There’s a reason many parts of emotional life find their expression in forms of art, poetry, film, or music, that taps into an energy, and a feeling, beyond words. Rather than words or labels, emotions are often a mixture of all shades of color, co-existing, creating their own subset of feeling, existing in a moment, only to disappear, with the clear canvas of awareness remaining in the background.
Despite this, a core element of emotional intelligence and self-awareness is the ability to identify, and label, basic emotions. It can be surprisingly difficult to accurately say “I’m sad” or “I’m angry” or “I’m jealous.” Learning the language of emotions, and then translating that language into words, is a skill in itself.
Psychologists use the term affect labeling. Increasing amounts of research demonstrates the benefit of affect labeling in emotional regulation, allowing us to become more intimate with the complex emotions within. Affect labeling is a skill and a way to comprehend and connect to emotion. But, sometimes, intellectualizing emotions is a way to avoid actually feeling them, by transferring them to the mind.
Let’s call this unaffect labeling. Unaffect labeling is a potential trap, particularly with people with high levels of self-awareness, or sharp minds. Read on to find out more.
Talking it out
Being able to talk through emotions, thoughts, and feelings is healing. Anyone who has turned to a friend or loved one during hardship, who has listened, and “held space,” will know the feeling. Talking things through is transformative. It’s as if the energy of emotions, in transferring them from body to mind, frees them up. When, then, does intellectualizing emotions become a problem?
Giving the intellect a problem to solve
The Western world is top-heavy. We’ve got an abundance of clever people who have well-nourished, overactive intellectual qualities, with less connection to instincts, intuition, or feeling. As the saying goes, feelings are there to be felt. Even though feeling the feels, and processing emotionally, always leave you better off than where you began, it can be challenging to connect to emotions for all sorts of reasons.
Perhaps you feel you shouldn’t experience a certain emotion, that you’re too sensitive, or that the reason you’re upset isn’t valid. Perhaps sadness during a time of positive change, or jealousy for someone you care for deeply, doesn’t correlate to who you wish to be as a person. So, you judge the emotion with the mind. And in judging it, you suppress.
The intellect has been pedestalled and elevated as the ultimate indicator of intelligence, wisdom, and human evolution. I personally see humanity at the peak of the cycle of development, with the intellect, the most recent development, reaching its peak. Soon, the challenge will be to re-harmonize and rebalance the intellect with the heart, the body, and the soul.
Part of the pedestalling of the intellect (and accompanying practices such as reason and logic) is forgetting the intellect is part of a wider system. It has a role to play, but it’s not an emperor or tyrant of the inner life. Spiritual traditions have been reminding us of this for thousands of years. Many virtues don’t come from the mind or reason or logic, they are embedded in the heart and come through the act of compassion or care.
When moving toward greater wholeness on the path of growth, the intellect finds its place, in harmony with the emotional and spiritual forces that reside within. The intellect can be an ally, as it is with talking therapy or affect labeling. Or it can be an enemy, or if that word is too strong, in opposition to feeling what is there to be felt.
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. The irony with intellectualizing emotion is that it’s usually done by people with high levels of self-awareness. The ability to find the words actually allows people to outsource the need to process in an embodied way, instead, theorizing or cognizing.
Finding the balance
This is not always a good thing. Often one’s first instinct, when feeling upset, is to immediately hand the problem over to their mind. What does the mind do? It likes to analyze, to problem solve, to dissect, to comprehend. Returning to the watercolor metaphor, it’s the equivalent of looking at an exquisite work of art, one that moves you to the core, through something ineffable… and immediately becoming an art critic, putting into words just why this form evokes what it evokes.
There’s a time and a place, but when imbalanced, intellectualizing moves you further away from feeling. Distancing is a skill. You want to avoid being at the whim of your emotions, always acting on impulse. Distancing is useful when you want to avoid being irrational or reactive, or want to make sense before taking next steps. But intellectualizing too soon, premature distancing, if you like, actually stops you from feeling, becoming its own form of suppression.
There’s a sweet spot to be found, largely through trial and error. But as a general rule of thumb, always keep in mind the question: what am I afraid to feel? Or, what am I being asked to feel, at this moment? This will open you up to a whole watercolor landscape or sensitivity, illogic, and paradox. That’s okay. A lot of our emotional life relates to the inner child, anyway, all it asks is to be honored.
How to connect to feeling
Intellectualizing emotions comes in many, many forms. When I’m not allowing myself to feel anger during a conflict, my mind will present thousands of ways I can win an argument, from picking holes in what someone else says, to witty one-liners, to replaying the argument again and again. When I’m not allowing myself to feel sadness, I’ll go into analysis paralysis, exploring all the reasons why I’m sad, coming up with detailed solutions-based outcomes, or trying to coach my way through.
Danish playwright Henrik Ibsen is famous for saying “a picture is worth a thousand words,” to describe how a single image can convey a much deeper meaning than language alone. When it comes to the inner world, a feeling is worth 10,000 words. The moment I connect to anger, or sadness, and truly feel it, words dissolve, and through the process, I see that those words were just misplaced emotional energy, expressed in a different form.
The messy first draft of thoughts is well over the word count, and more often than not, the only words I need are “I’m sad,” or “I’m angry.” Returning to the simple truth of feeling, without making it overly complex, saves a lot of time and energy. It’s the difference between affect labeling and unaffect labeling. To round up this difference, below are a number of pointers that work for me:
1. Begin with affect labeling
There’s no need to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Affect labeling, or in non-psychological terms, labeling your emotions, has many benefits. Consider where you’re at — do you find it easy to understand what you’re feeling? Can you identify and label emotions as they arise? Healthy examples include journaling about your emotions, or having open-hearted, vulnerable discussions where you attempt to explain what’s going on in your inner world.
2. Look out for analysis paralysis or over-explanation
Always keep in mind that emotional regulation requires collaboration between feelings and the intellect. Again, balance is unique to you, and a matter of trial and error. But you can identify if you’re intellectualizing emotions by being aware of your patterns and tendencies. Do you jump into problem-solving mode, rather than just feel the emotional impact of life’s ups and downs? Do you get stuck in rumination or overanalyzing your emotional life?
3. Observe without judgment
Mindfulness is all about observing your experience, which includes the sensations, feelings, emotions, thoughts, or mental images that arise, with non-judgment. Observation, or awareness, is crucial to avoid getting trapped in intellectualizing emotions, because you’ll be able to detect when this is the case. Ultimately, it’s a way to distract from, or avoid, feeling the feels.
Through observing, pay close attention to the emotion in the body. If you find yourself overexplaining or analyzing, pause. Ask yourself: what emotion is energizing this? See what response you get in your body. This is a common process in somatic counseling, which fuses mindfulness with other forms of talking therapies. Become curious toward what emotions feel like in the body.
Where in the body is the feeling located? Do you have similar thoughts when you experience the emotion? Does it move? If so, from where, to where? How? How does it affect your breathing? What are the individual sensations making up the greater whole?
4. Practice sitting with physical discomfort
Why do we outsource feelings to the mind? Because often, it’s more comfortable to play with ideas and thoughts, or work through storylines or assumptions, than connect to the base-level feeling. Another practice encouraged by meditation and mindfulness is the ability to tolerate discomfort. The more you develop a capacity to “sit with” anger, or sadness, the more you’ll avoid moving that energy upward, towards the mind.
Usually internalized from childhood, where you might have felt unallowed to feel certain emotions. Being reactive, saying things you later regret, or suppressing painful emotions, all comes from the same desire to avoid discomfort. Building tolerance to discomfort allows you to realize the fear of feeling is illusory, that the emotional landscape represents the occasional storm that, once expressed, makes room for clear skies.
5. Find the truth behind the energy of emotion
All emotions come from an essential form of energy, and like all laws fundamental to the universe, energy just wants to move, to be expressed. As spiritual traditions have taught, it’s our resistance to this energy that causes our greatest suffering, not the energy itself. To conclude, let’s turn to the words of Osho, a teacher who eloquently translated the language of emotions. His description of anger encapsulates this process:
“I don’t say anger is wrong, I say anger is energy — pure energy, beautiful energy. When anger arises, be aware of it, and see the miracle happen. When anger arises, be aware of it, and if you are aware you will be surprised; you are in for a surprise — maybe the greatest surprise of your life — that as you become aware, anger disappears. Anger is transformed. Anger becomes pure energy; anger becomes compassion, anger becomes forgiveness, anger becomes love. And you need not repress, so you are not burdened by some poison. And you are not being angry, so you are not hurting anybody.”