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  • Writer's pictureEmily Powell

Therapy for “Intellectualizers”

Have you ever noticed a strong urge to “make sense of,” to “rationalize,” and to “understand” your experiences? Maybe you are in talk therapy, trying to understand the “why’s” behind your life’s questions. Because if you “make sense of” something, maybe it will get better? Or you will feel lighter?


We can call this need to understand the “intellectualizer” part. Many of us (including myself!) have this protective intellectualizer part that works hard to rationalize our experiences. This part of us often strives to find answers and resolutions in order to take us away from the pain of the experience itself. In other words, if we just think hard enough about the reason for things, we can kind of avoid feeling the things at all.


Like other protective parts of us, the intellectualizer aims to keep us far from pain and vulnerable emotions. The intellectualizing part swoops in to keep distance from our exiles (raw, painful, young parts of us).


The intellectualizer likes to keep things in the head, rather than felt in the body. For folks who have experienced trauma, staying in the rational mind can feel much safer than feeling sensations in the body.


Let’s flesh out an example…  


Say you’re a young adult in therapy. You have built a relationship with your therapist and you start feeling more comfortable to explore some of your past experiences that have led you to seek support.


You begin exploring your relationship with your mother, who is emotionally immature. For context you share that, as a kid, you were constantly trying to establish harmony in the house. You stepped in as a Little Psuedo Parent, taking care of your younger siblings, and always trying to appease mom. If you kept everyone else calm, maybe mom would stay calm too. You constantly walked on eggshells and shut off any of your needs in service of keeping mom’s emotions at bay. It was during this time, your intellectualizer part began developing. You learned to make sense of mom’s body language, behaviors, and movements so that you could try to prevent any emotional explosions from ensuing.


While discussing your mom with your therapist, you are entirely disconnected from your emotions. You rattle off the facts, and you share that the reason for your mom’s emotional immaturity was because of her own parents. You name that you have done research on Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, and you “get” why she was the way she was as a mom. You feel like you have fully made sense of your experiences from a factual standpoint.


Ding, ding, ding. There’s the intellectualizer part! Do you see how it made an appearance as soon as something emotionally vulnerable was prompted (i.e., relational pain and strain with mom)?When you began thinking about your relationship with your mom, the part came to the rescue and named facts, reasons, and answers as to why your relationship is the way that it is. But, you were disconnected from actually experiencing and feeling the pain of the emotion. Oftentimes, it can feel more manageable to keep things cognitive and intellectual than it can to truly feel the pain of the experience. Paradoxically, feeling the pain can often help move you through the pain.


Maybe you are someone who has experienced this. Maybe you have been in talk therapy for a while, and feel like you have “talked” all about it, but haven’t felt like you are connected to it.


So, how can we support this protective part of you? Or, as the intellectualizer part might think… “what do we do about it?”


Experiential and somatic approaches can be really supportive for our intellectualizing parts. Internal Family Systems (IFS) is one of these approaches that dives deeper than traditional talk therapies and works on building a relationship with the intellectualizing protective part that is working so hard to protect us from pain. Like working with other parts of us in IFS, we learn about this part, what it feels like in or around our body, where it came from, how old it is, how it is trying to protect us, and so on. By building our understanding of how our inner system is fighting to keep us safe and protected, we develop a deeper sense of connection and compassion, and from there, we often feel a deeper capacity to truly connect with what’s happening inside of us from a state of curiosity and clarity.


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