Emotional pain is not an easy thing to handle for many people, especially emotionally sensitive people. Emotional pain that is too overwhelming often causes people to resort to the use of defence mechanisms. One of those defence mechanisms that people with OCPD are likely to use because of their dominant “left brain” is intellectualization.

People with OCPD primarily use intellectualization to cope with their difficult feelings.



This defensive style is a cousin to “Isolation of Affect.” Feelings are not allowed into consciousness. Instead, issues are discussed in a hyper intellectual manner. Everything is examined from every possible point of view. Everything is taken seriously; humor does not seem possible. A person who intellectualizes seems to rob life of its spontaneity and replaces it with an exaggerated sense of seriousness and microscopic scrutiny. (taken from “The Caller’s Coping Styles“)

Most people with OCPD are so accustomed to using intellectualization to cope with their difficult feelings that they do not realize it is a defence mechanism that is not shared or very well understood by the majority of the world. Consequently, it causes so much disunity and frustration between them and their loved ones.

Having successfully comforted themselves with the use of this defence mechanism for so long, most people with OCPD cannot think of any other way for their loved ones to comfort them. People with OCPD hope that their loved ones would partner with them in their intellectualization, help them in their logical reasoning and problem solving, and celebrate with them when they figure out the answer. In other words, many people with OCPD want their loved ones to join in on their use of their defence mechanism. This, of course, rarely happens.

What happens instead is that their loved ones give the kind of comfort that usually works on most people. They might say “don’t worry, you’re going to be ok.” To this, those accustomed to intellectualization will feel compelled to ask “how?” and “why?” as those are the questions they always begin with in their attempt to comfort themselves. Their loved ones may then take their best shot at an explanation. But being already ten steps ahead in the identification and analysis of all the different possible explanations (would you expect anything less from those who have been doing that for the majority of their life?), it is likely that people with OCPD have already considered the explanation suggested by their loved ones. In much of the same way that they wrestle with their own reasoning, people with OCPD will then wrestle with the reasoning of their loved ones. Although this just happens to be the OCPD way in which they eventually reach their comforting “truth,” their loved ones most likely take it personally when their reasoning is rejected in the process. The loved ones then conclude that people with OCPD are just too argumentative and impossible to comfort. When it is apparent to people with OCPD that their loved ones have given up trying to comfort them, people with OCPD then revert back to what they have always been used to: they go off on their own, work out their pain in isolation, and tell themselves that the only people they can count on are themselves.

People with OCPD who habitually intellectualize their own feelings often do not know any other way to comfort others as well. Out of genuine care, they may intellectualize their loved ones feelings. This, however, does not bring comfort to most people. The loved ones may wonder, “Why does he seem so disconnected from my emotions?” “Why is he unable to just empathize with me?” “Why does he turn my feelings into some emotionless law case?”

In the end, because of intellectualization, both sides are left feeling sad (or even angry) that the other is so incapable of providing the needed form of comfort.


Focus on the heart of your loved one. He or she cares about you and his or her intention is to comfort you. Whatever he or she advises, even if the logic is so flawed, accept it with delight. Understand that your loved one will most likely take it personally if you disagree with and rip apart his or her reasoning. Do that in your own head in silence (with a smile on your face) if you are going to do that at all. If your loved one is going through difficult emotions and needs you to comfort him or her, resist your urge to intellectualize his or her feelings. Remember, even though this defence mechanism makes you feel better, it does not make the majority of people feel better. It can make them feel much worse. If your loved one is unable to specify how he or she would like to be comforted, try to comfort him or her in the way that most people would feel comforted by. Show concern, emotion, and empathy. Feel the pain with him or her. Tell him or her that he or she will be ok. Let him or her vent out whatever he or she wants to say (even if it all comes out unstructured, illogical, and imperfect). Do not correct him or her. Hold him or her in your arms. Be there for him or her.

If you are going to give your OCPD friend any reasons, explanations, or advice, make sure to give the ones that encourage him or her to experience his or her difficult feelings. Any other reason, explanation, or advice will encourage your OCPD friend to make use of his or her defence mechanism. Whatever reasons, explanations, or advice you give, understand that your OCPD friend’s analysis of your reasoning is simply his or her own unique way of trying to find comfort through working out a final answer. If he or she disagrees with you, do not take it personally – this is just what he or she does in his or her own mind all the time. Try to imagine that his or her disagreement with your reasoning is bringing him or her that much closer to the truth that he or she is trying to figure out through a process of elimination. If it appears that your OCPD friend wants to be comforted by your participation in his or her intellectualization, you can still participate by asking questions and listening. But as soon as you can (probably best idea not to do it while your OCPD friend is experiencing difficult feelings), discuss with your OCPD friend the consequences of intellectualization and have him or her understand the importance of resisting the urge to use this defence mechanism.

Completely removing this defence mechanism without replacing it with another one is not recommended if it is the only coping method you have to handle your difficult feelings. In order to soften the blow, you may want to lean on other healthier defence mechanisms (see “Mature Defence Mechanisms“) in the meantime. Choosing to resist the urge to intellectualize your difficult feelings will require you to first recognize the complications it causes on you and your relationships.

This defence mechanism is not helpful to you. It keeps you weak. It steals your opportunity to grow stronger and develop your ability to endure more difficult emotions in the future. It causes you more frustration and anxiety. Who knows when you will be able to figure out your “truth” through the stressful process of reasoning that you take? It may take forever. It keeps you in anguish until you find that answer you are looking for. Is it really worth it all? It also keeps you feeling very lonely. It limits the kind of people that can comfort you. The only people who can comfort you are those who are as good as you or better in logical reasoning. Good luck trying to find them. Do you not want to find refuge in your loved ones? Does it not ache your heart that your loved ones feel hopeless?

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13 thoughts on “Intellectualization

  1. Jeremy says:

    very good, I wish you would also write something about when the OCPD intellectualizes the partners feelings also.

  2. Aaron says:

    Through Dan’s writing, I’d also like to share a piece of advise on this one… everything happens for a reason, try something new… not trying to explain everything… expect less and appreciate more 🙂

  3. Joel says:

    Too often, I try to document my “intent” to my partner after I intellectualize her feelings of injury at one of my mordant utterances or my feelings of self-defensiveness when she states I am impossible to live with. No matter how forensically “true” my intent was, it does not repair her hurt feelings or make me less defensive.

  4. I loved this post! I never thought of it that way, that it might be my defense mechanism and that other people may not share it. WoW!
    To me, it seems like something everyone could and would be doing! But now… I am trying to imagine a person, who gets little stimulation from the world… Everything must seem sooooo dull for him… It also explains, how such a person can endure a life of miserable occupation. It is not so horrible for him! It causes only mild dissatisfaction. It can easily be offset by some positive stimulation or focusing on other things, or numbing it down with booze. It also explains, why it takes people half their lives to finally acquire a disorder with building up anxiety and why such a person is surprised of the symptoms or crazy ideas in their heads. That is because they got used to numbing it down. After a few consecutive tries, the anxiety comes back strong and fast for me.

    However, I don’t agree that intellectualization should be stopped. It is a way of copping. This way we reduce emotional strain. Otherwise, we would end up cutting ourselves to numb emotions with pain. The problem is that people don’t do it right. They intellectualize (verbalize their emotions) the problem, they find the clash of beliefs, but feel powerless to change anything, because no one handed them the tools for the job. Most often, intellectualization stops at the point where a clash point is detected. You find two separate groups of people and their beliefs opposed to each other in your head. It’s not even your fight. You could start taking sides, trying to fight the other part out of your head, but that really isn’t the issue. The issue is that those people entered your head in the first place. They stuck you when you were most vulnerable – when your operational thinking hadn’t even formed – when you were still a kid. You had no defenses.
    The answer is pushing all the people out of your head and stop slaving for any group. This is where intellectualization becomes powerful. All the great minds did it! How do you think Freud came up with his theories? He felt them out? Noooo…
    How about Adler? Also, huge books of ideas; not feelings.
    How do physicists or mathematicians calculate equations? By feelings? I would think not.
    Intellectualization came into human lives every time new challenges were accepted, every time new problems needed solving and surviving. Now, our society has settled down for a rest in the computer age of plenty (at least the sheep did). Raising a child is no longer thought as important. Why would you need people to take care of you when you grow old, when you have the pension and could also make a fortune in your lifetime? The reflex of sex has this bad side-effect of pregnancy. Sometimes this happens. When it does, the child need to raise himself. He needs a way to learn the world on himself, because the parents don’t care. This is where intellectualization comes in.

  5. Grace says:

    Daniel, I have truly enjoying the articles on OCPD. You have enlightened me and helped me learn about and understand my boyfriend who has OCPD. I have some questions to ask you and I would like to know the best way to contact you. Would you have time to hear me out, share your insight into our situation and offer advice to me? Thank you!

  6. Chianti says:

    Daniel, this is too good. I have intellectualized things my entire life. It causes great distress and pain. I thought it had to be a gift but now I see it for what it really is. Its not a gift or healthy defense mechanism. I hope to employ healthier ones as soon as I learn more.

  7. Kathryn Arnold says:

    I’m having the very best time finding myself in your articles. You not only know me, you know me better than I know myself … and, coming from me, that’s saying quite a lot.

    One thing you didn’t mention that can be (and in my case often is) a significant element of this trait is the careful use of vocabulary…just exactly the right word to the greatest degree of accuracy for the nuances of the concept being expressed. Gets downright tedious when I’m in full defense mode! When I later re-read things I’ve written while in this state I squirm at how stilted and pompous I can sound. It makes it easier to see how I put people off… at the very least it’s boring and at the worst it’s an aggressive challenge to others to keep up with my train of thought. I had no idea why, really, I do it…and I certainly had no idea what, if anything, I could do about it.

    I have high hopes of making new strides in altering the way I relate to others, based on what I’m learning in this blog. Thank you, thank you, thank you.

  8. Abdul says:

    Having been using intellectualization for a long time thinking it’s just normal, how do I differentiate intellectualization from just normal analyzation/reasoning/discerning?

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