Intellectualization is one of Freud's original defense mechanisms. Freud believed that memories have both conscious and unconscious aspects, and that intellectualization allows for the conscious analysis of an event in a way that does not provoke anxiety.
I am frequently accused of engaging in intellectualization by my psychotherapists. "You intellectualize too much. You need to talk about your feelings," many of my therapists say.
There is a humorous
I find that psychiatry residents seem to misapply or over-apply the term "intellectualization" to any thoughts expressed by a patient that are lacking in feeling. Psychiatry residents appear to be unaware of other defenses or thought processes that resemble intellectualization but are in fact different.
The ego defense of isolation:
Isolation is a defense mechanism in which the memory of an unacceptable act or impulse is separated from the emotion originally associated with it. A patient will voice his thoughts about acts or impulses, but his thoughts will lack any emotion. I exhibit massive splitting and isolative defenses, but not once in my years of psychotherapy has a therapist mentioned my reliance on splitting or isolation.
Where an individual's synthetic functioning, a libido-derived function, is highly developed, the individual will be impelled to harmonious unification and creativity in the broadest sense of the term. The individual will be impelled to simplify, to generalize, and ultimately to understand--by assimilating external and internal elements, by reconciling conflicting ideas, by uniting contrasts, and by seeking for causality. Campbell, R.J. Psychiatric Dictionary (entry for "ego"). The intellectual products of an individual's synthetic functioning can be mislabeled as "intellectualization." Synthetic functioning, unlike intellectualization, splitting, and isolation, is not an ego defense; rather it reflects the replacement of primary process thinking by secondary process thinking. Therapists need to be clear on the distinction between synthesis and defense.
The Developed versus the Under-Developed Ego:
In psychotherapy the emergence in the patient of intense and primitive feeling early in the therapy can be an indicator of serious mental illness. Such a circumstance is frequently encountered in patients with borderline personality disorder.
Kernberg has pointed out that regression to a stage of intense feeling in patients with highly-developed egos can take a lot of time, work and willingness to regress on the part of the patient. In such patients, the resistance to regression is a mark of a well-developed ego; their reliance on abstracted intellectual states should not be described simply as defensive intellectualization.