Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Intellectualization, Psychoanalysis and The Jews

Intellectualization is a defense mechanism where reasoning is used to block confrontation with an unconscious conflict and its associated emotional stress, by 'using excessive and abstract ideation to avoid difficult feelings'. It involves removing one's self, emotionally, from a stressful event. Intellectualization may accompany, but 'differs from rationalization, which is justification of irrational behavior through cliches, stories, and pat explanation'.

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 anecdote about intellectualization involving Freud. One of Freud's patient's -- himself a Jew -- said to Freud, "Jews are over-intellectualized; it was Jung who said, for example, that psychoanalysis bears the mark of Jewish over-intellectualization." "So much the better for psychoanalysis then!" said Freud.

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.

Synethetic Functioning:

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.

Ego Strength 

Individuals at a high level of ego strength will tend to engage in abstract thinking: that reflects ego strength not defensive intellectualization.

Individuals at a low level of ego strength will be reactive emotionally, changeable, affected by feelings, emotionally less stable, and easily upset.   In therapy, the emotionality of these individuals is not a virtue; it does not reflect cooperation with the therapist's injunction to talk about feelings.  Rather, it reflects a low level of ego strength.


Gary Freedman said...

Incidentally, Carl Jung was an anti-Semite.


Gary Freedman said...

Note that where a psychiatrist offers the observation that a patient intellectualizes rather than assess the content of a patient's narrative for material of therapeutic value, the psychiatrist is engaging in intellectualization.

The term "intellectualization" is a technical term of art: an intellectual construct. Psychiatrists should avoid technical terms of art in therapy.