Dear Therapist:

I have been wondering about a friend who is very smart but is still struggles with motivation. He has been confiding in me recently but I think that he is very focused on philosophical reasons for his unhappiness, like the purpose of life, but doesn't pay enough attention to his emotions. It's hard to tell really but I am wondering if you could give me some pointers in how to steer him for the proper help. Thanks.



It sounds like your friend is intellectualizing his emotions. There can be various reasons for this. In many cases, intellectualization is a defense mechanism aimed at helping the person to deal with overwhelming emotions.

We all have defense mechanisms. They are typically developed throughout childhood to help us deal with those emotions that overwhelm us during our childhoods. Some common defenses are repression (refusing to feel anything about what bothers us), denial (refusing to admit that the issue exists), projection (of our feeling onto others), rationalization (of the reason for an emotion), and intellectualization (analyzing the problem to reduce or eliminate emotion).

The problem is that we tend to carry parts of these defenses into adulthood. To the extent that we do this, we are not allowing ourselves to properly acknowledge and deal with any emotions related to the issue.

In childhood, our defense mechanisms often serve a purpose. Since we are unable to grasp the entirety of the situation, it can seem much scarier than it is. We also have little control, and do not have mature, well-developed physical or emotional tools to handle emotions. Therefore, we feel that the only option is to use emotional defenses to essentially ignore our feelings.

As adults, however, we have much better options for dealing with emotions. However, some defense mechanisms (or at least vestiges of them) continue unchallenged. This is due largely to two factors. These defenses have been reinforced for so long that they have become second nature. Also, the fear associated with childhood experiences and reactions can easily be triggered in adulthood. Although these fears can often be easily dismissed from a conscious adult perspective, we often don’t get to the point where we can even consider them. As soon as the fear is triggered, our unconscious mind immediately puts our old defense into place. This prevents us from properly acknowledging the emotions, in turn preventing us from resolving them.  

You mentioned that your friend is very smart. Perhaps he generally relies on his intelligence to resolve problems. For logistical and practical issues, this can work well for him. However, emotions cannot typically be resolved solely with logic. Your friend may not even recognize that he is trying to deal with emotions; he may simply be approaching this as an intellectual exercise. If he can acknowledge the fact that his intellectualization is an attempt to resolve an emotion or emotions, he might then understand that he needs to allow himself to feel his emotions in order to appropriately deal with them.

-Yehuda Lieberman, LCSW

  psychotherapist in private practice

  Woodmere, NY

  adjunct professor at Touro College

  Graduate School of Social Work

  author of Self-Esteem: A Primer / 516-218-4200


The contents of this blog, including text, graphics, images, and other material are for informational purposes only.  Nothing contained in this blog is, or should be considered or used as, a substitute for professional medical or mental health advice, diagnosis, or treatment.  Never disregard medical advice from your doctor or other qualified health care provider or delay seeking it because of something you have read on the Internet, including on this blog.  We urge you to seek the advice of your physician or other qualified health professional with any questions you may have regarding a medical or mental health condition.  In case of emergency, please call your doctor or 911 immediately.  The information contained on or provided through this blog is provided on an "as is" basis, without any warranty, express or implied. Any access to this blog is voluntary and at your own risk.