In this series on defenses, denial and intellectualization represent subtle but damaging paths we sometimes follow to opt out from the realities of our lives. Defenses in general are ways of coping to alleviate anxiety. The problem is that the results of not facing problems often causes far more anxiety in the long run.
We can close our eyes for a time or squint at signs of illness, for example, until the reality of symptom s forces us out of denial to deal with conditions far more challenging. Denial is facilitated by procrastination as we tell ourselves we will definitely look at a situation at a later time. Anxiety may seem to be temporarily pushed back but has its ways of cropping up at 4 am or in a cloud that seems to always be hanging overhead. Denial ceases to be protective and increases feelings of being overwhelmed and unable to take action. One of the most empowering of human experiences is the breaking through of the inertia of denial and facing the dreaded reality head on. Supportive therapy can be an important help in getting the process started.
Intellectualization is another way of opting out by trying not to feel our feelings. It is like looking at life in the third person. Our emotions are important indicators of what is and what is not working in our lives and explaining them away is not helpful for emotional and physical health. When we intellectualize we tell ourselves that theoretically we shouldn’t feel anger because our parents, for example, were doing the best that they could or that somehow we are responsible. Or, we tell ourselves that a loss was “for the best” without feeling the very real grief. Intellectualization sometimes looks like rationalizing as we choose to opt out of examining our own motives and explain away rather than face why we are doing what we are doing.
Theories about defenses can be helpful, though tedious, in giving ourselves vocabulary to talk about how we negotiate life. Every time we find the courage to open our eyes and overcome fear of anxiety, the easier it is to live confidently.