Intellectualization

Isolation of affect – the dissociation of thoughts and feelings, with the feelings then removed from conscious attention to leave only the thoughts – is closely related to intellectualization. In intellectualization, the uncomfortable feelings associated with a problem are kept out of consciousness by thinking about the problem in cold, abstract, and esoteric terms. First example: I once received a phone call from a junior doctor in psychiatry in which he described a recent in-patient admission as ‘a 47-year old mother of two who attempted to cessate her life as a result of being diagnosed with a metastatic mitotic lesion’. A formulation such as ‘…who tried to kill herself after being told that she is dying of cancer’ would have been much better English, but would also have been all too effective at evoking the full horror of this poor lady’s predicament.

Second example: An ambitious medical student once asked me whether she should take up a career in academic medicine, despite (or so it seemed) having already made up her mind on the matter. I raised some arguments in favour and then some arguments against such a move, in particular that only a very small number of people engaged in medical research ever make a significant discovery. As she did not seem to be taking this argument on board, I asked her to name just one major breakthrough from the past 50 years in the life of a particular top-rated medical research department. Instead of accepting that the department had not made a single major breakthrough in 50 years of publishing one academic paper after another, she resorted to questioning the definition of a breakthrough and then the value of making one.

Third example: After being discharged from hospital, a middle-aged man who had almost died from a heart attack spent several hours a day on his computer researching the various risk factors for cardiovascular disease. He typed out long essays on each of these risk factors, printed them out, and filed them in a large binder with colour-coded dividers. After having done all this, he became preoccupied with the vitamin and mineral contents in various kinds of food, and devised a strict dietary regimen to ensure that he took in the recommended amounts of each and every micronutrient. Despite living on a shoestring budget, he spent several hundred pounds on a high-end steamer on the basis that it could preserve vitamins through the cooking process. Although he expended an inordinate amount of effort, time, and money on his persnickety diet, he did not once consider even so much as cutting back on his far, far more noxious smoking habit.

The focus on abstract notions and trivial footnotes often belies a sort of ‘flight into reason’; the emotionally loaded event or situation is thought of in terms of an interesting problem or puzzle, without any appreciation for its emotional content or personal implications. Instead of coming to terms with the problem, the person may split hairs over definitions; question reasonable assumptions, facts, and arguments; and preoccupy himself with abstruse minutiae. By failing to perceive the bigger picture, he also fails to reach the appropriate conclusion or conclusions, which, as with our medical student or heart attack victim, may hit him very hard come five, ten, or fifty years’ time. Intellectualization can also underlie a number of logical fallacies and rhetorical blind alleys, such as raising irrelevant or trivial counter-arguments, rejecting an argument on the basis of an inaccurate example or exceptional case, using exact numbers for inexact or abstract notions, and ‘blinding with science’. In short, the person appears to be engaging with, and even to be excited by, a certain problem, but without ever truly getting to the bottom of it.

Isolation of affect and intellectualization should be distinguished from plain and simple isolation, which can be thought of as the inverse of intellectualization. Whereas intellectualization involves repressing the emotion but not the thought, isolation involves repressing the thought but not the emotion. The person feels a strong emotion, often breaking down in tears, but is entirely unable to point to its cause. After regaining his composure, he is likely to repress the emotion or its memory until – if he should be so lucky – it returns with a vengeance several years later.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

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Splitting as an ego defense

Whatever is done for love always occurs beyond good and evil. – Nietzsche

Splitting is a very common ego defense mechanism; it can be defined as the division or polarization of beliefs, actions, objects, or persons into good and bad by focusing selectively on their positive or negative attributes. This is often seen in politics, for example, when members of the Labour Party portray members of the Conservative Party as narrow-minded and self-interested, and conversely when members of the Conservative Party caricature members of the Labour Party as self-righteous hypocrites. Other examples of splitting are the deeply religious person who thinks of others as being either blessed or damned, the child of divorced parents who idolises one parent and shuns the other, and the hospital in-patient who sees the doctors as helpful and dedicated and the nurses as lazy and incompetent. An example of splitting in literature can be found in JD Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye. The main protagonist, Holden Caulfield, is mystified by adulthood. To help cope with his fear of becoming an adult, he thinks of adulthood as a world of entirely bad things such as superficiality and hypocrisy (‘phoniness’) and of childhood as a world of entirely good things such as innocence, curiosity, and honesty. He tells his younger sister Phoebe that he imagines childhood as an idyllic field of rye in which children romp and play, and himself as the ‘catcher in the rye’ who stands on the edge of a cliff, catching the children as they threaten to fall over (and presumably die/become adults).

Anyway, I keep picturing all these little kids playing some game in this big field of rye and all. Thousands of little kids, and nobody’s around – nobody big, I mean – except me. And I’m standing on the edge of some crazy cliff. What I have to do, I have to catch everybody if they start to go over the cliff – I mean if they’re running and they don’t look where they’re going I have to come out from somewhere and catch them. That’s all I’d do all day. I’d just be the catcher in the rye and all. I know it’s crazy, but that’s the only thing I’d really like to be.

In contrast to JD Salinger, Miguel de Cervantes uses splitting to great comical effect as his main protagonist, the self-styled Don Quixote de la Mancha, guides us through a world that he has repopulated with heroes and villains, princesses and harlots, giants and dwarves – with the heroes being the greatest, the villains the most cruel, the ladies the fairest and most virtuous, and so on. ‘Take care, your worship,’ cries Sancho Pancha, Don Quixote’s peasant-turned-squire, ‘those things over there are not giants but windmills.’ Splitting diffuses the anxiety that arises from our inability to grasp the nuances and complexities of a given situation or state of affairs by simplifying and schematising the situation and thereby making it easier to think about; it also reinforces our sense of self as good and virtuous by effectively demonizing all those who do not share in our opinions and values. On the other hand, such a compartmentalization of opposites leaves us with a distinctly distorted picture of reality and a restricted range of thoughts and emotions; it also affects our ability to attract and maintain relationships, not only because it is tedious and unbecoming, but also because it can easily flip, with friends and lovers being thought of as personified virtue at one time and then as personified vice at another (and back and forth). Splitting also arises in groups, when members of the in-group are seen to have mostly positive attributes, whereas members of out-groups are seen to have mostly negative attributes – a phenomenon that contributes to groupthink. Finally, it is worth noting that both fairy tales and the Church feature a number of sharp splits, for example, heroes and villains, good and evil, heaven and hell, angels and demons, and saints and sinners; and that the greatest characters of literature, such as the Achilles or the Odysseus of Homer and the Anthony or the Cleopatra of Shakespeare, contain large measures of both good and bad, with the one being intimately related to the other.

Adapted from Hide and Seek: The Psychology of Self-Deception.

Gnothi seauton: Mature ego defences

The Oracle of Delphi

Whilst no one can escape using ego defence mechanisms altogether, some ego defence mechanisms are thought to be more helpful or ‘mature’ than others. For example, if a person feels angry with his boss, he may go home and kick the dog (‘displacement’), or he may go out and play a good game of tennis (‘sublimation’). Sublimation is the channeling of negative feelings into useful activities such as study, sport, or art, and is thought to be a far more mature defence mechanism than displacement, which is the redirection of negative feelings towards someone or something less important.

There are a number of other ‘mature’ ego defence mechanisms like sublimation. Altruism, for example, is (contentiously) thought of as a form of sublimation in which a person copes with his anxiety by stepping outside himself and helping others. By focusing on the needs of others, people in altruistic careers such as nursing or teaching may be able to push their needs into the background. Similarly, people who care for a disabled or elderly person may experience profound anxiety and distress once this role is removed from them.

Another mature ego defence mechanism is humour. By seeing the absurd or ridiculous aspect of an emotion, event, or situation, a person is able to put it into its proper context and thereby to diffuse the anxiety that it provokes in him. If human beings laugh so much, this is no doubt because they have the most developed unconscious in the animal kingdom, and Freud himself famously noted that ‘there is no such thing as a joke’. The things that people laugh about most are their errors and inadequacies, and the difficult challenges that they face such as personal identity, social and sexual relationships, and death.

Further up the scale of mature ego defence mechanisms is ascetism, which involves denying the importance of what people normally fear and strive for, and so denying the very grounds for anxiety. The Austrian psychoanalyst Wilhelm Stekel (1868–1940) felt that ‘anxiety is fear of one’s self’; if the importance of the self can be denied, so too can the grounds for anxiety. If people in modern societies are more anxious than people from another time or people from traditional societies, this is perhaps because of the undue emphasis that modern societies place on the self. In the Bhagavad Gita, the Hindu ‘Song of God’, the god Krishna appears to the archer Arjuna in the midst of the battlefield of Kurukshetra and tells him not to give up but to do his duty and fight on. In either case, all the men on the battlefield are one day condemned to die – as are all men. Their deaths are trivial, because the spirit in them, their human essence, does not depend on their particular forms or incarnations for its continued existence. Krishna says, ‘When one sees eternity in things that pass away and infinity in finite things, then one has pure knowledge.’

There has never been a time when you and I have not existed, nor will there be a time when we will cease to exist (…) the wise are not deluded by these changes.

– Bhagavad Gita

Arguably the most mature of all ego defence mechanisms is anticipation. Anticipation involves finding self-knowledge and, like the blind prophet Teiresias, using this self-knowledge to predict or ‘anticipate’ our feelings and reactions. In the Ancient World the greatest of all the oracles was the oracle at Delphi, and inscribed on the forecourt of the temple of Apollo at Delphi was a simple two-word command.

Γνῶθι σεαυτόν

‘Know thyself.’

Adapted from

Ego defence mechanisms

Being entirely honest with oneself is a good exercise.
- Sigmund Freud

In Freudian psychoanalytic theory, ego defence mechanisms are unconscious processes that we use to diffuse the anxiety that arises when who we really are (our unconscious ‘id’) comes into conflict with who we think we are or who we think we should be (our conscious ‘superego’). For example, at an unconscious level a man may find himself attracted to another man, but at a conscious level he may find this attraction completely unacceptable. To diffuse the anxiety that arises from this conflict, he may use one or several of a number of defence mechanisms. For example, (1) he may refuse to admit to himself that he is attracted to this man. Or (2) he may superficially adopt ideas and behaviours that are diametrically opposed to the fact that he is attracted to this man, for example, go out for several pints with the lads, speak in a gruff voice, and bang his fists on the counter. Or (3) he may transfer or ‘project’ his attraction onto somebody else and then berate him for being ‘gay’ (young children can teach us much through utterances such as ‘mirror, mirror’ and ‘what you say is what you are’). In each case, he has used one of three common ego defence mechanisms which are, respectively, denial, reaction formation, and projection. A broad range of such ego defence mechanisms are recognised, and the combination in which we use them reflects our personality. Whilst we cannot escape using ego defence mechanisms, we can gain some insight into how they are used and of how we use them. This self-knowledge enables us to better understand what is happening to us and around us, and, quite simply, to make the best of it.

Related posts:
The manic defence

The manic defence

One of the central tenets of the Western worldview is that one should always be engaged in some kind of outward task. Thus, the Westerner structures his time – including, sometimes, even his leisure time – as a series of discrete programmed activities which he must submit to in order to tick off from an actual or virtual list. One needs only to observe the expression on his face as he ploughs through yet another family outing, yet another cultural event, or yet another gruelling exercise routine to realise that his aim in life is not so much to live in the present moment as it is to work down a never-ending list. If one asks him how he is doing, he is most likely to respond with an artificial smile, and something along the lines of, ‘Fine, thank you – very busy of course!’ In many cases, he is not fine at all, but confused, exhausted, and fundamentally unhappy. In contrast, most people living in a country such as Kenya in Africa do not share in the Western worldview that it is noble or worthwhile to spend all of one’s time rushing around from one task to the next. When Westerners go to Kenya and do as they are wont to do, they are met with peels of laughter and cries of ‘mzungu’, which is Swahili for ‘Westerner’. The literal translation of ‘mzungu’ is ‘one who moves around’, ‘to go round and round’, or ‘to turn around in circles’.

The 20th century psychoanalyst Melanie Klein called it the manic defence: the tendency, when presented with uncomfortable thoughts or feelings, to distract the conscious mind either with a flurry of activity or with the opposite thoughts or feelings. A general example of the manic defence is the person who spends all of his time rushing around from one task to the next like the mzungu; other, more specific, examples include the socialite who attends one event after another, the small and dependent boy who charges around declaiming that he is Superman, and the sexually inadequate adolescent who laughs ‘like a maniac’ at the slightest intimation of sex. It is important to distinguish this sort of ‘manic laughter’ from the more mature laughter that arises from suddenly revealing or emphasising the ridiculous or absurd aspects of an anxiety-provoking person, event, or situation. Such mature laughter enables a person to see a problem in a more accurate and less threatening context, and so to diffuse the anxiety that it gives rise to. All that is required to make a person laugh is to tell him the truth in the guise of a joke or a tease; drop the pretence, however, and the effect is entirely different.

In short, laughter can be used both to reveal the truth or – as in the case of the manic defence – to conceal it or to block it out. Indeed, the essence of the manic defence is to prevent feelings of helplessness and despair from entering the conscious mind by occupying it with opposite feelings of euphoria, purposeful activity, and omnipotent control. This is no doubt why people feel driven not only to mark but also to celebrate such depressing things as entering the workforce (graduation), getting ever older (birthdays), and even – more recently – death and dying (‘Halloween’). The manic defence may also take on more subtle forms, such as creating a commotion over something trivial; filling every ‘spare moment’ with reading, study, or on the phone to a friend; spending several months preparing for Christmas or some civic or sporting event; seeking out status or ‘celebrity’ so as to be a ‘somebody’ rather than a ‘nobody’ like everybody else; entering into baseless friendships and relationships; even, sometimes, getting married and having children.

In Virginia Woolf’s novel of 1925, Mrs Dalloway, one of several ways in which Clarissa Dalloway prevents herself from thinking about her life is by planning unneeded events and then preoccupying herself with their prerequisites – ‘always giving parties to cover the silence’. Everyone uses the manic defence, but some people use it to such an extent that they find it difficult to cope with even short periods of unstructured time, such as holidays, weekends, and long-distance travel, which at least explains why airport shops are so profitable. As Oscar Wilde put it, ‘To do nothing at all is the most difficult thing in the world, the most difficult and the most intellectual.’

Adapted from The Art of Failure: The Anti Self-Help Guide

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