On Being an Intellectual

I recently spent some quality time in France with family – I was staying at my grandmother’s house. One day we we had a disagreement and she said to me I was “such an intellectual” – she said it the same way republicans call you a “liberal”. I laughed things off and kept it moving as I usually do: to deflate the hurt a kin inflicts others when themselves are in pain.

To say the truth, I was annoyed at first, but then got curious about why she thought that voicing my opinion was a problem. It took some time, but after thinking about it for a while I came to some conclusion of my own. Every time I had felt powerless in front of injustices was when I did not know how to respond to attacks – which as a result had made me angry. So, I am constantly trying to educate myself on issue pertaining to feminism, racism and the like – because it felt empowering: in other words analyzing and instructing when feeling attached is my “defense mechanism”.

I had heard about Anna Freud’s theory on defense mechanisms for the first time a few months prior by watching The School of Life‘s episode on Psychoanalysis. I decided to find out more. Turns out that what made the most sense to me, according to this theory, was that I may champion at “Intellectualization”. 

According to Freud, intellectualization as a psychodynamic defense mechanism refers to an emphasized focus on facts, logic, and abstract reasoning to assert control over and reduce unpleasant emotions associated with internal or external events.

Yes, this made sense. I constantly need to know why things happen the way they do.

I tend to seek explanations to any and every out-of-the-ordinary-situations that may affect me – and by extension, others like me. I even wrote a poem about it:

When I feel threatened, my brain automatically fires up into “Overthinking” mode . Rationalizing helps me to calm down in stress-inducing circumstances. For instance, if someone felt entitled to say something out of line or mean to me, instead of reacting, with the tools that is knowledge, I can logically respond: I am only able to do so when I am educated on a topic. That say it does not mean you’ll be able to convinced the person in front of you – since facts are not enough to convince people!

In my research I also found out that there were a biological aspects of defense mechanisms: In short, the very ancient part of the brain called amygdala is responsible for triggering the sympathetic nervous system – which is responsible for the fight or flight response. Once that type of stress is triggered, there is no switch to turn it off on its own. Our only option to “calm things down” is to activate its counterpart, the parasympathetic system. There are efficient ways to do so, including walking in nature, breathing and meditation (more here). I should also mention that eating, although it is not mentioned,  triggers the parasympathetic system: oh that’s why, when we are upset your freewill is highjacked and your are uncontrollably drawn to the Ben and Jerry bin int he freezer!!!

Reflecting on this helped in many ways. Firstly, I learn ways to manage even better my anxieties by understanding how they arise; it also brought lots of empathy towards myself and others – in finding out there is a part that is rooted in “instinct” and early childhood experience – hence very hard to control. I am grateful I was able find some insight and happy my grand mother initiated this introspection.