A big theme in our discussion was the ways in which having an intellectual understanding of a topic can actually work against us in recovery. More than that, it can serve as a defense mechanism to protect us from having to do the real hard work of feeling. But how can that be? How can having the ability to step back and intellectualize a situation possibly be a negative in the healing process?
We like to think we know an awful lot. Scratch that, and let’s just leave it at we like to think a lot. Full stop. Sometimes, what we think about the specifics can obscure our view of the whole situation. For example, did you notice how you can see me and my messy living room reflected in the whiteboard above or were you focused on the equation? A stretch of an analogy? Maybe you’re right – but my high school physics teacher would give me an A for effort, I think.
This is a topic with which I am intimately familiar. Surprisingly enough, knowing “too much” is one of my ingrained and most frequently used defense mechanisms. My husband and I recently began couple’s counseling and, at our first meeting, we were both called out by the therapist on our tendency to over-rationalize and over-analyze a situation, to the detriment of actually engaging with it. We take our “knowledge” of what’s happening and use it to avoid understanding the impact of our actions on each other and getting in touch with the emotions we are both having in a given moment. The fact is, we both struggle with emotional intimacy and our tendency toward intellectualism protects us from having to “go there” with each other. Through our experiences growing up, we both learned that exposing emotions was a surefire way to be berated, targeted, and even placed in physical danger. This has been a major hindrance in our ability to communicate and connect, not just with each other, but in general. The habit of stepping back and demonstrating an intellectual understanding of a situation has saved us (up until now) from needing to get to the emotional truth of the situation – which is what any relationship of depth needs to survive.
My marriage is not the only place I have struggled with connecting with my emotions. When I was in the psychiatric unit in January of 2017, I held firm to my identity as a mental health professional for the first three days I was there. In my mind, because I was familiar with the skills being taught in the group therapy sessions, I could not learn anything from them. I knew DBT and CBT and mindfulness techniques. I knew how they applied to life in general and recovery in particular. I understood the nuts and bolts. This mentality prevented me from considering my particular situation, the events which lead to my hospitalization, the immense emotional and psychological pain I was in. I was essentially hiding behind my “book knowledge” in an attempt to save myself from the pain of actually accepting where I was at that moment in my life. In reality, I was in one of the scariest and most vulnerable positions I’ve ever experienced – suicidal and hospitalized with the shambles of my former life crumbled at my feet. It was not until I was willing to at least consider that the things being taught had relevance to my life that I was able to take the first tenuous steps toward recovery. But this has been a slow moving progression.
Vulnerability is the most important component of mental health recovery – allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to honestly report your symptoms, allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to open up and actually do the work of therapy, allowing yourself to be vulnerable enough to ask friends and family for support – and I’ll tell you a little secret: historically, I suck at vulnerability.
You’re reading the words of a woman who once completed an entire grocery order gently inching the cart along while on crutches just to feel less at the mercy of an injured knee. You’re reading the words of a woman who once chose to babysit her little brother a day and a half after a gal bladder removal surgery because she was too stubborn to admit that, yes, she needed to be in bed recovering. You’re reading the words of a woman who spent years in therapy happily giving step-by-step accounts of traumas with a steadfastness and sincerity that prevented the therapist from digging any deeper. You’re reading the words of a woman who sucks at emotional anything.
The deadbolt was set and locked for this gal! No one was getting in in any meaningful way, and demonstrating an intellectual understanding of mental health meant I didn’t need to expose the messy, emotional truth.
Over the last two years, though, much to my initial horror and chagrin, my walls of intellectualism have been slowly eroded. It started in the hospital with that tiny step of considering my current situation and the idea that I did, actually, stand to benefit from applying the skills being taught. I unlocked the deadbolt, but the door was still solidly closed. It continued in the partial hospitalization program, where I had a therapist who was obnoxiously good at calling me on my bullshit. Every time I’d say, “I’m fine” or I’d try to minimize symptoms, this woman would actually dig deeper and get me to admit that this or that was bothering me. I’d never experienced a therapist who didn’t take my words at face value before. I was thrown off kilter and, as a result, accidentally cracked the door open a little bit. Then, I started working with my current therapist, and holy cupcakes did my entire paradigm shift!
This was not an over night transformation – in fact, the first year I was meeting with her was crisis stabilization and trust building. I didn’t realize we were building trust at the time, but we definitely were. Once the foundation of trust was laid, this magician of a professional actually got me to feel things. Things I had never felt. Did you know that you can feel an emotion strongly enough to get physically sick? Cause I sure as hell didn’t. Until I did when we were talking about shame one week. Did you know that you can feel anger so intense that your ears ring and your vision blurs? Because I was rather concerned when this started happening in session one day. Now, once a week, I open the door just enough for her to see my face. But, slowly but surely, the door is opening wider and wider.
I’ve learned that simply saying, “that time I watched my mother get beaten was really jacked up and should never have happened.” has been a brilliant coping mechanism I’ve developed over time to prevent myself from feeling the terror, the anger, the sadness, and the shame that I disconnected from when that event (and many like it) happened. What I’ve learned through this journey I’ve been on is that there is true strength in vulnerability and that healing comes only when you allow yourself to feel the things you blocked out. You cannot truly heal from trauma until you’ve processed it, and that necessitates feeling your feelings without judgement. You cannot grow in emotional strength until you are willing to let the intellectual strength take a back seat for a few.
Sometimes, we “know too much”, and, while it’s an effective defense mechanism, it is shutting off an entire section of our lives if we hide behind it.
The effects of this process are no longer limited to therapy, either. I am finding myself increasingly willing and able to be open and honest about my needs in my personal life. I’m slowly learning how to connect with my feelings in a meaningful and productive way that I’ve never felt before. I’ve learned that there is value in intellectualism, but there is just as much value in getting in touch with the emotional side of things. And that connection is worth all of the hard work and discomfort that comes with it.
Can you relate to this post, or am I some weird outlier? If you can relate, have you considered this before? Have you addressed it? Do you plan to address it?
Agree, disagree, indifferent, confused – I’d love to hear your thoughts, whatever they are! Drop a comment below, or Tweet me @paradichotomy. You can also find me on Facebook and join the conversation over there! Thanks for reading!