Intellectualizations vs. Emotional Connection


Hi I’m Lisa Ferentz. Yesterday I was
sitting in session with a client and she was talking about a very devastating and
very traumatic early experience that she had had in her family, and I noticed
something that I’m sure many of us clinicians have noticed and experienced
as well. And that was this complete flat affect and emotional disconnection from
what she was talking about. This is something that frequently shows up in
therapy, where there is this fundamental disparity between the intensity of the
content, and the emotional gravitas of the content, and what the client is
actually displaying, which comes across again like they’re reporting the weather.
Very flat. Very intellectualized. Very disconnected from the emotion. I think
that there’s a tendency to pathologize this in the mental health field. And it’s
really important, as clinicians, to reframe what we’re witnessing as a form
of pacing and a fundamental form of protection. I always like to remind
myself, when I witness this take place in session, that this is the client’s
unconscious way of letting me know that it’s too soon to connect to the
emotional valence of what they’re describing. And that I really need to
allow them to first get close to talking about something very painful in a way
that gives them enough depersonalization so that it’s literally manageable and
not overwhelming. Now that’s not to say that that’s going to be the endpoint in
therapy around that issue; but it often is the starting point. And I think that
we need to normalize for our clients that it makes sense that they need to be
able to talk about something really painful in a somewhat initially detached
way. Something else that I think is worth exploring when your client brings a lot
of intellectualization into the work is to ask what it would mean if they did
get emotionally reconnected. What will they gain and what will they lose,
because there is a protective component to not connecting emotionally. I’ve also
found that it’s really helpful to get them to talk a little bit about the ways
in which the people in their lives modeled the expression of emotion.
A lot of the times clients are reticent about getting close to feeling because
they don’t want to look like an out-of-control parent, a parent who is
raging, or a parent who is always flooded and disregulated. And so it’s worth
pointing out to the client that they are not their parents. And that with the
support and the guidance of a good therapist ,and with the self compassion
that you’re going to help them bring to the emotional state, that they’ll be able
to navigate and connect back to the emotional valence of what they’ve
experienced, because that’s really what’s needed to ultimately heal from the event

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