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Intellectualizing is focusing on semantics or trivial disputes in order to distract from the larger issue. Alcoholic people always want to argue about whether or not they really have alcoholism. When you point out a problem in their behavior, they immediately begin looking for some flaw of fact – what happened, when it occurred, whether or not someone might have misinterpreted some part of the event – like lawyers in a courtroom. Only there’s no courtroom, is there?
The intellectualizer wants to argue about whether an alcoholic person can ‘ever’ have ‘just one drink’ again – as if that matters at the beginning of recovery. One person with addiction presented me with this problem: “Suppose I’m out in the desert and my Jeep breaks down and I don’t have any water or way to get help. And I look around for water and notice that in the back of the Jeep, there’s a can of beer that somebody forgot or fell out of a grocery bag or something. Are you saying I can’t drink it?” My answer: “Look, if you’re willing to go to all that trouble just to justify having a beer, be my guest.”
In addiction literature, intellectualizing is defined as: “Focusing on petty details, differences or disputes over meaning to avoid facing the uncomfortable reality.”
- “I saw a doctor who told me I probably wasn’t alcoholic.”
- “Alcoholism is genetic and no one else in my family has it, so I can’t have it.”
- “I know there are psychologists who claim addiction isn’t a disease, so why should I believe you?”
Result: The intellectualizer is so busy arguing that s/he never gets around to doing anything about his/her drug use.
How we answer it: Keep the focus on the uncomfortable reality.
How it ends: Eventually, things get so bad that the details become irrelevant and the objections seem unimportant.
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