When You’re In Your Head A Lot

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I hang out quite a bit with a rather attractive blond at my fitness club. We discuss our workout routines and how to improve our times on the machines. We’re always chatting. She has a very nice smile. Most of my friends at the club, knowing we are both single, are on me. They say, “Tell her you’re interested in her and want to take her out. She wants you to ask her out.” I say, “Yeah, yeah” but never do. Oh I’m interested in her all right but I find myself talking about cars, sales at Target and what the Twins are doing instead when I’m around her. She keeps flashing her smile and I don’t ever talk about how I really feel about her. The words just don’t come out. It’s like I’m stuck in robot mode. I know she is going to get tired of me eventually. I feel like a flop. Actually this freezing up reminds me of when my dog got run over right in front of my house. Do you think I could shed a tear? No way. I hated seeing my dog die. But I just went out there, cleaned up the blood with a hose, said nothing and got on with life. That’s the responsible thing to do.

Way too many of us are up in our heads these days. We meander along the street while scanning our cell phones. We sign up in a dazed state en masse for expensive football games to watch underperforming teams. We’re constantly entranced by the latest cell phones that promise higher speeds and become obsolete overnight. Real life things like living with a fatal disease, having a child with autism or being with an aging parent escape us. Yet these life occurrences happen every day.  It’s like we live with no awareness of pain, necessary suffering or death. Moreover we have little appreciation of life joys. We can’t just quietly savor a field of wildflowers on our vacation. We have to constantly analyze what we are seeing and compare it with what others have put up on their Facebook or Instagram account. We get obsessed with digital photographs and become spectators of fun rather than having fun. We live in our heads and are not present in our own body. So much of modern living is about activating the left side of our brains—the thinking part—and so little is about the impressionistic and intuitive part of our right brain. It’s like we are all turning into the technology we worship so much and becoming automations. We remain clueless.

Even those of us who haven’t totally turned into mechanical devices may still be prone to zone out too much. We may say we want to participate in life we actually don’t. Signs of excessive intellectualization include:

  • having difficulty making decisions or grasping why people act the way they do
  • being numb to our own feelings and removed from feelings in others
  • having a blah reaction to life as a whole and seeing little purpose to things
  • continuing memory lapses over things that should matter
  • being indifferent to or desperate about fitting in with others
  • wishing that someone would give us an instruction book for life
  • living with boredom and doldrums
  • constantly being on the look out for and craving the next new thing
  • either avoiding relationships or having a soap opera history of bad relationships

A classic example of living too much in one’s head is Felix Unger of the old TV series, the Odd Couple. Felix could not grasp the disorganized style of his alter ego, Oscar Madison. In a bittersweet way, he lived a safe but boring life whose emptiness could only be offset by Oscar’s chaos and mental lapses. The humor of the series came from realizing that each of us has a Felix and Oscar inside ourselves.

Impact of being out of touch

Women can be just as out of touch as men. They may get overwrought with jealousy and don’t grasp their part in why things happen the way they do. Melanie expresses this theme when she says:

It gets me so mad that my parents never want to come over to our house for dinner and spend time with me and my husband and kids. Yet my two sisters get all their attention and mom and dad are always over at their houses. It’s just not fair to our kids who are just as important as my sisters’ kids. I really don’t see what the problem is. Maybe if I were more quiet about my feelings and be a goodie-goodie mom and dad would come over. But hey, that’s just not me. Besides mom and dad need to get their ducks in a row the older they get. They need somebody to set them straight. You don’t think my boldness is a problem do you?

People who typically live in their head may actually be quite smart or at least appear to be that way. Others may respect their objectivity and reserve and expect them to play leadership roles. They may be involved in work roles that benefit from their remoteness and unemotionality. Some lawyers, truck drivers, surgeons and law enforcement personnel may exemplify this stoicism. Others may idealize them and see them as strong. Unfortunately in personal matters this assessment may be well off the mark. When you’re too much in your head you compartmentalize emotional experiences and lose the ability to see the bigger picture. You may be quite wooden and can’t see the forest from the trees.

Also, people who overintellectualize may be less fun to be around. They may be rigid, insensitive to feelings in others and out of touch with deeper aspects of relational life. They lack affiliation, the ability to see themselves as like others. Half of the enjoyment of life and acceptance of others comes from being able to laugh at ourselves and see how we are just like others. People who live too much in their head have no such fun. They are lonely people even when surrounded by others. They don’t know what to say when situations get too emotional and they often fake it until they make it around people. Others may respect them for their intelligence but they often don’t wish to know them. Intellectualizers are lonely beyond words and they’re strangers to themselves.

How our culture reinforces living in our head

We may have a lot in this country but we are not very happy campers. Numerous international sociological indicators show that America lags well behind other countries on health and life satisfaction indexes. We are smarter than ever but are losing our emotional fabric of our lives. Our market-driven, individualistic, materialistic way of living does not reward people who want to contemplate their navels, cry over spilled milk, sing Kumbayah with others, or take a weekend retreat to find themselves or a bigger life purpose. Most of modern life is about rushing from point A to point B. We actually run away from ourselves.

Although most of us want to do the right things to be a good person and have a nice family we allow ourselves to get caught up in the rat race of unenlightenment. We get mired in this rat race of career and family demands and we lose who we really are and what our purpose is in life. We become goal-driven rather than being-driven. We text our workplaces on vacation, we stare at our phone screens when real life beacons and we don’t even remember that last time we had a vacation or what we did on our last vacation. We get dazed in our quest for financial security and more worried than ever about our futures. We don’t live in the present and reflect on what our bodies are telling us. We don’t even know what questions to ask to find ourselves. The irony of it all is that what makes us happy is within our reach. Who would have known it!

To be fair, much of our personal misdirection is due to our getting brainwashed by unscrupulous media advertising, unprincipled news broadcasting and misguided internet use. He who tells the story rules the culture. We are told that to be secure we ought to focus on our stock market gains, home security systems, faster internet services, better medications, new smart phone apps, and prestigious colleges for our children. Although some aspects of our security is helped by these concerns most of our security is made worse by such pursuits. We are going down the wrong road when we make things more important than people.

Let us not forget that our nervous systems are all wired to being with people. Most of us are aware on a gut level that it’s the emotional parts of personal relationships that make us secure. We actually get authentic biochemical security from having close emotional ties with people who are capable of being close to us. Friends and some family may often fit the bill. Most of us are aware that the really fun part of life is not in the gadgets or events but in how we spend time together in using them.

Why am I like this?

Personal factors also contribute to our over intellectualizing. There is nothing wrong with being smart. It just needs to be balanced with having an emotional life. Some us use our thinking to run away from our emotional selves, perhaps believing that doing so makes us smarter than others or less burdened by emotional troubles. People who say, “Who needs the drama?!” more likely are terrified of their own emotional vulnerability. Guess what? Life is full of drama. That’s how we fall in love, console our parents on their death beds or comfort a fatally ill friend. Drama gives life meaning.

Some of us grew up in homes where being in touch with feelings was frowned upon or else was downright horrifying. Most of our fears came from being around unsafe adults or else being left to our own devices when the rubber hit the road in the tough path called life. Emotional abandonment is often what causes us to be doggedly up in our heads. We have never learned to notice and comfort ourselves.

Unfortunately we cannot hide from the emotional aspects of living and living in the attics of our minds just does not do the trick. There is no place to hide from our hearts.

How can I become more in touch with my heart?

This is the 24 million dollar question. First realize there is nothing wrong with being smart or liking your own intelligence. We’d all be lost without it. However if you want to be really smart it’s best to increase your emotional intelligence as well.

I would start by reading Daniel Goleman’s book, Emotional Intelligence (Bantam Books, 2000). However, going beyond this book to apply it to your own life may freeze you in your tracks. This is normal. Your fear may express yourself in the form of antipathy or contempt for anything touchy-feely.

There are good reasons why you’re scared. You are not crazy for wanting to go slow with all this heart stuff. So go slow, but don’t quit. Learn emotion intelligence like you would a foreign language. It will take time and persistence to learn. However, unlike learning a foreign language you may have unexplained emotional reactions. As you learn to embrace your feelings you may have much unacknowledged grief over what you never learned. This grief will not kill you. It will make you stronger. It’s best to have a practical guide to assist you like a professional helper or good 12-step group.

It’s best to learn your feelings through your body. As you get in touch with body sensations, like a sore neck or tense jaw, you’ll be better prepared to name your feelings. Feelings arise from body sensations. Doing volunteer work, listening to suffering and joy in others without giving advice and getting more physically active in a moderate way will all aid your process.

Writing down your personal experiences in a journal and sharing with a trusted friend who doesn’t give advice will also help. Music, dance, aerobics and massage will very much assist your efforts. You know you are on the right path when you’re most reluctant to follow good suggestions. Any resistance is okay but be sure to have fun regularly in what ever way you can. Play, fun and grief are the main ways to have a heart. It’s what you missed as a kid.

John H. Driggs, L.I.C.S.W., is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker in private practice in St. Paul and co-author of Intimacy Between Men (Penguin Books, 1990). He can be reached at 651-699-4573.

This article first appeared in the Sept/Oct 2014 issue of The Phoenix Spirit. We may earn commissions via some of the links on this page, at no cost to you. Thank you for helping to support our site.

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