If you’re a coach with an intellectualised client, you’ve probably questioned yourself, and your impostor syndrome has resurfaced. Coaching a client “in their head” typically means that they are overthinking, ruminating, and possibly struggling with self-doubt or anxiety. As a coach, you help them gain clarity, shift their perspective, and take constructive action. Intellectualisation is a psychological defence mechanism that involves dealing with emotionally charged or distressing situations by focusing on rational and intellectual aspects rather than emotional or personal ones. It’s a way of approaching difficult emotions or situations by detaching from them and analysing them from a cognitive or analytical perspective rather than experiencing the associated feelings.

When someone uses intellectualisation as a defence mechanism, they may try to distance themselves from their emotions by using logic, analysis, and abstract Thinking to avoid directly confronting their feelings. This can provide temporary relief or control, as the person is channelling their emotional energy into intellectualising the situation rather than experiencing the emotions fully.

Cognitive Thinking does not bring about behavioural change.

For example, imagine someone who has experienced a personal loss. Instead of allowing themselves to grieve and feel the pain, they might start researching and discussing the psychology of grief, the stages of mourning, and various coping strategies. While these intellectual pursuits can be informative and helpful, they might also serve as a way to avoid processing and genuinely experiencing the emotional impact of the loss.

It’s worth noting that while defence mechanisms like intellectualisation can provide temporary relief from distress, they can also hinder emotional growth and self-awareness if overused. Individuals must find a healthy balance between intellectual understanding and emotional processing to ensure their well-being.

While intellectualisation can serve as a coping mechanism in some situations, it can also harm a person’s emotional well-being and interpersonal relationships. It can prevent individuals from genuinely experiencing and processing their emotions. Instead of facing their feelings and allowing themselves to grieve, feel joy, or work through other emotions, they might continuously analyse and rationalise them, inhibiting the natural emotional processing necessary for psychological growth.

It’s important to note that intellectualisation, like other defence mechanisms, is not inherently good or bad. It can have adaptive functions in certain situations, such as allowing individuals to handle crises or make rational decisions during times of stress.

Overusing intellectualisation can lead to difficulty in forming and maintaining relationships. When individuals consistently rely on logical explanations and intellectual discourse, they may struggle to connect emotionally with others. This can result in misunderstandings, isolation, and a lack of empathy. While intellectualisation may help analyse situations, it might not necessarily lead to effective problem-solving or resolution of emotional issues. Emotions are complex and not always wholly rational, and addressing them logically might miss important underlying dynamics.

It’s important to note that intellectualisation, like other defence mechanisms, is not inherently good or bad. It can have adaptive functions in certain situations, such as allowing individuals to handle crises or make rational decisions during times of stress. However, if intellectualisation becomes the primary way of coping with emotions, it can hinder personal growth and lead to emotional and relational challenges.

Here are some steps to effectively coach clients who are in their head;

  1. Build Rapport and Trust: Establish a safe and non-judgmental environment where clients feel comfortable sharing their thoughts and feelings. This is essential for them to open up and be receptive to coaching.
  2. Active Listening: Listen attentively to your client’s concerns without interrupting. Validate their feelings and thoughts, showing that you understand their perspective. This can help them feel heard and respected. Ask open-ended questions, encouraging the client to explore various perspectives and potential solutions. This can help them break out of their overthinking loop and consider different angles.
  3. Reflect and Reframe: Gently reflect on what you’ve heard them say to the client. This can help them gain clarity on their thoughts and emotions. Reframe their negative or self-critical statements into more constructive and positive ones.
  4. Encourage Self-Awareness: Help the client become more aware of their thinking patterns and how they contribute to their current challenges. Encourage them to identify triggers, negative self-talk, and recurring thought loops. Focussing on the present: Help the client shift their focus from excessive worry about the future or regret about the past to the present moment. Mindfulness techniques or grounding exercises can be beneficial here.
  5. Challenge Intellectulised Beliefs: Assist the client in identifying and challenging their limiting beliefs. Encourage them to provide evidence for and against these beliefs to create a more balanced perspective.

Coaching is always a collaborative process and the client’s willingness to participate and take ownership of their growth is crucial. Adapt your approach based on your client’s needs and preferences. The techniques specific to coaching are active listening, questioning, reformulation and reframing. Individual coaching is not advice, training or therapy. Coaching does not provide ready-made solutions; it aims to enable the coachee to find their own solutions.


  • Sunita Sehmi

    Organisational Dev I Exec Leadership Coach I Author I Mentor I

    Walk The Talk

    Org Dev Consultant I Exec Leadership Performance Coach I DEI Warrior I Author I Mentor I Work smarter I Live better I Think deeper. With over three decades of expertise in multicultural environments, Sunita brings a unique blend of Indian, British, and Swiss heritage to her consultancy, fostering a deep understanding of organisational contexts and her clients. Sunita’s insights and expertise are tailored to elevate your leadership.