Aha! The Power of the Moment of Realization

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It’s not so much the seeing as the doing that usually creates the most powerful “aha!” moments in our lives.

Recently I got an unusual email from a woman with whom I’d worked long ago on ways to improve her interpersonal skills. She is one of those fairly conscientious types who always wants to get things “right.” But if you were to ask her friends and associates, they might tell you she also tends to be so “obsessive-compulsive” about things — so exacting, demanding, detail oriented, and mission focused, that she seems to forget she’s working with other human beings who have feelings. That’s always made it hard for her to build truly intimate relationships and alliances. (For purposes of anonymity and confidentiality any potentially identifying facts and circumstances in this story have been altered.) Now, this woman whom I’ll call “Nellie” is a very intelligent, insightful sort generally, who fully understood at an “intellectual level” the things I discussed with her and was advising her to do to improve her social skills. But it wasn’t until she made the concerted effort to put some principles we’d talked about into active practice that she had that proverbial “Aha! moment” that changed everything.

“Nellie” told me she had been working intensively on a complicated project with one of her colleagues with whom relations had always been strained. Both were highly opinionated and would frequently clash because each believed they were right and couldn’t find room to compromise or at least to grant some credence to the other’s point of view. It bothered each of them that they couldn’t be closer, because each admired the other in many ways. Her co-worker found Nellie not only too stubborn in her convictions but also prone to vindictive, hurtful behavior when she didn’t get her way. I had once challenged Nellie about whether it was more important for her to be right than to be valued and appreciated and to have good relationships. I proposed to her that with the exception of truly crucial circumstances, she might find room in her heart to “set aside judgment” and give ground on some of the smaller matters, and to do so frequently as a way of building a relationship of mutual respect and trust. While she clearly understood the principle intellectually and gave verbal assent to it, she couldn’t seem to bring herself to do it.

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But for the first time ever, she had decided to exactly that. A dispute had arisen between her and her co-worker about how best to present the most important part of their project to upper management. Instead of insisting she was right and that it had to be done her way, Nellie indicated to her co-worker that because how they presented their project was a relatively minor consideration in the grand scheme of things and because she not only wanted her co-worker to feel supported and respected but also wanted to feel supported and respected by her, she would simply set aside what she believed to be her better judgment in this case and allow the outcome to be both of their teachers. To her great surprise, something happened she never thought possible: her co-worker gave her a huge embrace, told her how much she’d always revered her and how much she had longed for a better relationship between them. On top of that, the co-worker quickly added how happy she would be to change course if it turned out that Nellie had been right all along. For Nellie, this was a seminal moment.

One of the many things I’ve learned from working within a cognitive-behavioral framework of helping people change is how the best kinds of “insight” usually come about. It’s one thing to muse intellectually about a concept and it’s quite another thing to really “get it” with respect to an important life lesson by actually doing something differently and then experiencing the consequences. Truly powerful “Aha!” moments don’t happen by merely reading something, hearing something, or imagining something but by actually doing something and witnessing the effects. Experience is our best teacher and the impression it leaves is almost always deeper. Of course, old habits die hard, which is why it’s so important to give yourself both acknowledgment and reinforcement for doing things differently. (I’ve written before about the value of covert self-reinforcement in “Becoming a Better Person: Covert Self-Monitoring and Self-Reinforcement” and “Four Steps to Character Health”.) Now, some kinds of personalities don’t seem to profit from their experiences, which a hallmark sign of the nature of their character disturbance (see “Don’t They See? Why the Disturbed Characters in Your Life Don’t Seem to “Get It””). But most of us can and do learn from trying new approaches, which is why it’s so important for a cognitive behaviorally oriented therapist to pay adequate attention to the behaviors most needing change and to provide the necessary encouragement for making those changes (see “Putting the “B” Back into Cognitive-Behavioral Therapy”). For most of us, it’s not in the “seeing” that we suddenly start doing things differently, but rather in the doing of things differently that we truly come to “see” the important realities of life.

All clinical material on this site is peer reviewed by one or more clinical psychologists or other qualified mental health professionals. This specific article was originally published by on and was last reviewed or updated by Dr Greg Mulhauser, Managing Editor on .

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