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15 Psychology Experts Share Their Personal "Aha" Moments

Psychology experts share their psychological epiphanies.

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I asked a group of psychology experts to share a personal "aha" moment - a time when a psychological principle they teach about showed up in their personal life and knowing the principle resulted in an epiphany. Here's what they said.

Excessive responsibility taking - It's not me, it's you.

"For no apparent reason, a close friend called to end our decades-old friendship. I was distraught and asked why. She refused any discussion and stopped taking my calls. After months of feeling terrible and wondering what I had done, it hit me: This wasn't about me; it was her issue. That realization taught me to not assume blame too quickly. In many emotional struggles, the problem revolves around someone else's needs more than mine (or yours). "  - Susan Newman, Ph.D

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Feelings follow actions.

 "I was in negotiations with someone who knew how to press my buttons. I was taking her unprofessional behavior personally, and it showed on my face. I decided to adopt a "poker face" for the remaining meetings, and when I did that something amazing happened. With my face in neutral, I started to feel more neutral. I felt less emotionally reactive. I was finally able to to internalize the wisdom: "feelings follow actions"! " - Heidi Reeder, Ph.D.

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Mindfulness

"Dr. Cindy Sanderson once gave a talk on how she dealt with her painful treatment for advanced cancer."I realized," she said, "that the moments of pain -- even if the pain was excruciating -- were actually very short compared with the pain I put myself through by thinking about it ahead of time." This was my introduction to the idea of mindfulness, and it transformed the way I would cope with my own cancer treatment just a few years later." -  Mindy Greenstein, Ph.D.

Changing thoughts.

"The idea that I could actually change my thoughts was an "aha" moment for me. Prior to that moment, I believed that "your thoughts were your thoughts," and there wasn't much you could do about it.  The cognitive therapy concept of "catching" your thoughts, challenging them, and changing them was a revelation.  More recently I've learned that bringing mindful awareness to the passing Mardi Gras parade of my thoughts, noticing when my thoughts might be causing me to suffer, and talking to myself with kindness can be particularly helpful and healing." - Meg Selig, LPC

It's my job to take care of myself. "Ironically, my ah-ha moment was when I decided to end my own therapy at one time. I wasn’t making progress; I was developing insight after insight, but all this marvelous understanding didn’t change a thing. After trying to work it out with the therapist, I decided to make a go of it on my own. It was one of the best decisions I’d made. I realized that I was the one who had to provide the direction, the structure, and the guidance for my life—it was my responsibility. That summer after I stopped therapy, I made more changes in my life than I’d done previously. The one insight that did lead to change was this: Ultimately, it’s my job to take care of myself." - Barb Markway, PhD.

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Choosing where to place attention. "Two years ago, I had an "aha" moment at a birthday party for my young granddaughter, Camden. Due to chronic illness, I could only stay for an hour or so. When I got to the party, at first I was enjoying myself. But soon that enjoyment turned to envy and resentment as I began to ruminate about all the fun I'd be missing after I left, especially at the "adult" party that my son and daughter-in-law had planned for later. My mood turned so sour and dark, that I took myself off to the restroom so people wouldn't see my unhappiness. As I stayed in that little locked "prison," I suddenly realized that I had a choice. I could choose continue to go over my "list of grievances" which did nothing but make me more and more unhappy. Or, I could choose not to feed those grievances and, instead, turn my attention to the lovely time people were having right at this moment and to the love I feel for my family. It was an epiphany for me. I'd never realized that we have the ability to choose where to place our attention and, by doing so, relieve our suffering and bring more joy into our lives." - Toni Bernhard, J.D.

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Challenging your inner critic. 

"I entered my graduate school music program full of confidence and enthusiasm, until I heard my colleagues perform. “I don’t belong here,” hissed my inner critic; fear-based motivation kicked in and my passion faded. Many years later, I realized that by never challenging that simple negative thought, I missed an opportunity to transform intimidation into inspiration." - Beth Buelow, ACC, CPC.


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Don't continue projects you should abandon due to "sunk costs" (the work you've already put in).

"I was struck by research on the sunk cost fallacy by Hal Arkes and by Richard Nisbett. People should not be influenced by the amount of time and effort they have put into projects, but they typically continue projects that they should abandon, just because they have already worked hard on them. After reading this work, it made it much easier for me to walk away from research projects that were not working and to spend my time on more promising studies." - Art Markman, PhD

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The False Consensus Effect - thinking everyone agrees with you. 

"I have had so many aha moments in my life! Here's one from my college days that illustrates the False Consensus effect (thinking everyone agrees with you). I had put off taking Chordate Anatomy, which was required for my B.S. in Psychology, until my last semester. When I got my first test back and realized I had failed, I turned to the girl next to me and said, "Oh my God, that test was so hard!" She said despondently, "I know. I got a B." My mouth fell open in shock. I always thought I was such a good student so I assumed that if I failed the test, then everyone failed. No so much. She later turned out to be the valedictorian of our graduating class. That helped improved my self esteem (since I could argue that I never aspired to be valedictorian). But now I look back and laugh at myself. It's a great example for when I teach Social Psychology. :)" - Mary Pritchard, Ph.D.

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"A few months ago, a friend said something that hurt my feelings. I found myself ruminating for the first time in a very long time. I was able to remind myself that trying to problem solve while ruminating is usually futile. Instead I just waited for the upset feelings to pass. It took a couple of weeks before I could think about the topic without spiking but each time that happened, I just reminded myself I didn't need to do any thinking or problem solving, I just needed to wait until I didn't feel upset anymore. It worked brillantly." - Alice Boyes, PhD.  

Identification - unconciously becoming like those we love in order to feel close to them.

"Early in my training, I met a mother who was visibly depressed, and as she spoke, weeping and shuddering with sadness, her daughter, 2, meticulously copied her every move, reaching for tissues, blowing her nose, dabbing her eyes—a tiny mirror image of her mother’s pain.  Prior to then, I’d always thought of identification—the unconscious process through which we become like those we love in order to feel close to them—as little more than an abstract theory. But here was a young girl becoming like her depressed mother just a few feet away from me. After that, I finally understood: for better or worse, we often absorb the traits and emotional lives of the people around us in process of forming an identity." - Craig Malkin, PhD

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Don’t believe everything you feel. "I have bipolar disorder and anxiety. When the ‘black dog’ makes an unwelcome visit to me, my self-talk and resulting emotions become particularly nasty; often it’s a relentless circle of feeling useless, worthless and guilty. One of my most liberating ‘aha’ moments was when I realized just because I feel I’m worthless, useless and guilty, doesn’t mean I am. This realization created some distance and well earned relief from the unyielding barrage of negativity that accompanies depression." - Victoria Maxwell.

Allow other people's impulsivity to subside. "Someone in my family who has borderline personality disorder was raging at me over absolutely nothing. I said to myself, Randi, you write about this stuff for a living, don’t yell back. Abruptly, my family member went outside in the back yard for a cigarette. By the time she got back five minutes later she had calmed herself down. I realized then that because of borderline impulsivity, if I could just get my readers of my books to pause, give any reason to leave the situation of delay it for a few minutes, it would give them some time to think through how they wanted to respond. It would also give their borderline loved one a moment to curb their impulsivity. This eventually became a communications technique I call delay, distract, or deflect." - Randi Kreger.

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Radical Kindness

"When I was dean of the school of education here at my university about a decade ago I once had a moment when a faculty member was extremely upset about a decision I had to make and came after me with both barrels. I remembered how important social reciprocity is and that to defuse the situation I had to treat him with radical kindness. I told him that I hear his pain, I sympathize with him, but I had to make the decision that I made...and that I love him anyway. He stopped in his tracks, was silent for a moment, and told me that he loved me too and understood. Several years later he apologized to me about the incident. I thought, wow...this theory really works." - Thomas Plante, PhD.

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Other people's outbursts are related to whatever is active in his agenda, or has been activated in their psyche.

"In my last post on Psychology Today, I mentioned that only about 10 percent of any given [social] exchange has anything with us. I came to this realization--which is really about self- and other-responsibility--in a yoga workshop. The teacher, who was (and is) not only an advanced yogi, but a practicing psychologist, spoke to me in anger, of all things. At that moment I thought, "What am I doing wrong here?" and I was struck by the notion that his outburst was not about me at all, but, rather, whatever was active in his agenda, or had been activated in his psyche. In that moment I came to the rather stark realization that, more often than not, people act from a place of positionality, rather than transaction. Keeping this mind can not only save us a great deal of heartache, but alleviate our tendency toward self-blame." - Michael J. Formica, MS, MA, EdM

 

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photo credits:  Pink Sherbet PhotographyfbobolasDaadiGE HealthcareKarissa (Does Not Explain It All), taylortotz101, GenistaPatrick HoeslyUntitled blueKoshyk mark sebastian via photopin cc

Alice Boyes, Ph.D. translates principles from Cognitive Behavioral Therapy and social psychology into tips people can use in their everyday lives.

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