Written by Tina Smelser, MFT
“I wish I could just have a big epiphany and see everything differently…”. In my work as a psychotherapist, more than once I have heard a client directly or indirectly express frustration about the hard work that it takes to make real, lasting changes in his or her life. I respond that in my experience, it usually takes small, gradual steps over time to really start seeing, feeling, and behaving in new ways.
It is no wonder, in this present-day culture of the “quick fix”, that we expect changes to happen quickly. Glancing through a women’s magazine while waiting for a haircut recently, I see ads that state, “30 seconds to radiant skin”, “5 minute workouts”, and “speedy suppers”. I even heard a late-night radio advertisement claim to “change your child’s problem behavior in one minute or less!”
I have had the fantasy of marketing my work with the statement, “real change takes time”, as an antidote to the dramatic promises of quick and easy transformation. When I half-jokingly mentioned this to a marketing friend of mine, he said, “you’d be wasting your money”. I guess I already knew that.
In pondering the question of epiphanies, I talked to some friends and colleagues about their experience of epiphanies; times when there was an illumination that resulted in a shift in the way they saw themselves, or their world. As I recount some of what I learned, I admit that my findings are not based on a large body of scientific research. I quote the friend of a friend who says, “every generalization that I’ve made in my life has been based on a sample of no more than seven”.
I heard about a range of epiphany experiences. Some people immediately recalled a specific, memorable, life-changing moment when everything became clear and their experience of themselves changed. Others spoke of several, smaller epiphany experiences where there were more subtle, yet very real shifts.
I noted that there were different conditions that seemed to enable people to be receptive to the epiphany; in some cases, being in nature was an important element, in another, being a part of a spiritual group or in the presence of a spiritual teacher. One person had a life-changing epiphany while on LSD. In most cases people were away from their everyday, fast-paced lives; even if only for an hour on a bodywork table or in a psychotherapy session. Sometimes it was during a transcendent period in life, such as the birth of a child, the death of a loved one, or a serious illness. Some experienced moments of deep clarity while walking, doing yoga, or engaging in more vigorous forms of exercise.
In myself and my clients, I have noticed moments of finally “getting” something that one has been exploring and working on for a long time. Perhaps one knows something intellectually, but the shift comes when one knows it on an emotional and physical level as well.
Unlike the “happily ever after” promise of the fairy tale, the changes that an epiphany brings are not just instantaneous and not just positive. Once the clear understanding arrives, it can often take quite some time to integrate the changes based on that understanding. Sometimes the changes may be very unsettling; for example, when one suddenly knows with certainty that he or she can no longer stay in a relationship, a job, or a town. The ripples from the epiphany can involve a great deal of pain and struggle, the type that are a necessary part of growth. It can also be painful to return to the challenges of daily life after having experienced the timeless, spiritually-connected quality of an epiphany.
It was inspiring for me to talk to people about their epiphany experiences; it seemed to bring them to a time of deep engagement with life. It is rewarding as a psychotherapist to serve as a witness to both the occasional grand and the frequent subtle epiphanies in the lives of my clients.