The Truth About Aha! Moments in Therapy
Are epiphanies in therapy just like in the movies?
Therapy scenes in movies are so satisfying. The protagonist enters therapy struggling in their everyday life but closed off to the process. Over the course of therapy, they slowly begin to open up, and then, accompanied by dramatic music, they experience the inevitable aha! moment. The protagonist reaches a moment of emotional release or insight that changes their life (think Good Will Hunting). Armed with their new insight, the protagonist ditches the bad relationship, confronts an abusive parent, accepts the love they deserve, and heals from trauma. The process is tidy and satisfying.
I’ve had clients tell me (sometimes sheepishly) that they are awaiting their singular aha! moment when all of their uncertainty and pain will coalesce into a single insight that cleanly explains their struggles and catalyzes change. While aha! moments are part of the therapeutic process for many, they are far more nuanced than movies portray. They take many forms and impact clients in a wide range of ways, both short-term and long-term.
Aha! moments in therapy may occur when a client:
Understands something important about themselves for the first time
Understands something fundamental about a relationship or the way they engage in relationships
Connects the dots between their past and present
Allows themselves to lower their defenses and experience a deeper emotion
Hears something explained in a way that resonates or “clicks”
Describes or reveals early trauma
Experiences themselves differently in a family or couple’s therapy session by interacting with a partner or family member in a new way
The Emotional Impact
While in the movies, responses to these moments of insight are typically intense but predictable, real aha! moments can lead to a wide range of emotional experiences. A client may feel relief to finally understand something that has felt elusive for years. They may feel elated or empowered. They may feel devastated at the realization of something they endured. They may feel overwhelmed as they sit with the depth of their pain. They may feel irate about an injustice or abuse they experienced. They may feel peace at coming to terms with something for the first time. They may feel itchy in their skin as they allow themselves to sit with a trauma. They may feel hope as they see their loved one respond to them in a new way. They may feel very little, processing the new insight intellectually without allowing it to penetrate deeper.
On television, this emotional impact happens in seconds, or maybe in days over the course of a few scenes. The reality is that new insight can take much longer than that to process.
Does the aha! Moment Bring Change?
While movie moments showcase individuals experiencing a moment of insight, processing it, and integrating it in mere moments, the reality is (you guessed it!) far more nuanced.
Yes, a client can and may change their life on the basis of the insight. But it may take the client a while to process the implications of their insight. Noticing a pattern still requires the work of unraveling it. A people-pleaser may now understand their tendencies and even their origins—but still struggle to implement stronger boundaries. A man who realizes his rage is a recreation of his relationship with his father may still struggle to tame his feelings. A couple who suddenly understands the cycle of their arguments may still need help shifting gears. A person who sees themselves clearly as worthy may struggle to hold onto that.
As a therapist, I’m a big fan of the moments that make clients say “Wow, I never thought about it like that before.” But often, that signals the beginning—not the end—of the work.