“In three words, I can sum up everything I’ve learned about life: it goes on.” Many years ago, I read this infamous quote by Robert Frost for the first time. And while then, it was a simple excerpt in a book, it now provides me comfort in times of despair, transition, and confusion. Because I quickly learned first-hand (time and time again) that life does, indeed, go on—no matter the mistakes, the regrets, or the failures. You’ve still got a life to live and it’s up to you to make it a great one moving forward. This is what I describe as my “ah-ha!” moment: an important realization that I carry with me every day. We all have them (whether or not you actually exclaim, “ah-ha!”), and they serve as incredibly useful tools for the rest of our lives. So, we wondered what kind of “ah-ha!” moments mental health professionals might have, as they stare a multitude of issues, emotions, and experiences in the face every single day during their therapy sessions, on top of their own. Here are their stories:
1) We are not alone in our suffering.
Clinical Psychologist Darin Bergen, who has practiced therapy for over 10 years, said that he made an important realization after seeing hundreds of different clients: “I realized that we are far more connected in our suffering, as human beings. When we’re struggling with painful emotions, thoughts, and experiences, we begin to imagine that we’re the only one with this struggle and we withdraw from others. We assume other people would never understand our problem. This isolation intensifies the pain we are already feeling, and we start blaming ourselves. However, after sitting across from so many people with such similar fears, insecurities, and issues, I see that nobody is alone in their suffering,” he explains. “This has been incredibly helpful for me as I live life and deal with my own issues when they arise and it’s something I try to pass along to my clients. I often think of this realization as seeing behind the curtain in the Wizard of Oz—things seem more manageable when I know I’m not alone.”
2) We are in control of our own destiny.
Therapist Kimberly Hershenson learned a valuable lesson about moving on from the past and creating her own life meaning: “Life is what YOU make it. We attach meanings to things and hold onto things which only leads to resentment or guilt,” she explains. “Hardships I’ve dealt with that caused me so much shame and regret, no longer held the same amount of weight. I realized I was attaching meaning to what I’ve gone through. When I finally recognized that life can be a canvas where you create what it means for you I was able to let go.”
3) Perfection does not exist—we are only human.
Dr. Patricia A. Farrell, Ph.D., says that her ah-ha! moment happened early in her career: “I, like many people writing books and providing seminars, wanted to be perfect. I enjoyed reading many different types of books, but one I read on Abraham Maslow struck a responsive chord. Writing about his life and how he came to the work he ultimately did, he passed through at least three different career choices: medicine, law and the family business. None of them seemed a good fit and he finally realized that the choice lay within; he wanted to be a psychologist and not a perfect one at that. Later, while reading a few books on computer programming, I came, time and time again, across the central credo of engineers and code writers; you don’t have to be perfect, just good enough. They gave themselves permission to be human and to come to the realization that perfect doesn’t exist. It’s something I’ve taught all my students and my patients as well. Relax and be yourself. You’re human and humans aren’t perfect.”
4) The present moment is all we’ve got.
Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist Connie Habash didn’t have a sudden realization about life, but instead became increasingly aware of one simple truth. “A profound awareness came over me that we truly only have the present moment. I recognized that the past is clearly gone and that any influence it has on my present is solely in my mind, through my thoughts, perceptions, and beliefs. The future will never be here in this moment. What we have is this moment right now,” she explains. “That was truly empowering to me. I know now that I have choices in each and every moment. When I’m aware of an old belief or a previous experience’s effect on me, I can re-orient myself to this present moment and remind myself that I’m here now. I feel more connected to others because I’m more present with them, rather than reacting to them based on the past. I am grateful to live present and aware in every moment I am able to,” she says.
5) Mindfulness is an all-powerful tool.
Amanda Stemen, licensed clinical social worker and owner of FUNdaMENTALs, says that it took a painful knee injury to make an important realization: that mindfulness is truly effective. “Here, I’d been practicing it and teaching it to client after client, but it wasn’t until this injury that I fully experienced the far-reaching benefits of it,” she says. “I specifically remember one moment where I’d decided not to take the hard-core pain medication because it made me feel so sick and I thought well, let’s give mindfulness a shot. I somehow managed to fully experience the physical sensations I had called pain to the point that my knee no longer hurt. I simply felt vibrations. It was life-changing because I’m now able to more fully embrace physical and emotional pain in such a way that it ceases to be pain and rather simply physical sensations that do subside if you fully enter into them. And I can share this with my clients knowing without a doubt mindfulness works.”