An epiphany is a moment when you suddenly feel that you understand, or suddenly become conscious of, something that is very important to you. Counselling is not usually described as an epiphany. However, I would like to challenge the readership with the idea that really effective counselling emanates from sessions that nurture and encourage these powerful atypical moments.
One of my primary goals as a psychologist for the past 25 years has been to help people to move away from a status quo they have identified as not working for them. A status quo metaphor would be the proverbial water taking the same pathway running down the hill. These pathways, no pun intended, can become entrenched and immutable over time.
Judith Curry wrote, in an article for the Sociology of Science December 28, 2017 issue:
“motivated reasoning involves someone reasoning that they can re-interpret reality in a way that fits what they desire, their ideology, etc.”
Motivated reasoning reinforces the client’s safety zone or status quo, which can become immune to change. Clients can maintain their dysfunctional behaviour vis-à-vis their motivated reasoning. This pattern of behaviour then reinforces part of a fictitious reality that supports distortion and illusion. The end result for the client is a sophisticated inner dialogue of self-deception, which is perpetually reinforced when new information, contrary to the established inner dialogue, arises.
Unlike motivated reasoning, which follows a reinforcement schedule, an epiphany appears to be more accidental, unexpected, unforeseen, a chance experience. Epiphanies are rare but powerful events. An epiphany’s influence is magnified by its foreign nature of being out of the norm. As one client stated:
“Wow! Where did that come from?”
Epiphanies are not planned. They are not reinforced. They come from an unknown place at a non-predetermined time. They shock and awe. They are powerful moments of self-discovery, which have long-lasting effects.
The implementation of Epiphany Counselling (EC) strategies would aspire to elevate counselling beyond the motivated reasoning that most clients present. So, how does this work? How can counsellors create an environment whereby more epiphanies will occur for their clients? Does EC require specific skills that many counsellors may not possess? Are there procedures that lead to increasing the potential of clients experiencing epiphanies?
Let’s consider cognitive dissonance (CD), which is defined as the psychological conflict resulting from incongruous beliefs and attitudes held simultaneously. This discomfort includes any new information that is contradictory to one’s current beliefs. Cognitive dissonance is the very concept that kicks in when motivated reasoning is summoned. Discomforts are managed through personal manipulation in an attempt to maintain one’s personal view of the status quo and their resistance to change. My thought is that counsellors need to consider strategies to limit motivated reasoning.
The antithesis of motivated reasoning involves encouraging clients to avoid any attempts to re-interpret reality. The client would agree to self-monitor their inner dialogue of the status quo, circumventing new information or ideas that at first appear contradictory. Clients need encouragement toward self-discovery by being less self-protective, and by trusting their counsellor to suggest alternative views of seeing themselves and their reality. Potentially, the client would come to realize that the counsellor’s primary role is to facilitate the client’s personal insight and growth.
Through this process, the client is challenged to become less guarded, biased, self-protective, defensive, safe, manipulative, and re-interpretive. Through adherence to monitoring preconceived ideas the client can become more receptive to the unforeseen, unexpected elements of the epiphany.
Self-discovery has often been identified as the “aha” moment. This is a moment when the obvious gives way to the oblivious. The epiphany materialises from the ether. It rises from the ashes of premeditated thoughts and conclusions to share a new and previously unrelated internal awareness. As one client said during an epiphany about her family dynamic:
“I can’t believe I have never realized this before now.”
D. Rock and J. Davis in their October 12, 2016 article 4 Steps to Having More “Aha” Moments in the Harvard Business Review state (4):
“In short, anything that helps you be able to notice quiet signals in the brain, or weak activations as they are called, can increase the chances of insight. By practicing leaving space for quiet, being internally focused, taking a positive approach, and not actively trying to have insight, we can all have more insights everyday. More insights means solving complex problems faster, and that’s something we could all benefit from, whether we want to tweak a marketing campaign, solve a client challenge, or change the world.”
As counsellors, are we encouraging “weak activations”? Is there a greater potential for epiphanies and growth when the client is less self-protected by motivated reasoning? Can we create an environment where epiphany is more likely to take place? Epiphany appears to rely on the availability of “space for quiet” and an absence of predetermined ideas within the receiver. What are your thoughts on any of these ideas? Any epiphanies?
Dr. Bruce Wilson has been a registered psychologist in Australia and New Zealand since 1993. He completed his doctorate in Educational Psychology in 1992 from Florida State University. Dr. Wilson is currently in private practice at Mind Health Care in Geelong, Victoria, Australia. Contact Dr Wilson via email.
The article is solely the work and theoretical opinion of the author and contains no information from a third party.
Cambridge English Dictionary for Advanced Learners, 4th edition. Cambridge University Press, 2018.
Curry, Judith. JC’s (un)motivated reasoning. Sociology of Science, December 28, 2017.
Merriam-Webster Dictionary. February 10, 2019.
Harvard Business Review. 4 Steps to Having More “Aha” Moments, October 12, 2016