Against epiphanies

Happy Monday!

I want to make the weird argument this week that we should pay less attention to our epiphanies. Or at least put less stock in them.

Epiphanies are those “aha” moments when you suddenly grasp something you didn’t before, maybe without even realizing you didn’t know it in the first place. They come as sudden waves of knowledge, normally the kind that can change your life.

Except…is that realistic?

I remember learning once in Russian class that it takes your brain 75 exposures to a word for it to become part of your useful vocabulary, i.e., that you can use it and understand it when other people use it. It makes sense; if you could just hand someone a list of words and they learned them instantly, we wouldn’t need foreign-language degree programs.

Our brains don’t fully capture and absorb all the information they’re receiving from the outside world, and there’s no reason to expect the same from our inner world. (You can peep this cool talk for more on how our consciousness is both outside-in and inside-out.)

So then what of epiphanies? These jolts of mind-bending information that can bowl over our belief systems?

Well, what about five minutes later when you’re thinking literally the opposite thing?

Bad, you tell yourself, god, it’s like I had that epiphany for nothing. I sure am stupid and useless!

What! No! You just stop that right there! – and believe, I’m mostly talking to myself.

Your mind played a weird trick on you and now you’re pissed off at yourself for being a normal person. You’re not wasting an epiphany, you are having a human brain.

I don’t mean that we can’t receive important messages from wherever you believe important messages come from via epiphany, but it’s unfair to expect the reception of the message to be the same thing as living it.

Because you might receive the crystal-clear message that you could be happy if you just stopped blaming yourself for the past, but that doesn’t mean you’re going to shake your head and forgive yourself for the past. It means that you’ve got work to do.

We think of epiphanies as our brains instantly downloading and applying an important software upgrade, but I think they’re more like a post-it note with a suggestion to go software shopping.

Epiphanies say YOU CAN DO THIS NOW, while you’re brain is saying something else entirely, and the feeling of doing nothing and feeling upset about it is the average of those two things. So what if it didn’t have to be that way?

Don’t try to live your whole life based on a passing thought. Because, just like all our thoughts, epiphanies are fleeting. (And probably everyone over the age of 16 knows epiphanies aren’t always even good ideas!)

Instead, if it really does seem like a good idea five minutes later when you’re calm, accept the epiphany as a goal. See it as a place you’re going, not as a place you should be now. Think of the epiphany as your brain advertising a sunnier side of itself to the part of your brain that holds the passport and credit cards. You’ve seen the brochure, now you can think about booking a trip.

And always remember your “travel agents” – your journal, your friends, your pets, your walls, your therapist or online/mobile therapy service (*not a sponsor/not an endorsement*) – anything or anyone that can help you get where you want to be.

TLDR: sometimes you have to overwrite memory to incorporate new programming. Let epiphanies be a process, not an event.

What’s your experience with epiphanies? Let us know in the comments!


Monday bonus link: The evolutionary history of your incredibly awkward feelings

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