Aha Moments in Therapy




"Understanding why you're messed up often has little to do with getting better."          Bessel van der Kolk

I'm a strong advocate for therapy, but one thing that really bugs me is the way folks talk about counseling and the idea of "insight".

For instance, I've heard this type of statement many times in one form or another, and it still riles me:

"Oh, therapy is just talking about the past. It basically gives people an excuse for not taking action in their lives."

Misunderstandings like this cast a bad light on therapy.

What are they referring to?

"My mother was anxious about her own weight issues and that's why I have a hard time with mine."


"My dad never played with me so I never know what to say to my son when we go to the park."

These folks have discovered a left-brain reason for why they adopted the problem behaviour. Now they don't feel quite so puzzled by their own state of mind; they often feel free to stop blaming themselves.

This type of knowledge can also help them prepare for change. It's a good beginnning but...

True insight requires more than rational understanding

While it can certainly feel good to know you weren't born with that problem behaviour, unless you actually experience the roots of it in the present, you haven't arrived at true insight.

True insight includes a body-felt awareness of the original "why" for the problem behaviour. It's a deep sense of knowing. No one needs to tell you, you feel it in every cell of your body.

That's true insight.

"...if intellectually knowing what to do or knowing what the causes of one's problems are {that} led to change, most people would not need therapists. They would simply tell themselves what to do, and do it."

                                      Hubble, Duncan & Miller1

The "why" of your behaviour is not insight per se.

Insight into the "why" of a behaviour, without the deeper emotional sense of how events in the past affected us, is helpful only to a degree.

In fact, true insight is embodied - it goes to the core of who you are. When we change, and when change is integrated, we have both cognitive and emotional insight. This is what I call "true insight".

When clients experience true insight, I feel it too. It's an unmistakable shift in shared awareness. It flashes across their face in an instant.

True insight emerges only after you change.

You may find this hard to believe but true insight actually arrives only after the brain has changed. Once your body "gets it", and you become aware of it, you have an internal sense or insight about why you behaved as you did.

You finally feel free and ready to adopt a new way of being. You're no longer held back by your history.

True insight changes you from the inside out.

The work of changing automatic emotional reactions requires a deeper experience than any self-help book can give you. But when you work with a therapist you have experiences; your brain has experiences.

And, you have a much greater chance of realizing true insight.

A final reflection...

Insight can happen in an instant, but the receptivity for it builds up over time. We are literally works in progress...

...and sometimes we're the last to know!

True Insight Definition: "It's not the fall that hurts, it's that sudden stop at the end."

Sorry. Couldn't resist 🙂


1 Most people think of "learning" as a purely cognitive or "thinking" undertaking. In actual fact, we learn in many ways, only one of which is through our left "thinking" brain.

One way we learn as infants and children is by seeing someone model a behaviour especially our parents and peers.

However, most folks are unaware of another type of learning that's just as important - when we learn by ​sensing the right brain via the implicit memory system.

And...for those working through their stuff in therapy (in case you missed this before), you'll discover that many of your issues are rooted in implicit memories laid down in the right brain.


Hubble, Mark A., Duncan, Barry L., & Miller, Scott D. (1999). The Heart and Soul of Change: What works in therapy. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association, p. 113.

Van der Kolk, Bessel (2007) Trauma and Memory. 1st Annual Somatic Experiencing Conference. San Francisco.

My personal musings...

An "aha moment" in psychotherapy is a distinct shift in awareness that registers deeply within your mind-body. It instantaneously signals a moment of insight and embodied change.

Even if we can't put it into words, from that moment on we know something inside has shifted or changed.

Most people in long-term therapy experience "aha" moments. They're the sweet, telltale signs that your therapy is working!

Readers Comments

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My therapist always knows

hi, just wanted to add a comment to this. Sometimes the best sessions are when I have an aha moment and realise my progress and things about me. My therapist always gets a big smile on her face especially if its been something that I wouldnt at first acknowledge.

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink


Oh, those therapy moments, eh. Yeah, it's this kinda stuff that makes the journey so worthwhile. Your comment also reminds me Emerald, why the job as a therapist is so rewarding...it's a window into the remarkable unfolding development of another human being.

Thanks for you post Emerald.

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Mom of Three

Transference can trigger insight

I had true insight when I had transference with my therapist. I told him all about it, all about my transference feelings, and he accepted them and didn't reject me. That was the first time in my life that I truly FELT what it feels like to reveal my innermost thoughts and not be rejected.

After that experience, I am now able to reveal more of my thoughts to other people and therefore get closer to them, without my old fear of rejection. It was like my therapist had a key to the wall around my heart and opened it up so that love could come in and out. That was a moment of true insight.

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink


Wow, that's beautiful Mom of Three. It's amazing isn't it, how these extraordinary moments in therapy create such fundamental shifts.

Thanks for your sharing your story with us.

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sandy (michigan, usa)

Had to thank my therapist

I had an aha moment that put me into a spin,(not a bad one) so I e-mailed my therapist and thanked him. I just hope it was ok, never been in therapy before so not sure if that was appropriate or not.It just made feel so good I just wanted him to know.

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink


Well, I do know that I enjoy reading these types of emails Sandy. It's one of the reasons most therapists find their work so fulfilling. Best thing is to raise the topic with your therapist next time you see him.

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JK (Texas, USA)

Insight occurs after therapy

I enjoyed this article a lot. I've only been in therapy for a few weeks now, but I wanted to share a great "aha" moment that I had which actually took place AFTER a session. My therapist had been trying to tell me that I'd been doing things the hard way by trying to struggle through everything on my own.

On my third session I walked in a total wreck, but the first thing I noticed after leaving was I felt normal and no longer anxious for the first time in days...only because I was able to trust my therapist *just enough* for her to be a calming influence on me. This observation caused me to suddenly realize the truth in what she had been saying!

Of course this realization made me furious about how much unnecessary suffering I'd been putting myself through over the years, so I was completely over-activated again within a few hours (HA!) but the truth of the experience stayed with me. 🙂

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink


Great story JK!

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PJ (Ontario, Canada)

I don't want to feel things, I want explanations...

From reading your website, I'm having an a-ha moment right now, and I'm looking forward to telling my psychologist all about it. I minored in psychology at university, so I was already aware of the right-brain, left-brain thing. I watched Julie Bolte-Taylor's video and found it fascinating, but I noticed that it was also making me uncomfortable, the way she was raising up her arms and getting all emotional and talking like a televangelist or something. I wanted her to stop doing that, to pull herself together and go back to a more intellectual explanation of the stroke and the human brain again, because that's the more interesting part for me.

I laughed at myself when I realized that she was talking from her right-brain, she was embracing her emotions and allowing herself to get caught up in them - even on camera, in a room full of people watching!

To me, that represents a very scary loss of control. So, all this reminded me of what's going on in therapy. My psychologist has pointed out that I keep focusing on a diagnosis, a treatment, a medication... This isn't his approach at all, and I notice that he doesn't like it, so I've stopped doing it. I've taken up a different approach, I read everything I can about therapy, including your website, and I order psychotherapy manuals from the internet, and highlight them and take notes like in a psychology course again, trying to figure out what's wrong with me and trying to understand the process of therapy, so I can predict what he's thinking and what he might say and what's going to happen, and to see how I can cooperate and speed up the process and get it over with.

Anyway, he won't 'pathologize' me, he doesn't seem to be explaining things very much, except he says things like I'm uncomfortable with negative affect. I look things up, and I realize that I'm using a defence mechanism called "intellectualising"... Now, reading your website, I realize that I don't want to involve my right brain in therapy. I'd prefer a more academic, left-brain exercise.

But he avoids talking to my left brain, on purpose, I think. Like once he told me that some people go back and forth between idealizing and demonizing people, and I was thinking, "You're talking about splitting! Why won't you say the word splitting! Why won't you say I have BPD, then?" I'm annoyed at him right now, because I told him last week how I couldn't stop thinking about therapy, replaying the whole session over and over again in my head, and then rehearsing what to say at the next session.

I feel like this is a symptom of OCD, I'm obsessing about it. But I looked it up, and it's not OCD, it's transference. And now I know that he knew that, and he knows that lots of people do that, but he didn't tell me that. I feel like he wants me to just feel things, and I don't want to feel things, I want information, I want explanations... He does offer explanations, or interpretations, sometimes, but not as often as I would like. I realize now that he's trying to reach my right-brain, and I'm trying to access only my left-brain. It drives me crazy that my thoughts are so different from my feelings - I want them to just line up.

Anyway, that's my a-ha moment. I like your website. Thanks, shrinklady. PJ

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink


PJ, your honest search for answers is wonderful to read. You're an inspiration!

It's been a while since your post and I am only now responding to it. I hope your therapy has gotten a little easier and you have warmed up to the right brain approach that your therapist appears to be using. I'm pleased he isn't into pathologizing.

Nonetheless, I can relate to your need for answers and explanations. I'm a big fan of educating my clients, as you might guess with this site.

I imagine there are many reasons you might want a diagnosis PJ. When I read your post it reminded me of my own experience and I wondered if your reasons were in any way similar to mine.

At one time I desperately sought out a diagnosis from my doctor. She wasn't able to help me understand what was wrong with me and she sent me to a psychiatrist. I had no words to describe what was happening to me but I believed that a diagnosis would help.

I realize today that what I really wanted was a valid reason to get the help I needed. Feeling "rotten" wasn't a good enough reason!

I wasn't functioning anywhere near optimally and I hoped that a diagnosis might give me permission to stop badgering myself for the way I was managing my life.

Well, long story short, the diagnosis of "dysthymia" never really helped nor did it explain why I was feeling the way I was. Thankfully, I discovered neuroscience and body psychotherapy.

Ironically, my new understanding of the brain normalized the strange feelings I experienced in my own body. It provided the clearest explanation for what was going on for me -- and the way out.

I hope you find your truth PJ. You deserve the best.

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Just Me

I just had one this morning.

Aha! - I just had one this morning. Now that I have quit drinking alcohol and no longer resort to self-medicating and “internalizing” my emotions, I am now “externalizing” by noticing my feelings/my needs, and allowing myself to implement more self-soothing imagery. I believe that what once manifested itself as an alcohol craving (that I used to dowse with alcohol) is now allowed to be exposed for what it really is - a craving for love: unconditional love and self love, and before I know it the alcohol craving is gone.

The imagery I have been using more as I have recognized my need for it Shrinklady, is imagining hearing the words I need to hear from my therapist and allowing myself to receive it as you suggested on the forum. Isn’t it amazing how messages like that seem to come at just the right time, connect with everything else you know to be true and then *blink*blink* the light goes on, the smile assumes an expanse, and you just get it. I am so excited-I love it!

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink


It is amazing isn't it Just Me. I've had similar experiences of getting the message at the right time. When we're on our path, we're in the flow...things get connected up in ways that we didn't see before.

So glad to hear the imaginal work is going well. It's a powerful resource. I can't wait to tell folks more about it. I use it for so many things both with my clients and for my own personal growth.

Thanks for sharing your aha moment.

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A huge positive experience for me

I had an experience similar to the one above. I have been in therapy for three years, struggling with negativity about myself, struggling to open up to the acceptance and support my therapist offers me, struggling to feel the positive qualities that are a part of who I am.

One day my therapist used guided imagery with me. She had me mentally settle in a safe and comfortable spot of my choosing, then started naming qualities for me to think about. I was amazed that she could give such a comprehensive list so easily, and instantly realized--she was naming qualities she saw in me. It was a huge aha moment for me.

My mind was more open because I was not looking at her and I did not know she was talking about me, so I accepted those as qualities I was attracted to, then realized they were ones I possessed. It was a huge positive experience for me.

Thank you for your website. I have it bookmarked and have visited it often for some time now. I appreciate your light hearted and supportive info; it has helped.

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink


Hey Growing, that's a great story, and describes an aha moment to a tee. It really seemed like you were able to take in her words in a much deeper way than anytime before...that it changed you.

I love your example too because it really shows that if we are to change a right brain problem, we need to use a right brain strategy.

Nice to hear you have a good connection with your therapist. No doubt it played an important role.

Thanks for your post,

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Visualised myself as a super-hero

When I went into counselling I had very low self esteem, and continually held myself back with negative and sabataging thoughts. My therapist tried for ages to help me become aware that I was my own worst enemy, but it just wouldn't sink in; till one session my therapist got me to visualise myself as a super-hero and to name the atributes that I would have, as I finished naming them, i broke down into tears, as I realised that these were already aspects of myself, that I never allowed myself to recognise.

That was an "aha" moment for me and yes, it makes me smile now.

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink


That's fantastic. As I was reading, I could imagine how this moment shifted your self-esteem up a notch. Isn't it amazing how we can't always take in the good things. We don't even see them. I imagine the relationship with your therapist being there as you experienced this, played an important role.

I was also reminded as I read your story how just "talking" has its limitations. We can become aware of a problem but that's only part of the solution. I use imagination in almost all of my sessions in my professional practice.

Here's a tip Marion. Continue to use imaginative scenarios for anything you're facing. And, use this technique especially when you're feeling calm. I personally use it myself all the time...can't wait to tell you more but that's in the upcoming eCourses.

All the best,

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Just Me, Michigan, USA

My therapist shares in my 'aha' moments

I fail to be able to come up with details of any particular "aha" moment right now, but I can say that I have had several which tell tales through a huge smile that streams across my face and tells my therapist "I get it!" of which she shares in that moment so gleefully with me.

Just Me (Yes-I know I should change my screen name)

Dr. Susan LaCombe Psychoshrink


Thanks Just Me. I couldn't have said it any better.

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Therese Daniels, PhD (Saskatoon, SK, Canada)

Thanks for the great website!

Beautiful pictures and great affirmations. I work in a treatment centre with high-risk/high-needs patients and teach this concept often. Thank you - this is a great website.

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