All the quarantine quality time I've been spending with myself has led me to re-evaluate my life, all while having some pretty powerful realizations. America sucks! I don't want to live alone! I want out of the gender binary! This rollercoaster of revelations is sometimes euphoric and sometimes exhausting. Some of my ideas feel like really useful personal data — ideas to build my future on — but some of them feel like fantasies that I might be concocting because I don't watch TV. It doesn't seem to be just me, though. Last month, my friend's more than middle aged mom realized she might be gayer than she thought, half the people I know are thinking about moving, and everyone is either breaking up or getting married. Are pandemic epiphanies important moments of revelation that we should act on — or just fantasies driven by apocalyptic fear?
First, I wanted to know if epiphany is a legit psychological phenomenon or if my woo is showing. The answer is complicated. Epiphany and revelation are more spiritual terms than psychologists use, but there are comparable clinically-observed phenomena. “The major revelation in psychology is known as a breakthrough,” Karen Carabello, a clinical psychologist in NYC, tells me. “A breakthrough is a point in therapy — or in life — when a person makes an important realization, she explains. “It’s like a moment when a light goes off,” says Carabello.
But not all psychologists agree with how to describe what most of us call “aha” moments. “The term may be actualization,” Craig Knight, an NYC-based psychotherapist and research fellow at the University of Exeter. Actualization, Knight explains, is the final stage of psychological development. In the psychological hierarchy of needs, actualization is at the top of the triangular hierarchy, meaning that it’s the psychological state that some people reach when all their basic needs are being met. But whether you call it a breakthrough, an epiphany, or actualization, the aha experience does seem to be psychologically valid.
The thing is that not everything you experience as a breakthrough is actually a breakthrough. Sometimes what we experience as a light bulb moment can actually be a sort of localized mania, Knight explains. “The sceptic may say it is a form of cabin fever,” Knight says, and then breaks it down. “We are under lockdown so we can ruminate. We each have a locus of control. If we have an interior locus then we tend to believe that we can manage our own fixes. However, an exterior locus sees us fix on external factors.”
In plain English, Knight is saying that what might be happening is our brain’s response to the combination of feeling out of control and having a lot of time to think about it. Epiphanies are our brain’s way of trying to create a path to stability.
Here’s the theory: In order to find a sense of control, our brain creates thoughts that we experience as big ideas. If we are internally oriented — focused on what’s going on on the inside of our brains — our ideas may be about how we can change our perspective in ways that will help us feel like we’re more in control. If we tend to be more externally focused — concerned about what’s going on outside of us — we may have epiphanies about how to change our external circumstances so that we feel more agency.
Okay, but, is having an epiphany healthy or unhealthy? Useful or not useful?
It depends, says Carabello. “In many ways it could serve as both,” she says. “Breakthroughs come in all sizes or types. The experiences during the pandemic have awakened many people. After many losses people are willing to try other things, seek other adventures, be unapologetic, live more meaningful lives, be more creative, or take risks. The pandemic has also given us permission to be who we are and not try to live up to someone else’s expectations.” The pandemic is a trauma that is changing our mindset, Carabello says, and that change could be good or bad or complicated. Yes, Knight says, revelations can be a strategy we use to entertain or distract ourselves from feeling out of control and they can also be useful.
So, what’s the difference between helpful breakthroughs and fanciful distractions? Carabello explains that a breakthrough can be helpful if it actually aligns with your experience, interests, and resources. So, if you have the bright idea that what you really need to feel complete as a human is to swim across the Atlantic, the first question you need to ask yourself is if you can swim. A revelation that has no basis in reality is just a fantasy. Fantasies are not necessarily bad, but they can backfire. It may make you feel more out of control if you try to make an impossibly far-fetched fantasy into a reality. In order for a breakthrough to actually help you break through obstacles and create the sense of control you’re seeking, it has to be do-able within the constraints of reality.
But watching the world from inside the pandemic bubble can make it really difficult to remember what reality is. How do we figure out what’s possible in a moment in which it feels like anything could happen? “Talk,” says Knight. Humans need to have contact with other humans to understand reality. “This is why friends are useful,” Knight says. Knight is not saying to be irresponsible and pop up on your bestie’s doorstep maskless and overexcited. What he’s saying is that when your brain is abuzz and you can’t tell a good idea from a bad one, it’s time to reach out to find context. “Social distancing is a dreadful term. We need to physically distance of course, but right now many of us need friends and support more than ever,” Knight says. “Move socially closer.”
And be gentle with yourself and your big ideas. “This is the rainy day,” Knight says. It’s more important than ever to look after yourself, but this is no time to let the cultural pressure to #liveyourbestlife in an Instagrammable way kill your joy. “Don’t be afraid to indulge a little,” Knight says. “Yes, you should exercise, but remember that the heart is a simple organ. It doesn’t need a gym, it just needs to pump harder for 30 minutes a day; stairs, sex or skateboarding all work. And once you have done that, enjoy a reward. Lose yourself in a movie, phone a friend, eat a cheese toastie,” Knight says, and adds, “A beer might be good.”