Key Moments: Seizing The Opportunity In Life’s Dificulties

We don’t need to look far to find adversity. Most lives are characterized by some degree of difficulty and struggling, whether minor (a flat tire on the way to work) or major (the death of a loved one). We begrudge our adversities, wishing they would go away. Yet they don’t. Life just keeps happening, one event after another, in a seeming unending series of challenges.

I call such events Key Moments—situations or events that are upsetting, present a challenge, and demand a response. During such experiences we make choices, usually unconsciously, about how we’ll respond. And the truth is that how we respond to our key moments determines, in large measure, the quality of our lives, our happiness, and personal effectiveness. People who respond positively to their key moments grow in self confidence and the assurance that they can influence life and control their own destinies. Those who respond negatively gradually lose confidence in themselves as they give up control of their lives to external influences.

The following diagram sheds some light on what happens during a key moment.

As you can see, there’s a cause and effect relationship between the various elements of a key moment. Usually, however, the experience happens so quickly that we are only vaguely aware of the process as it unfolds. In order to “work through” our key moments and learn to respond in positive rather than negative ways, it is necessary to slow the process down and understand what is happening.


A triggering event is the incident or situation which sets up the cycle: your son knocks over a glass of milk at breakfast; you’ve been waiting for a friend for over 30 minutes; your teenager brings home a bad report card; you learn that your company is about to go through downsizing which will probably affect your job. Such events, whether minor or severe, occur daily. And they demand a response. Even ignoring them represents an unconscious attempt to deal with them.

Meaning

Meaning is the particular “spin” we give to events and circumstances. It can be thought of as a cognitive process of seeking to make sense out of what is happening and includes our thoughts, interpretations, judgments, or conclusions related to an incident.

It’s easy to assume that our emotions, during a key moment, are caused by events since they occur so spontaneously following them. In reality, however, it is not the event but rather the meaning that we give the event that determines how we feel and ultimately the choices we make. Feeling hurt was not caused by her boss’s behavior but rather the meaning she gave his behavior.

A truth is that events are just events. They have no inherent meaning. We give them meaning by interpreting them through the filter of our beliefs. Each person, observing the same event may arrive at very different conclusions. Imagine two people standing on a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. One may conclude that this view is exciting and even inspirational. The other may conclude that it is frightening and overwhelming. Although the event is the same, the meanings are very different.

By examining and challenging the meaning we give to events and circumstances, we take back our power and find new options for responding to triggering events. This isn’t easy to do. We unconsciously equate the meaning we give events with the “truth.” We assume that the way we see things is the way they are. As a matter of fact, the mind functions to be “right” about whatever it happens to believe.

A student believes he is stupid. A young girl thinks she is ugly and that no guy would ever want to go out with her. A bulimic woman may be very thin and yet remains convinced she is fat. An employee believes that you just can’t trust management. A manager believes that employees really don’t care. And on and on.

Such beliefs become self-fulfilling prophecies. We see the world not as it is, but in a way that reinforces what we already believe. And so we become trapped, not by the events and circumstances of life, but rather by our meaning and beliefs about those events.

Feelings

Feelings are what we experience inside of our bodies following a triggering event. Whereas meaning is mental and occurs in the mind, feelings are somatic and occur in our bodies. There are two kinds of feelings:

Physical sensations: shortness of breath, nausea, muscle tension, rapid heart beat, tight jaw, dry mouth, sweaty palms, weak knees, etc.

Emotions: anger, hurt, sadness, helplessness, fear, inadequacy, anxiety, disappointment, depression, etc.

Our negative feelings, following a triggering event, can be a cue that something is out of balance and needs a response. We can use our feelings to pay attention to what is happening and thereby come up with a thoughtful rather than knee-jerk response.

If unaware or unable to thoughtfully examine and understand our negative feelings, we act them out in destructive ways. They influence our physical health, or may lead to self destructive behaviors such as poor job performance, addictions, estrangement from family and friends, etc.

Actions

Actions inevitably follow the meaning and feelings we associate with our triggering events. These actions can be weakening and self destructive or positive and strengthening. Since Key Moments can be uncomfortable and even painful experiences, our natural tendency is to dramatize or act them out in the following negative ways:

Fight (attack others): lecture, moralize, argue, find fault, put down, control, blame, slam, throw, hit, assault, sarcasm, etc.

Run (withdraw): pout, silent treatment, apologize, placate, martyrdom, take the blame, illness, sleep, etc.

Ignore (deny): suppress, apathy, intellectualization, distract, humor, escapism (work, drugs, sex, exercise), etc.

Consequences

Consequences invariably follow from our actions and the way we handle our key moments. The consequences may be positive or negative depending on our responses. When we handle our key moments poorly, the consequences of our actions set up new triggering events; ironically, the same events that we wanted to avoid in the first place. We create the very conditions in our lives that we complain about and blame on others.

Seeing the Choices in our Key Moments

There are many forms of success in life. Yet, perhaps none results in greater personal satisfaction than learning to respond positively to our triggering events. As we do so, we experience less conflict and turmoil and greater peace and well-being. However, this process is not easy. Our internal reactions are often deeply ingrained, unconscious and automatic and therefore difficult to change. But it is possible. It requires awareness, commitment and persistent practice.

The process begins with self reflection and honesty. “Know the truth and the truth will set you free.” We are victims of whatever we are unaware of about ourselves. I can do nothing about the smudge on my face as long as I don’t know or refuse to admit it is there. Likewise, I cannot “choose” how I’ll respond to my triggering events as long as I am unaware of my internal experience, actions, and their consequences.

Therefore, it’s helpful to learn to explore and understand our key moments. What was the event that triggered my response? What about that event triggered my response? What meaning did I associate with the event? What emotions and physical sensations were triggered? What actions did I take and what were the consequences?

Key moments are, by definition, painful. So exploring them may sometimes be painful. But, as we face them with a desire to understand, learn and grow from them, they gradually dissipate and lose their power.

Awareness and exploration, however, are not enough. We must also take responsibility for ourselves during our key moments. How? By recognizing that the cause of our pain is not just the event but also the choices (usually unconscious) we make following the event.

A triggering event is a reality which has already occurred. We have no choice about that (although we did play a part if creating the circumstances in which the event occurred). However, we do make choices about our actions, our feelings and/or the meaning we attribute to those events. It is not what circumstances, events and other people do to use that hurts us most, but rather what we do to ourselves through the unconscious choices we make regarding the meaning we give those events, how we feel about them and the actions we take in relation to them. By being aware and willing to take responsibility for our reactions during a key moment, we can interrupt negative patterns and make new choices that that allow us to become the makers of our own destinies.

It is not easy to do so. In fact, I believe it is often quite heroic to make positive and strengthening choices in the face of key moments. There are lots of techniques for doing this, which I’ll talk about in upcoming articles.


About Roger K. Allen
Roger K. Allen, Ph.D. is an expert in personal transformation and family development. His tools and methods have helped tens of thousands of people live happier and more effective lives. To learn more, visit www.rogerkallen.com>.

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