Home ContentDefining Moments

Defining Moments

Published : June 08, 2015

We want to be great – immediately great – but that is not how recovery works.

by : Chantelle Barrett

Mention the catch-cry ‘Defining Moments’ and images of international events, press coverage and disaster come to mind. A tsunami ripping through beach resorts on Boxing Day, September 11, the Bali Bombings. These were events that shaped the world as we knew it.

However, what was an event that shaped your world, as you knew it? That is, a moment that entered your consciousness with such power as to change the very core of you? It was probably something much smaller and less dramatic. You may not have even noticed it at the time.

Defining Moments are exactly that - those personal, intimate moments, both positive and negative - which have the power to redefine your image of yourself, the expectations you have of your life and open your eyes to new possibilities.

Sarah’s defining moment started with an old cliché: a broken heart. It was only through the tears and aching bones, that she realised hers was a life that no longer worked. The loss of a partner only seemed to highlight the lack of satisfaction with her life that she had grown used to and would numb with a pleasant cocktail of over- exercise, alcohol and work.

For Jenny, it was a little more severe. Sudden chest pains in a crowded Woolworths (while rushing to pick up a few forgotten items) on the way home to cook dinner, get the washing off the line and water the garden. “Such a fuss”, she thought, her mind harried at the prospect of her wilting rhododendrons, as the ambulance blared across town. An ambulance officer announced her arrival at the hospital, “obese woman, 52 years of age, heart palpitations, arrange oxygen.” Obese woman? That was a little bit of an overstatement, surely? She may have battled with her weight over the years, but she was not obese ... and certainly not in a way that could threaten her life?

Two different women, two very different situations. But one question. What now?

That is the question you will encounter in a Defining Moment. The term is somewhat misleading, because these moments are rarely an end in themselves. More often than not, they are a flash of clarity that can be the beginning of a long, hard road of self- discovery. Perhaps the term ‘breaking point’ or ‘turning point’ would be more accurate, because these moments are often a point in your life where a situation or condition becomes critical. It is the point that pushes you so far, you know you can’t go back.

Elizabeth Gilbert in her novel, Eat Love Pray (1), identifies a moment that sharply defined her life. She was in her early thirties, married and trying for a baby, only to find herself sobbing on her bathroom floor at three am in the morning wanting none of it. However, Gilbert knew that this was only the beginning. As she said herself, “I knew I would have to keep dealing with these thoughts again and again, until I slowly and determinedly changed my whole life. And that this would be difficult and exhausting to do.”

Our lives can be likened to large steam-ships. Turning them around isn’t easy. We can gather so much momentum that the thought of stopping and turning in another direction can make even the hardiest of sailors queasy.
But sometimes nothing less will do. What is required is a decision to change direction, a conscious reduction in speed to make the necessary transitions and occasionally, it’s just a matter of holding down the wheel long enough to chart a new course.

We are all unique, creative individuals. That doesn’t mean we necessarily end up in a life that is ‘right’ for us. We are influenced by our friends and family, by expectations and opportunities, by economics, and our own internal processes. We assume we ‘choose’ our lives, when in reality our lives may simply be a collection of habits and beliefs we have collected along the way, some of dubious origin. It’s not surprising then that we might find ourselves thinking, “How did I get here?” Part of being an adult is to know ourselves well enough to sort through the accumulated baggage we carry, and pick out what stays and what gets binned.

Modern life doesn’t make this easy. We live in a world obsessed with growth, targets, development and ‘the next best thing’. We speed date and speed dial. When we’re sick we battle the symptoms with cold and flu tablets, ignoring the underlying causes. We don’t have time to be sick. We definitely don’t have time to be quiet. If our work or social life becomes too tiring, we have drugs for that too. Speed, whether in tablet form or as a way of life, is usually our response. Very few of us would consider taking time out of our lives to figure out why we feel the way we do. We just turn up the volume, stick our foot on the accelerator and hope to hell we’re on the right road.

It is no coincidence then that a ‘Defining Moment’ may be offset by a sudden change in life circumstances; where the things that used to keep you distracted or in a pleasant state of unconsciousness don’t work anymore. Sometimes it is a serious health or work issue, sometimes it’s merely finding yourself home alone on a Saturday night. It might be lying in a hospital bed or feeling desolate when someone you loved walks out of your life and you don’t want to go back to the way things were before you met them. It’s amazing what it can take for us to be still. For a few hours you are free of your usual stimulants - deadlines, alcohol, drugs, overwork, overplay, under sleep.

It may not even be one moment, but rather a sense of hopelessness or negativity that you just can’t shake. People say you’re ‘depressed’. Maybe you are. Or maybe you’re not, but the old way of doing life just isn’t cutting it anymore. We view depression as an illness2, where writer Lee Stringer may have had something when he said:

“It has occurred to me since that perhaps what we call depression isn’t really a disorder at all, but, like physical pain, an alarm of sorts, alerting us that something is undoubtedly wrong; that perhaps it is time to stop, take a time-out, take as long as it takes, and attend to the unaddressed business of filling our souls.”3

When you’re happy and content, there is often little reason to change. Feeling unhappy, down or slightly depressed can be a ‘positive’, because it motivates you to take action to change things you might have left as they were.

Whatever the cause, these moments can be a source of strength and inspiration if you see them for what they are: a wake-up call. Not a sign that the world is out to get you (although it can certainly feel like that sometimes), or that you’re a bad person because you have made a few ill-informed decisions, but merely a gentle indication that perhaps you need to slow down and think about your next steps. We generally do the best we can with what we have in life. However, when new information comes to light or a new way of doing things becomes apparent, it’s okay to take some time out to work the new in with the old.

When confronted with a trying time or a moment that has made me think twice, I have found the following advice incredibly helpful.

Confront the Issue

It was a wise man who once said there is nothing to fear but fear itself. We are often more scared of what we can’t see and of all the terrible tragedies that could befall us, than what is actually bothering us. Voicing a problem or a grievance (if only to ourselves) suddenly allows the feelings to manifest and become concrete. It stops the mental and emotional stress as a result of ‘shadow- boxing.’4 It is no wonder that we are overcome with relief when we’re finally allowed a good vent, or to just lay our cards on the table.

Secondly, admitting to ourselves that we are not happy with some aspects of our lives allows us to deal with it. It is an odd situation where a human being is presented with something we don’t like and doesn’t take some action to change it. We’re just not wired that way.

Lastly, the fact remains that problems are like bad neighbours - ignoring them doesn’t mean they disappear. In fact, they often have a habit of regrouping and coming back stronger. So if something bothers you now, deal with it while it’s still a ‘baby’ headache. Or else they tend to grow up very quickly!

Sometimes You Can’t Do It By Yourself

I HATE asking for help. I’ve always resisted this advice. I often feel that if I need help I’ve failed in some way. But I’ve discovered that there are a lot of people around me who have done a lot more living than me, or who know more about the subject that may be bothering me, than I do. What’s more, people often don’t mind sharing their experiences. I know when someone comes to me for help, I not only feel useful and valued, I’m usually pretty pleased at the prospect that perhaps my mistakes weren’t made in vain. There is nothing worse than wasted wisdom!

Career counsellors, mentors at work, friends or family you know and trust, someone who is doing what it is you want to be doing successfully – whether that’s a job, hobby, sport, pastime or relationship. All good sources. If you don’t want to ask a person, visit your bookstore or library. In the end the more resources you have, the better off you are. But only take on board advice that you think sounds right. Advice isn’t always free, so take it with a grain of salt.

Branch Out

All of us know the ‘rut’ feeling. Feeling bored or stuck, and unable to get out of a situation or place that isn’t comfortable anymore.

Defining moments and breaking points give us an opportunity to do something different. Which in turn requires you to do some research. Your daydreams are often the key.

If you’re not sure then do something that catches your eye. Go travelling, even if that’s only ‘down south’ for a day. Plan a weekend away, go for a walk along the beach, watch a sport you wouldn’t usually, shop somewhere different. The key is to break your routine in some way. It doesn’t have to be a huge, life-affirming statement. Introduce one different thing into your life and your mind will probably take over from there and start pushing you to the things, people or places you really want to explore.

Look After Yourself

You’ve probably heard this a million times, but THIS is a really key point. Change is draining. If you act on a Defining Moment, change will come in bucket-loads. Some of it may feel really good, but you may also feel uncomfortable, frightened or just plain tired for a while.

The thing is, unless we give something back to ourselves there is a good chance we won’t get to where we want to be. We have limited internal reserves and if you’re dipping into them you need to replace them. Otherwise, like a car running out of oil, you’re just going to stop at some point and not get much further without some heavy- duty maintenance. That’s simply all there is to say on this point.

Slow Down to Stay the Distance

As unfair as it may sound, you can’t reach for what you really want and hold onto what is familiar. It doesn’t work like that.

A Defining Moment is the catalyst for change, but you have to make room in your life for something new. That takes guts, because faced with uncertainty and doubt our first reaction is to hold on. So don’t.

Slow things down a bit and take a risk. You may get exactly what you want, you may get something better, or things may not go to plan for a while. Whatever happens, there is one way to guarantee you won’t get the change you are looking for - by holding onto what you’ve already got. The best piece of advice I’ve ever been given was incredibly simple, but terribly hard to apply. You can have anything you want - the only requirement is to say ‘no’ to everything else that rocks up.

It’s unequivocally true, but will probably be the basis of some of the toughest decisions you’ll ever make.

But I guess that’s the whole point. Defining Moments force us to make decisions and actively choose who we are going to be in this life. No one ever said decisions like that would be easy. They just said it’d be worth it.

And realising that my friends ...is a Defining Moment. 


1  Gilbert, E, Eat Love Pray (2006) Bloomsbury; London, page 328.

2  Clinical depression is a serious illness and the writer clarifies that the sort of ‘depression’ she is referring to is the milder reaction we often have to life-circumstances, rather than any continuing, serious affliction.

3  Quoted in Moore, T, Dark Nights of the Soul (2004) Piatkus; London, page 51.

4  ‘Shadow-boxing’ can refer to the unpleasant anxiety we experience when we worry about, or mentally fight, with the same worries, thoughts or scenarios in our mind without finding a solution. 


You’ve encountered a Defining Moment. What Now?

Confront the issue - acknowledge to yourself and others that you are not happy with an aspect of your life. Sometimes we need to ask for help in dealing with or solving the issue. Take this Defining Moment as an opportunity to branch out - go travelling, do something ‘different’ from your usual routine. Most importantly, look after yourself and realise that you may have to slow down to make the distance.

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