The Deceptively Quiet Truth About Most “Aha” Moments

You’d think my “aha” moment — the moment I knew my life choices had led me horribly, dangerously off-track — might be the Friday night I texted Crisis Services and told them I didn’t want to die, per se, I just didn’t want to live anymore.

Or the following Monday morning, when I couldn’t stop sobbing long enough to get my body into the bathroom to shower for work.

Or the hour or so after that, when I sat on the couch across from my crazy doctor and heard the words, “I’m writing you a note for work. You should be on short-term disability.”

But those were just the final tolls of warning bells I should have recognized much earlier.

Like the time I made a mad dash to Kohl’s to charge a brand-new wardrobe for my brand-new 9-to-5, thinking a shinier, corporate-r outside would help me feel more like I belonged in the shinier, corporate-r world I was trying to convince myself I belonged in. (There’s a difference between natural self-doubt/Imposter Syndrome and the gut suspicion you’re a round peg trying to force yourself into square-hole-dom.)

Or the times I went to a friend’s for a quiet one-cocktail catch-up on a weeknight and drank so much so fast trying to keep the next morning from coming I got violently ill each time. (Cocktails and crazy pills don’t mix, and the extra dose of antidepressants I was on should also have told me something.)

But if I had to pinpoint “it” — that time when things got so ridiculously out of whack with anything I’d ever imagined myself doing or being I should have known something was awry– it was the time I found myself at the dollar store debating just the right mix of bite-size candy for the new candy dish I was putting on my desk in the private office I’d thought would be the thing that finally made the screaming in my soul die down (so far it hadn’t).


Let Me Explain…

I know there’s nothing inherently unnerving about this scenario, but few things in life are as simple as they seem, and this particular unspectacular moment had behind it the weight of dozens of unspoken and unacknowledged red flags that made my stomach go squidgy even as I was trying to convince myself it was unspectacular.

To whit:

  • In the past, I’ve considered few elements of the 9-to-5 more cliched and sad than someone putting a candy dish on their desk to attempt to lure people they don’t really care to chat with over to chat with them. Not to say there’s anything inherently wrong with it; it’s just one of those things about cubeland that always gave me that fingernails-on-chalkboard feeling.

I don’t do the 9-to-5 very well to begin with, as has been well-established.

The fact that I’d deteriorated to this particular Hail Mary should have told me something. I ignored this.

  • The impetus behind my attempting this charade was that, after weeks of working my ass off while carefully navigating the lay of my new land and forming what I thought were some promising initial friendships, a douchey attorney who rarely spoke to me breezed into my office to give me “his two cents” that I should “get out and shoot the shit” more with my coworkers.

I immediately translated this to mean that a) everyone secretly hated me and thought I was snobbish and b) keeping my nose to the grindstone had somehow done the opposite of what I intended and convinced the entire office I was a horrible fit for this position. I desperately needed to convince others I was the right fit so that I might in turn calm my own suspicions the position wasn’t right for me. (I also had flashbacks to middle-school-pariah Cordelia, the PTSD from which is at the root of most my social anxiety issues.)

This instantaneous unravelling of all self-confidence based on a few careless words from someone I considered douchey should have told me something. I ignored this.

  • I spent a good half-hour in the tiny candy aisle at the dollar store agonizing over which candies to put in my coworker lure. The blue-and-silver wrappers on the cookies-n-creme Hershey’s Kisses matched my new office decor, but would enough people be interested in white chocolate to make this design choice worthwhile? A variety pack of mini candy bars would be the most universally appealing, but the wrapper colors were all wrong and it just felt like a complementary candy-and-decor scheme would somehow convey my creativity as a person and my mastery as a personal injury paralegal.


It was dollar store candy I was putting in a canister I’d found in the back of my spare Tupperware drawer, and if candy is around, people will eat it and think no more of the matter.

The fact that I thought this decision meant anything — let alone, as it felt at the time, everything — should have set off so many alarms in my mind the fire department was called in to see if the store was ablaze.

I ignored this.

I stayed in that aisle picking up bag after bag of candy from the limited selection, evaluating them side by side like they were precious metals, pacing back and forth with them, and putting them back down again until even I couldn’t ignore the fact I must look like an absolute lunatic. Finally, after half an hour of this nonsense, I grabbed the two bags I’d picked up the most often and checked out shamefacedly with them, feeling for all the world like I’d somehow failed a monumental life test.

Then, a few weeks later, I unravelled for good.

If I’d been paying any attention at all to my gut over the months leading up to this moment, I’d have seen this coming from miles away. In the movie of my life, that scene in the dollar store would be the one that makes the entire audience shout at the screen, “You fool, get out! Danger, danger!” as if I were a hot girl entering a basement in a horror movie. In other words…


This Is Not About a Candy Dish

For me, that’s what “it” was — my “aha” moment that arrived not with an Eat, Pray, Love-like bang but with a whimper that had been whimpering in the back of my mind for months. It was the latest in a series of signs that could have been turning points if I’d had the insight and nerve to listen to them.

For you, it could be something else seemingly unspectacular that actually holds a world of personal warning.

When you spot your new boyfriend at the grocery store and your initial instinct is to turn sharply down the next available aisle before he sees you.

When your best friend gives you a gorgeous green scarf even though you’ve mentioned a zillion times that green isn’t really your thing.

Or, hell, even the inability to throw a waffle (see below).

I don’t know what your “aha” moments look like.

But you do.

You know it in your gut, in that moment, when something in the back of your mind, in the pit of your stomach, in the depths of your soul shouts: This doesn’t feel right. Something’s off here. This is bothering me way too much.

Mundane but meaning-packed moments like this are easy to overlook and even easier to brush aside, because to the outside world — and even to ourselves, with enough denial — they don’t seem like much at all. But self-awareness often comes not in a part-the-clouds revelation but in quiet, nagging suspicions that on the surface seem silly.

If something about a moment feels capital-W wrong, no matter how much you try to dismiss it, chances are it’s the kind of moment you should pay some attention to.


Pretty Girls and Waffles

There’s an episode in the highly underrated TV show Ed that always stuck with me when I was searching for my “Mr. Right.” In it, Carol Vessey (Julie Bowen of Modern Family fame) is making breakfast for her boyfriend Nick and has a momentary urge to playfully throw the waffle she’s made at him. She checks that urge for some reason, then spends the rest of the episode struggling over whether this means something more.

Why did she feel like she needed to censor her goofiness? Why wasn’t she comfortable enough to act spontaneously? Is this the latest in a series of signs this relationship isn’t meant to be?

Her friends think she’s overreacting. She keeps feeling there’s something to it. She eventually breaks up with Nick, only to be surprised later in the episode to find wannabe-suitor Ed (her real Mr. Right) on her front lawn throwing waffles at her house in the most endearingly silly gesture this side of 10 Things I Hate About You.

(Personal aside: I later told this story to my now-husband as I lamented the fact that Ed has never been released on DVD. He spent the better part of last Christmas finding and burning a digital copy of the entire first season onto DVDs for us to watch together — yet one of the many signs he is, in fact, my Mr. Right.)

The moral of this story?


Moments Matter

More importantly, how we feel about these moments matters.

Your mind has a way of getting caught up on the small things when you’re heading in the wrong direction altogether.

Your gut knows when you’re on the second-to-last step heading into a basement that, as melodramatic as it sounds, feels like it’s harboring something bad.

Learn to listen to this, take the time to analyze it, respect what it’s trying to tell you. Because you know when you know something just ain’t right. (Tweet!) The next step is to trust that feeling and decide what you need to do in response to it.


What “aha” moments have you been ignoring lately? What might they be trying to tell you?

Image:  Marek Piepers / Flickr

Never miss a post! Sign up here and get a free copy of Your Guide to Calling It Quits.

  • Marilyn

    Aha moment: When I started to panic about Monday on Thursday night and spent the entire weekend trying to not cry because I had to go back to work.

    I am a round peg and the corporate world is definitely made for square pegs. You are NOT alone. Not even close.

    I don’t think you are crazy. I just think you are terribly unhappy and they aren’t even close to the same thing.

  • Louise Ann Carlson Stowell

    Mine was yesterday, as a matter of fact. Christmas is hard for me as my husband and I married on New Year’s Eve. Ha passed almost three years ago. He was THE love of my life. During church yesterday, everyone was talking about “happy family traditions.” I got the cut and run before you start screaming uncontrollably reaction. I tamped it down once and then it happened again. As I left church rapidly, I sat crying in the car in front of my house. The next thing I know, I’m on my computer looking at over 50 singles. I stepped away from the computer…made myself some cocoa and had a breather. That “Ick” factor feeling crept into my stomach almost making me vomit. I had the sense to listen to it. I went back to the computer and deleted my information and the website…and instantly felt better. Missing the family activity and my husband is natural, but I was running due to desperation to reinvent something that I can’t.

    I know it isn’t the same as the corporate thing. But it is that “Ah Ha” moment. I’ve watched my girlfriends do what I almost did and been miserable.

    I love your articles and I love your bravery for talking about this because a lot of people wouldn’t even want to admit a tiny bit of what you dealt with. I get it. I’ve been there once before with a job in the past and it bit me….HARD.

    Just want you to know I needed this this morning. You sort of gave me the “That a Girl! You Listened!” verification. Love and hugs to you!

    • I’ll do you one better and say your story is an inspiration. So many times the bad (or, to phrase it less judgingly, “wrong for us”) roads we lead ourselves down are due to those snap decisions we make in the heat of the moment in response to some sort of overpowering situation. Listening to that gut feeling that told you something wasn’t right was an act of bravery and honesty on your part, and the instant relief you felt was another inner voice speaking to you — this time, saying, “you did the right thing.”

      I am so incredibly sorry for the loss of your husband. I can’t even imagine what I’d feel in your shoes and I know the holidays are especially hard when you’re coping with loss of any kind. I hope you have a circle of friends and family you can surround yourself with to make the season a little less difficult. I am sending love and hugs right back if that helps even a little.

      • Louise Ann Carlson Stowell

        Hi Cordelia,
        I do have a good circle I am in. Oddly, some new friends came over last night that I wasn’t aware had know my husband. The husband said “Terry?” I said yes, that was my husband. He then replied that he had worked with my hubby on the local volunteer EMT team years before and knew him quite well. He hadn’t put two and two together. When they left last night, he hugged me and said “We were specifically sent to you right now.” That was HUGE!!!! So, guess Terry orchestrated that one.

        Now on to you. Girl, you have no idea how much you have influenced me. You gave me the courage to get my stuff out there. I now have a blog ( and am posting my poetry, artwork, and photography out there. I also have a Google+ page, too. I want you to know that your love and hugs are felt and I send them back out to you.

        You, my friend, are a gift that keeps giving! Don’t you EVER give up writing this column. You never know who you influence. Merry Christmas (Yes, I am also Politically Incorrect!) 🙂

    • Oh. Louise ~ So many big {{{hugs}}} for your huge loss(es) – my husband passed over 6 years ago, and I still miss the easy give-and-take we had, and the friendly sounding board… <3

      • Louise Ann Carlson Stowell

        Hi Karen,

        It soooo sucks, but you know I know he’s out there watching over me. I’m just glad I had the sense to listen to my gut. Cordelia is amazing. SHe;’s been an inspiration to me. Dare I say mentor without knowing.

        Thank you so much for your kind words and hugs! They help! I’m sending them right back out to you! Merry Christmas, my friend!

  • Saja

    How do I know if the feeling to move on isn’t me trying to make me into a square peg? I like my job but it’s very demanding and I get the feeling sometimes it’s not enough. I teach at a very small academic program. I get this feeling that I should be making more money and put myself in a better position to prepare for retirement. But then I hesitate feeling like I’d be exhausted. But I’m already tired .

    • I’m afraid only you can answer that question, dear reader.

      Listen to your gut for clues over the days and weeks to come. Make pro/con lists. Play the coin game with yourself (instructions here:

      There will always be ambiguity in any decision — a million reasons why you shouldn’t make a certain choice, a million reasons why you should. And the truth about feelings and logic is that both can lead you in contradictory directions. But if you found out you had X years left to live, which direction would you rather die knowing you had taken? Which would you regret if you didn’t take it?

      Again, only you know the answer to this. I hope you find it!

  • r-evolve

    Great message Cordelia!
    So true. My mind is not my best friend. It really causes so much problem, work, trouble and effort where it is not really needed. In the last 2-3 years it really has caused me to stay in a job that was killing me, allowed me to ignore my wife and family, nearly break it all, push her to another and at the end of it all told me that just have another beer, it’ll be alright.
    With a shit ton of introspection I know where I was wrong. I know I put my attention and efforts to what I thought I should rather than what I cared deeply for.

    Your story is so timely. And great to hear! As, I always thought I was just crazy to buck to the beliefs of the crowd. I knew I always wanted to do my own thing(s) and have fun with my wife and family…

    With a tremendous amount of pain, work and now fun – I truly believe anything is possible. I have had to realize my massive errors, forgive myself, forgive others and truly work on what is great for me.

    Thank you and have an amazing week!

    • Jumping up-an-down with that “thumbs up”, r-evolve!

      • r-evolve

        Thank you Karen!
        It is so great to hear that I am not alone with my old way of thinking!

      • Yes, R- Those “shoulds” will kill ya, if ya let ’em! I read somewhere that “‘Shoulds’ are only somebody else’s rules” – they really need have NOTHING to do with how WE live OUR lives! You’re NOT crazy to want what You want, and you’ve discovered that! Yay!
        Bright Blessings to you 🙂 !

        • r-evolve

          Love it – thank you Karen!
          Means a lot!!

    • I know your story all too well, my friend. It’s only when you hit the wall sometimes that you realize just how much “follow your heart” isn’t a cliched mantra but the only chance for living with any modicum of happiness.

      My recent revelation was that as long as I have my health (as much as possible), my husband and a roof over my head, the rest of the world and its expectations can take a flying leap. Doing what I thought I “should” very nearly killed me and my relationship, and I will be damned if I make that same mistake ever again.

      I am very grateful to hear you’ve made a similar journey towards recovery, and that you’ve emerged on the brighter side. I’m working to get there myself now…

      • r-evolve

        Love that you share and really hate you have had the same story. It really is shitty.
        But, with all, you are right, you do come out o the other side way effin stronger.
        If I see “should” hitchhiking on the side of the road he will be flattened. For real.

        It really is that simple, health, family and love. Its all I need. I am so glad you are there, talking about it. Working on it. You know it, but it is worth it. The pain, heartache, betrayal, all will never happen again!

        It is still a work in progress, and progress is being made. If I can help, please ask. I’m an open book after what I’ve been through. Really ain’t anything that is embarrassing after public and personal failure. Keep working. Do not stop. Worth it!

  • Dear Cordelia ~ I love that you’re keeping-on being so open and sharing here!
    I’m heading out to apply for *what I hope* will be a ‘good fit’ office job…

    For those of us who need to *forgive ourselves* for whatever – this is a marvelous prayer:

    It’s designed for women, but ‘gender’ is an artificial construct, yaknow!
    All kinds of Bright Blessings to you all!

    • Best of luck on the job search and happy to see you in the comments again, Karen!

      • Thanks, Kelly! Good to see *you* back, too!

  • Becky Troup

    I’ve been losing sleep over reenlisting with the Navy. I have a 5 year old. The two don’t go well together. But I’m tired of having dreams of being back in the service and waking feeling such heartbreak that I am not. I’m tired of searching endlessly for a purpose each day- once my kid is at school, all I can do is go to a 9-5 job where I have always, ALWAYS become bored easily. I like change, I like hard work, I like wearing a uniform, deployments, having my job changed up, being challenged, traveling, and so forth. I’m almost 40 and I can’t mull this over any longer before I can no longer return to the service. I am begging my brain to have an AHA moment so I can finally get out of this phase of “what do I do?”

    • Don’t dismiss the fact that some of those “aha” moments may have already come. Every time you have trouble sleeping, it’s an “aha” moment. Every time you have a dream that leaves you feeling heartbroken, it’s an “aha” moment. I’m willing to bet that if you don’t already secretly suspect what you should do, you’re pretty close to getting there. The gut is fantastic about making sure of that — your choice then becomes what to do with that information.

      I don’t know what your ultimate answer is (only you know that), but it sounds like you owe it to yourself to at least start exploring what your next steps might look like. If your current job isn’t doing it for you, are there any other non-service jobs that might make you happy? If the Navy is where you need to be, what will that mean for the rest of your life? Do you have any close friends/family who know you and your circumstances well who could give you some additional perspective? It sounds like you’re in a place where you need to do something different — the challenge now is to determine what that “different” looks like for you. I am sincerely rooting for you that you find it. 🙂

  • From Desk to Dawn

    My “aha” moment in corpland was when I found myself sobbing unceremoniously in the disabled bathroom… about three times a week. I’d literally schedule time to go there and cry. 9am – meeting. 10am – 15 minutes crying session. When you’re scheduling a breakdown, things aren’t good…

    Can totally relate to you, Kelly – thank you for sharing this wonderful piece 🙂

    • Ahhh… been there, done that. I used to be thankful my shiny new office had a private door I could close, because I’d pretend I was on a conference call or other uninterruptible business so I could get out a quick silent sob. When you have a compact you keep in your desk to make sure your mascara hasn’t run before you open your door again, that’s a definite sign as well.

      • From Desk to Dawn

        Oh, an office to cry in, how luxurious! Seriously though, I was in cubicle land. it’s quite hard to hide crying at your desk when there’s simply a cubicle wall blocking you from your neighbour. Sigh. Thanks Kelly, really glad to know I wasn’t the only one 🙂

        • It’s not all it’s chocked up to be. I hoped a door to close and the kind of firm that’s located in a building with a waterfall in the foyer would make everything tolerable for me. Souls don’t work that way. Lesson learned. 🙂

          • From Desk to Dawn

            Yep, fair call. Office or no office, crying at work is an aha moment for sure!

  • Pingback: Extra reading - content + creativity - Creative ideas + content inspiration()

  • Mishel

    I feel this way most of the time but I call it LIFE RATTLING ME! When I am not where I should be, life does everything to make me get up and get out as quickly as possible! I know where I want to be but it takes these hurdles to get me there!

    • That’s a great phrase for it — I often feel like things like this are the universe’s way of telling me “dude, you’re on the wrong track” but “signs from the universe” sounds a little too woo-woo for my personal taste. “Life rattling me” is perfect!