Power of Insight

Posted on November 14, 2014

As helpers, we are in the business of insight. It is insight that leads to change and insight that opens up new possibilities for a better future. Without insight, people will repeat destructive behaviors day after day, and often pass these behaviors from one generation to the next. The impact of insights echo throughout time in ways we often cannot predict or appreciate in the moment. While insight is critical to nearly every aspect of human existence, we spend little time focusing on the science and power beyond this very human phenomenon.
Webster’s defines insight as:
  1. The power or act of seeing into a situation; penetration
  2. The act or result of apprehending the inner nature of things or of seeing intuitively
From a brain science perspective, insight is difficult. The brain, as the organ that consumes 25% of the oxygen and glucose (blood sugar) we take in, is more concerned with creating efficient behavior and thinking patterns (habits). New ways of thinking and behaving entail building brain structure (synaptic connections) that can support these into the future. In other words, brains love habits and struggle with both insight and the changes insight often demand.
This helps explain why many people struggle to change even in the face of overwhelming evidence that change is necessary. I have seen parents lose their children to child welfare because they don’t stop using drugs, people on parole choose to continue behaviors which lead to long prison sentences, and patients not take medication that would save their lives. From a purely cause-effect perspective, these behaviors and choices make no sense.
If we take a small step back (and encourage policy makers to do the same!), we can understand these behaviors in a much different and more scientific light. From the neurobiological perspective, the “cause” is not the behavior that leads to the negative outcome. In truth, the cause happens years previously and, if assessed correctly, can be found in early childhood trauma, attachment issues, and impacts of social issues such as poverty, homelessness, or dangerous neighborhoods. As a society, we fail miserably to connect the dots and end up punishing victims and not fixing the causes of the behaviors.
While our failure is evident in our incarceration rates, rates of homelessness, and generational poverty, it does not change the need for people to have insights that can lead to behavioral changes that oftentimes literally save lives. If the insight that drives change does not happen, communities become less safe, people end up in prison, and too often the destructive thinking and behaviors are passed from parent to child.
Insight is the spark of hope and realization of the potential for a different future. Whether it is the apple hitting Newton in the head and providing insight to the nature of gravity, or a mother realizing that her children are important enough to her to consider substance abuse treatment, insight is a brilliant moment of powerful penetration into the reality of the issue or situation. Change is hard because insight is difficult. Change is hard because even once insight occurs, the brain must still develop the structures to support new behavior.
Insight is often thought of as a moment of brilliance, but this is only the start of the journey. For many of the people we work with, awareness of the dilemma is only the tip of the insight iceberg.  This awareness of a need to change still must overcome established habits and ingrained ways of thought. Approaches such as Motivational Interviewing help people see the dilemma. Often, the awareness is countered with high levels of denial and anger, as realization also shows what must be given up in order to actually make the change.
It is often difficult for people to understand why change does not just happen after someone realizes that a behavior is harming them. While losing one’s children or going to jail seem like powerful motivators, so are lung cancer, heart disease, and death, yet “normal” people continue to smoke and overeat at high rates. Knowing a behavior can kill you doesn’t eliminate that behavior – internal reflection does!
Change happens with reflection and mindful contemplation. When I look back at my own life, the changes I’ve been able to make have taken a tremendous amount of contemplation and time. For much of my life, I have had the stability, financial resources, and social support that provide me the time and energy to consider and implement change. For many of the people we work with who are living in poverty and homelessness, and who lack healthy social networks, contemplation is a luxury. It is impossible to contemplate when you are in survival model.
If we, as helpers, can create safe and trusting relationships, we can provide critical space for this contemplation. No matter how chaotic life is outside the relationship, if we can provide a supportive space for contemplation, the chances of change increase dramatically. While not understood by many, change occurs within the context of relationships. The more support and empathy someone receives, the more likely change is to occur.
Once contemplation occurs, the next critical step towards insight is hope. A vision of a better future pulls us into thinking patterns and behaviors that can lead to the realization of that reality. Hope provides the fuel for the journey of change. Insight is often equally a pull towards a better future and a pull away from destructive behaviors and their consequences.
It is at this point in the journey when insight leads to motivation and a commitment to tangible actions. The delay from realization to action can take a great deal of time and struggle. Many people take years to change behaviors. If they are lucky, they survive these years of struggle that too often lead to incarceration, destroyed lives and, sometimes, death. As helpers, we bear witness to this struggle and its impact on the people we work with and for whom we care deeply.

My question is week is more personal. Can you identify the impact of insight in your own life? What realizations have changed the course of your own life? 

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