The Oprah Magazine: Dr. Phil: “What do you pledge to focus on now?”

Dr. Phil: “What do you pledge to focus on now?” – Interview


PHILLIP C. McGRAW, PHD, urges us to understand the defining moments–personal and national–that shape us forever.

WHEN YOU REFLECT on your life, can you name ten defining moments? If not, says Dr. Phil, you’re missing a powerful opportunity for personal growth. In his new book, Self Matters (Simon & Schuster Source), he explains that over the course of a lifetime, each of us has only ten or so moments– some pleasant, some hurtful–that “write indelibly on the slate of who we are.” Something that occurs in the blink of an eye or in the time it takes someone to make a comment–something that happens when you’re 7 or 18 or 25–can affect your entire concept of who you are. The residual effects, whether positive or negative, can last a lifetime.

“A defining moment is much like a burn,” he says. “If you lean up against a hot stove, in less than a second the event is over. But the pain can last for weeks, months. The scar can last a lifetime. And the same is true for your psyche–it can be burned and disfigured. That’s why if we want to understand who we are and why we do what we do, we have to go back and find those moments.” We talked to Dr. Phil about how to understand the past in order to shape the future.

Q: Can you recognize a defining moment as it occurs, or only in hindsight?

A: There are things, particularly in your adult life, that happen so dramatically that you know I will never again be the same. Maybe better, maybe worse–but not the same. What I’ve found in 30 years of working with people, though, is that even those who have the ability to identify key moments typically do not have a fraction of appreciation for how pervasive and far-reaching they can be. For example, someone can be molested and might know at that point, I am different, I am damaged, I feel bad about being sexual. But they cannot tell you that it has affected everything from the way they feel in job interviews to how competitive they are, how much confidence they have, and what they require of themselves–until you force them to look at how this event has changed every aspect of their internal dialogue.

Q: Can others sometimes see these moments better than you can?

A: They can have more objectivity Parents, teachers, friends, and siblings can see that once this event occurred, you were changed.

Q: Is it helpful to ask people you trust to identify your defining moments?

A: Certainly, it is–if there’s someone you trust not to have an agenda that competes with your own. And that is a big if Most of us can count on one hand the people who will truly put our interests above their own. So many people have in mind what they want and expect us to do. But if you do have someone you trust, it’s good to ask two things: Number one, What do you think my defining moments are? And two, How do you see them manifested–do you think the effects are confined to one area or do they permeate other areas of my life?

Q: Many of these moments are intensely personal. Do you believe there can also be collective defining moments in a culture?

A: Not only can a defining moment occur collectively and culturally but it just did on September II. I have had so many people say to me, “You know, Phil, I feel violated. I feel outraged. But what puzzles me is that I am actually grieving.

I have not suffered a loss like the families who had loved ones in the airplanes or in the buildings. Why am I grieving?” You are grieving because you have suffered a loss. There has been a death of an era. A death of a lifestyle. I know it didn’t seem this way for some people, but as a country we have lived with an almost storybook absence of violence and attacks. And all of a sudden–talk about writing on the slate of who we are as a country–we are no longer immune. We quit being bulletproof

Q: Many people are saying, “You know, I thought I had problems before this happened–now I realize the things worried and fretted about were trivial.” But do you think this has caused people to reevaluate in an even deeper way, to say, “Life is precious and maybe I haven’t been spending my time the way I should”?

A: Definitely and absolutely, yes. I think this has caused people to refocus their priorities. In recent workshops I’ve asked three pivotal questions: First, what, before September II, did you think was profoundly important that today you see was of little consequence? Questions like Do I buy this car or not? Do we put our kids in school A or B? Now you think, My God, how inconsequential was that? The second question is, What prior to September II do you now see you were neglecting?

Q: What are people telling you?

A: Predictably, they have been telling me they no longer rake life, liberty, happiness, and safety for granted. Everyone already knew you could get in the car and head toward the office and be broadsided and killed right in your own neighborhood–we have all lived with those risks. But this was such a monumental defining moment that it forced people not to take for granted that which they truly value. A cloud this dark has no silver lining. But you try to find some way to create meaning, to create purpose after the fact. The third question is, What do you pledge to focus on now?

Q: Do you think people will remain changed? or will we forget?

A: As we get back into our lives and reintroduce the distractions-distractions that, frankly, we sort of need– the pain will be mitigated somewhat, but I don’t think Americans will soon forget. The whole idea of terrorism is to break down our lifestyle from the inside out. But terrorism backfired. There is a family in America and it has been attacked–and I think that has galvanized us.

Q: That raises a point that’s in the book– no matter how brutal the defining moment, we can shape the consequences.

A: Some of the most tragic, hurtful events cause people to rise from the ashes and say, “I will not succumb.” I do not mean that in a cliched way, that adversity builds character. I hate those barnyard bromides that try to make something more sufferable. But the truth is, oftentimes people take their experience and create something of value. The child who grows up with an alcoholic parent may decide never to fall prey to any kind of addiction. You see evil done, and by God, you will do exactly the opposite of what was intended so as to claim victory over it. And I clearly see Americans who are saying “Maybe I was lax and naive before, but I won’t be now, and I will embrace my brothers and sisters and my country more adamantly because you have threatened me.”

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