A Defining Moment

The story of our life is not our life. It’s simply our story. It is my belief that our way of being is subconsciously based on a defining moment that impacted us in our childhood. If we had the ability to take that moment, delaminate from it, and view it from a distance, we could see that what happened to us, actually happened for us. We could use our “story” as a way to “wake up.” That story, that first moment in time when our small world turned upside down, determines who we become in the world. Everyone has one an original incident, and how we hold the defining moment that unsettled us determines our experience of life, not the event itself. The beauty of it all is that from that event—and the stories we’ve told ourselves about it—become our greatest gifts. There is a saying, “Where we are the most wounded, we are the most accomplished.” That moment in time is what we bring to the party, determining our jobs, careers, or passions. We need its abrasive sand to form the pearl we become.

  • 14. Country Fresh 1975 - 1980, SonomaDuring the time I lived with my mother, from age five through nine, I suffered with vomiting spells, dehydration, and malnutrition. She cooked only occasionally: one-pot meals like soup or spaghetti, so my main diet was Wonder Bread and Bosco sandwiches, Frosted Flakes, and packets of Kool-Aid powder. On the flip side, as an adult, a friend and I launched a natural carrot juice company and for five years, Country Fresh Products supported our families, becoming the largest juice company north of Santa Cruz.
  • Because my mother often couldn’t pay the rent, we moved from place to place. Every time we moved or I enrolled in a new school, I’d go through the stress of trying to remember how to get home. All I wanted was one house to live in. I find it noteworthy that today I co-own a real estate company and sell homes for a living.
  • I was a clumsy kid. My sister called me Grace. It was painful and at times dangerous living in my body, and I recollect having the ability to leave it. I think I must have gotten too far away once and lived down the street for a while. I had little awareness of my surroundings, so I was covered with scabs and bruises from tripping or bouncing off the nearest furniture. When the opportunity to learn to dance presented itself, I took it by the hand, and after years of practice I re-inhabited myself. If my sister could see me now!
  • I spent my childhood dazed and confused. After years of personal transformational work, I’ve come to a clarity that is equal to my confusion. However, I still am confused, but now I’m aware of it.
  • Driven to understand my fractured family, I’ve amassed thousands of hours on our genealogy, digging up details, recording our stories, keeping the family together.
  • My experience of my relationship with my mother compelled me to resolve it. Writing our family story gave us both the opportunity to be seen and heard.

However, I didn’t plan on doing any of these things. They were never my dream. I was caught in the undercurrents, driven and enveloped in these endeavors. I believe they became my way to heal what was sidelined in me. They’ve also been my way to make a difference to others.

Cathy Clemens, age 6

Cathy Clemens, age 6

In my defining incident—dropped off at my mother’s doorstep at the age of five—I created some beliefs about myself. “How did I get here? She doesn’t care about me. I didn’t do anything wrong.” My bottom line became, “I am invisible, I am not cared about, it doesn’t matter to her if I’m here or not. I am a victim in these circumstances.” That’s my recollection, my interpretation of what happened. My mother’s story would have a different spin.

My version of the incident was cemented in my psyche, and follows me around like an unrelenting beggar. Whenever I’m triggered and overly upset about being ignored or left out, I know I’m being thrown into my past. I know because the feeling is visceral, and because I’ve had so much practice, I recognize it instantly. These incidents happen throughout my life, and they all have the same flavor. The cast of characters changes, but I’m the director of this play: it’s my movie camera, my repeated patterns, my Groundhog Day. Until I recognized that I was the one who was making it real, gathering all the evidence and having everyone agree with me, I was stuck. I created primary relationships that echoed the one with my mother, feeling invisible and not cared about, the “innocent victim.” It’s so perfect that I married my mother, a man whose tagline in life was, “Don’t know, don’t care,” who by the end of our five-year marriage occasioned in me all those old feelings of being unloved. I had to realize I had a part in creating these relationships, and in a weird way benefited from them. In my mind I confirmed that my story was true. Even though I was miserable, it was familiar territory; I knew the rules. And I got to be right. However, my mindset didn’t serve me or contribute to my betterment in any way.

E-SymbolWith a lot of coaching and self-reflection, I was finally onto myself and the racket I ran. I still get caught on occasion, but I don’t go as far down the rabbit hole. I also rebound faster. If I feel myself getting snagged, I pause and think, “It appears there’s still work to do around this.” It always has to do with unfinished business with my mother who continues to show up on a regular basis in the guise of others.

I still spend a good part of my life in confusion and getting lost, however, I’ve come to terms with it. It’s frustrating; it wastes vast amounts of time, but I’ve seen parts of the world I might’ve missed and I’ve gotten to know gas station attendants everywhere. I have to ask for help, something I’m not very good at. I questioned my teacher Michael about it. Know what he told me?

“To the degree that you have confusion, to that same degree you have a crystal clarity. Your gift is in both. Your confusion in an odd way serves you; it softens your shield, and is one of the few ways become vulnerable.”

Hence, with all of this, I embrace what happened to me as a kid. Viewed from a distance, with perspective and no judgment, I see how it all happened for me and molded me into who I am today. Besides, I’d rather have my incident than some that happened to a lot of others; things could have been much worse. I turned out fine. I not only survived, but I’ve thrived. I may be a bit neurotic, a tad obsessive-compulsive, and still am directionally challenged, but I do get things done!

So that’s my story, and I’m sticking to it.

Catherine Sevenau


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  1. I’ve been chewing on this all week, and keep wondering if there might be more than one defining moment. I might have several. I like the idea of working with you on this one of these days! Thanks for opening this door for us curious ones!

    • My experience is that we have one main incident which repeats itself, becoming, so to say, our “theme” in life. However, I know I have a second one with my father that has a different flavor and was not as impactful as the original one with my mother. I’m five years old and visiting my dad at his house on Belvedere, just a half block up from the store on Haight Street. While waiting for him as he’s gone to work for a while, I straighten up the house. My memory starts where I’m sitting at the bottom of the interior staircase, waiting for him to return. When he comes through the front door I say, “Daddy, I dusted the banister!” He inspects it and says, “You missed a spot.” I was crestfallen. So badly wanting his approval and praise, you can bet that from then on out I wasn’t going to be missing ANY spots again, and throughout my life, very few details get past me. And yes, I’d love to work with you on what may be yours.

  2. Susie Price says

    Cathy – this is… what is the word I want? Interesting? Fascinating? No – too detached sounding. Profound, getting close… I want to read your blogs from now on.

    • Have you signed up on my website? The blogs will come into your email that way. Too easy to miss on Facebook. Incident work is some of the most useful (and life-changing) work I’ve done. You fall in love with others when you hear what makes them tick. And they get a profound (yes, that is the right word) sense of themselves when they uncover it.

  3. Cath, it’s taken decades for me to realize that I am not my story… that we are so much more than our story. Working with you to identify my incident really helped me to see when and where I am re-manifesting it’s recurrence through the various people and situations that present in my life. Thank you, my friend, for helping me peer through the keyhole of the past into ever widening insight.

  4. Nicely put Cath.
    My incident was having the door shut in my face by a Mennonite woman when I (a Catholic) showed up donning a present for her daughter’s birthday party, age 6. I was told I couldn’t come in because I believed in the Virgin Mary. Well, I was dazed and confused and decided I was in the wrong religion.
    I spent twenty years searching for the right one, in my 20’s and 30’s. Of course I never found it, but, working with Michael, I realized it was my incident driving me all those years. I never really believed in religion, I simply wanted to be let into that party. When I gave up the search I became an atheist and have never felt more found.

  5. Bob Rice says

    Powerful insights my friend, clearly expressed. I always feel lucky for having opened and read your eloquent compositions.

  6. Richard Sinay says

    I forgot to think of that moment. All that driving and just mindless gazing. I will contemplate on my walks. Will let you know!

  7. Hmmm. Contemplating.

  8. Lots of food for thought. Now I will be trying to figure out my defining moment and how it shaped me. But you are right. I think we balance our early experiences with who we become as adults. We unknowingly take paths that help us heal the wounds of childhood.

    • If you’re willing to spend an hour on the phone, I can work with you to find it. But then I’ll want to write your story, changing the name of course to protect the innocent.