(The personal reflections on confusion quoted throughout this article were generously shared by "Michele." Thank you, Michele.)
"I often find myself feeling confused. It is a theme that has run through my life over many years. Now in my 60’s this trait has had long innings. It is confusion that often leaves me feeling inadequate and foolish, as if 'why can’t I sort things out, others seem to manage.' Confusion rears its ugly head when I have decisions to make. It also crops up when I am in a conflict and when I have a difference of opinion with someone."
Being confused about what we want, what is the right thing to do, or even who we are is distressing. The mind seeks clarity and the body feels best when we have certainty. While a state of confusion isn’t comfortable by any means, in the world of brain change it’s often a positive marker of growth or at least growth potential. Confusion means we are straddling change and motivated to find clarity.
What makes clarity difficult to achieve is that with clarity comes emotional risks. When we know what we want, we risk disappointing and angering ourselves and/or others. Clarity of who we are leads to consequences that come from living an authentic life - this is who I am. Will I still be loved and accepted?
So one way to understand confusion is to think of it as a protective defense. I’ve mapped it on the Change Triangle, my favorite tool to understand and work with emotions.
Confusion is a defense on the Change Triangle because it protects us from conflicts and emotions.
What helps move us from confusion to clarity is the ability to sense and work through emotions and conflicts in very specific ways. Specifically looking at confusion through an emotionally aware lens using the Change Triangle tool helps to:
Understand confusion and the accompanying anxiety as a signal that underlying emotions need naming and processing.
Recognize, soothe, and transform shame, guilt, and regret for potential mistakes.
Validate, and move through core emotions like sadness, anger, and fear. For example, we might have to move through sadness to be ok with missed opportunities. Anger may arise towards others who have negatively affected our confidence. We may have to address fears stemming from younger parts of us that live inside our minds anticipating punishment.
Summon courage and self-compassion by shifting into an openhearted state.
Confusion to Postpone Making Mistakes
"I struggled when I was trying to decide if I was going to marry. I felt confused for many weeks as the various pros and cons of making this step presented themselves. Because it was such an important and life impacting decision I became quite anxious. My desire to get it right added to the stress."
Like Michele, we all have a desire to “get it right.” However, if we are really living, then we are making mistakes. We cannot possibly know what choices are right for us until we live through them. And even if we make the right choice this year, years later we may grow and change in unpredictable ways to the point that our choice is no longer right. So we must learn to tolerate and forgive our mistakes.
Confusion to Spare Us Regret
Our confusion is trying to spare us the pain of being wrong so we don’t suffer regret. When we make choices we open ourselves to negative consequences. It’s just a part of life. Can we move past regret? It’s not so easy. But learning from bad decisions and applying that knowledge forward can take the sting out of regret. And, of course, forgiving ourselves helps immensely.
Confusion So We Don’t Have to Mourn Losses
If Michele decided to marry, she’d have many potential losses to process: the loss of her freedom, the loss of finding someone she thought would be more ideal, or the loss of having total control over her time and environment, to name a few.
If we cannot tolerate sadness it will be hard to make decisions. Why? Because with every decision there is a loss for the choice not taken. Losses evoke sadness, a core emotion. Sadness cannot be intellectualized away. Sadness must be felt and processed through the body, where emotions live. Crying, for example, is the healthy physical process of releasing sadness.
Confusion to Obscure Conflicts
"I struggled to know what I wanted and the inner experience was like having nothing solid to stand on and things in my head went round and round in circles. It felt like my mind was engaged in combat as thoughts and ideas fought for recognition. My head would feel tense and as if there was a great pressure on it. My stomach at times would churn. The decision felt far more complex than yes or no, like a linear tug of war, but more like a boxing ring with many thoughts all around feeding in to add fuel to the flames of my confusion. Both thoughts and feelings were muddled and unclear."
The conflicts with which we struggle can catapult us into confusion. For example, if Michele thought getting married would bring her nothing but joy, she would likely be all-in. However, when a situation brings forth joy and fear, deciding what to do will likely be confusing. Again, we will get closer to clarity as we process fear and simultaneously usher in courage.
Just the way we negotiate conflicts with others, we can negotiate internal conflicts by communicating with our conflicted parts. Identify the emotions, beliefs, physical sensations, and fantasies of one part without bouncing to the other part. Then wholly get to know the other side. Once both parties have spoken, have a conversation within yourself and work out compromises and contingencies.
For example, if Michele feared her husband was wonderful in every way except that he was a little boring, she might resign herself to having more stimulating friendships to supply that need. Then she might have to process the loss of the fantasy that she would marry someone who would entertain her with his intellect.
Tips to Move From Confusion to Clarity
Accept that no choice is perfect: both sides have pros and cons or a benefit and a cost.
Literally ask yourself, “If I wasn’t confused what would I know deep in my gut?” --Believe it or not, sometimes your gut will answer back with clarity.
Acknowledge both sides of the conflict. Change the BUT to an AND. For example, “I am scared to get married AND I want to get married.” Instead of trying to reconcile something irreconcilable, learn about each part. Name the feelings held by each part. Learn what the fearful part of you fears. Validate those emotions. Process the emotions in your body. It may also be necessary to process feelings that have roots in the past. For example, if Michele had witnessed her mother being emotionally or physically abused by her father, she might need to process emotions from that trauma and build confidence that she would not tolerate abuse like her mother did. Processing trauma is more easily done with a therapist.
When you pick your best option, anticipate feeling emotions like sadness for the road not taken and fear of the unknown. As you process losses and work through fears, know that joy and excitement for what you have said yes to will follow.
When you find yourself confused or jumping back and forth between options, that’s the time to pause and reflect. Say to yourself, “OK. I’m experiencing confusion. There’s a good reason and it probably means there are deep emotions to name, validate, and process.” Then do just that!
A+ for trying!