I used to judge myself like crazy whenever I got confused.
I sometimes felt paralyzed, unable to take a stand, or even unable to make a clear decision in my life. I felt lost, hopeless, and powerless to change anything.
We all get confused from time to time. Confused by the constant stream of violence—actions, rhetoric, and divisive thoughts and beliefs—when we turn on the news. Confused by people expressing their interpretation of what is going on in the world, why, and what we should do. Confused about the state of a relationship, or the best way to move forward in a career, or maybe even about our “next step” in life.
We’ve all been there.
When this happens, I’ve learned to remind myself that confusion is my ally. It is my bridge to the other side of a dark chasm. And even though I can’t see it now, I know I’ll find clarity at the end of that bridge. All I have to do is walk toward it.
Why do we get confused?
Most of us experience confusion for two reasons. The first is that we fear what we don’t know. Confusion is the experience we have when we are at our edge, when we enter seemingly unknown territory, which can bring up an enormous amount of anxiety.
The second reason is that we fear what we know. We can be quite skillful at hiding what we know from ourselves, so spinning in confusion can be an opportune reason to not go there. In fact, when people are confused about a truth they don’t want to confront, this can prompt them to revert to something that feels “safe.” Confusion often triggers denial.
I’ve discovered that we often misinterpret confusion. We believe it’s “bad,” or we use it as an excuse to waffle around in indecision, or we power ahead because we think we should know what we are doing. We don’t usually make the choice to simply sit with the uncertainty.
In truth, we only experience that thing we label “confusion” when we believe there’s something wrong with what we are feeling. When this happens, we use our uncertainty to procrastinate, worry or talk ourselves out of taking a giant leap into a new possibility.
Confusion is the bridge.
These days, being confused excites me. I know it’s an opportunity to open up to possibility, to that place where I am not in judgment of myself or of others.
When we are confused, we beat ourselves up, and many of us believe that we just aren’t bright or knowledgeable enough to figure out a solution. That’s so not true for me. I’ve found that the most dangerous people are the ones who are absolutely sure of what they think they “know.”
Socrates famously said, “I know one thing: that I know nothing.”
This is the wisdom of confusion. “Not-knowing” is the material that builds the bridge towards knowing. Wisdom develops when we are willing to sit in that space of not-knowing. From there we are able to forge ahead into a powerful understanding.
Most us have been taught to bypass confusion with emotional reactivity (anger, frustration, helplessness, embarrassment, shame for not knowing the right answer) or the need to jump to immediate solutions. But confusion is an integral part of the learning experience
Think back to when we were kids exploring unknown territory. We didn’t immediately get into fix-it mode;we stopped to play and engage with that sense of unfamiliarity.
We all know that unfamiliarity can be super uncomfortable. When we experience confusion, our brains definitely feel like they’re getting scrambled—which we may automatically see as a threat to our safety and well-being. Our internal self can’t neatly fit a particular situation or event into a predictable pattern—and we don’t know how to react.
But in this scramble, a new space is being created—a space of possibility. It is a valuable opportunity to expand our understanding, both of ourselves, and of the world around us.
When we reinterpret confusion by saying “yes” to the sensation, we get closer to figuring out new solutions. We gain insights about things we didn’t previously know about. We also rewire our brains to respond to these moments with enthusiasm, not dread.
It is so important to stay in the moment when responding to confusion, rather than fussing about the past or worrying about the future.
Not knowing the outcome and not being able to plan our every move doesn’t mean that we are uncaring or ill-equipped to face life’s complexities. It means that we are being prompted to trust ourselves in the moment and to take action, even though we might not know where it will lead.
Learn to sit with your confusion.
There are tools that can help us learn to work through our confusion. Think of a situation that is confusing. Imagine you are lost, drifting around in the darkness without a flashlight. Instead of judging the confusion, consider the opportunities at hand. Sure, you may not know what those opportunities are yet, but instead of jumping ship, you can accept what you are experiencing. Instead of fearing it, you can embrace the feeling. Or more accurately, acknowledge your fear and dive in.
Rather than crushing our confusion or allowing it to stress us out, know that it is our bridge to the answer. Take a deep breath. Sit with it like an old friend for a while. Then, step away from the whirlwind. Distance can offer a fresh perspective—especially when we’re not consciously thinking about our “problem.” When we surrender to life and accept what is, we naturally allow inspiration to come flooding in.
Author: Kelly McNelis
Image: Instagram @elephantjournal
Editor: Yoli Ramazzina