The ingenuity of confusion

Welcoming and understanding confusion!

In my empathic approach to emotions, I’ve separated emotions into seventeen categories that are based on the unique actions each emotion requires. When I created these categories, I wasn’t trying to erase emotional nuance; I did it so that you could get a handle on your emotions and develop a working emotional vocabulary.

I identified two states that I call masking states: apathy masks the boundary-setting emotion of anger (and thank goodness it does sometimes!), and confusion masks the instinctual, action-oriented emotions of fear and anxiety (when you need a break from input, or when there’s too much input to process).

Both of these masking states are necessary and worthwhile, but because they are masks, it’s important to understand what they’re masking and why. 

CONFUSION: The Mask for Fear and Anxiety

ACTION REQUIRED: Confusion is a mask for fear and anxiety, and it arises when you’re overwhelmed by too much input, change, and novelty, or too many tasks and options. Confusion can be a lovely vacation from overwhelm.

GIFTS: Diffused awareness ~ Innocence ~ Malleability ~ Taking a time-out

THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS: What is my intention? What action should be taken?

The message in confusion from The Language of Emotions

This information is from my book, The Language of Emotions.

Audio and book covers for The Language of EmotionsThe masking state of confusion arises when there’s too much input to process, when you can’t or won’t access your fears, or when you’ve lost your instincts. Confusion also arises when there’s simply too much for your anxiety to keep track of.

Confusion works to help and protect you by halting your actions, but it can easily move into a persistent and unresolving state if you don’t know how to work with it.

It’s fine to be confused, but it’s important to know why confusion appears. If you can engage empathically with your confusion, you can revive your instincts and intuition and discover why you’re unable to make decisions or take decisive actions.

In a confusion, you may not be able to make decisions, because they might not be the right decisions; you might not be able to move ahead, because you might move in the wrong way; you may not be able to think clearly, because you can’t translate, store, or retrieve information properly; and you’re often disconnected from the lessons of the past, so you may make the same mistakes over and over again.

If you fight your confusion and force yourself to make a decision, you’ll almost certainly fall right back into the confusion again (or you’ll relentlessly second-guess yourself).

The practice for confusion is not to erase it or blast your way through it, but to take the time to discover why this masking state has arisen; confusion stops you for a reason.

Intention ends all ambiguity

My husband Tino, who’s a lucid dreamer, found the perfect question for confusion in a dream, where he heard this saying: “Intention ends all ambiguity.” Since then, if either of us drops into confusion about some decision, project, or relationship, we ask each other “What’s your intention?”

This question usually illuminates the struggles and difficulties we face — and the reason our confusion showed up in the first place. Our confusion lifts, other emotions come forward, our focus and grounding come back, and we become able to think clearly again. From this place, we can thank our confusion for stopping us, because we always find something seriously off in our situation, our behavior, or our intentions.

Knowing our intentions does end our ambiguity, and the saying is just as true if you say it backward: Ambiguity ends all intention. Many thanks to Tino and the dream realm; that’s a definite keeper!

The practice for confusion

The practice for confusion is very simple in theory, but it’s sometimes difficult in reality. You simply ask yourself what your intention is – not which direction you should go, what choice you should make, or what thing you should do, but what your intention is.

Confusion stops you when you’re overwhelmed, or when you’re not following your instincts or listening empathically to your fear. Confusion also steps forward when there’s too much going on, or when you’ve lost access to the genius of your anxiety. Gently questioning your intentions will almost always help you pinpoint why your intuition and your instincts have departed.

Intention ends all ambiguity — and the opposite is also true; Ambiguity ends all intention. When you know what your intentions are, you can often identify the situations your confusion is responding to.

In most cases, confusion arises to drape a gauzy fog over you when your behavior or your motivations aren’t compatible with who, what, or where you really want to be. Pushing forward from a confused state will almost certainly take you off your path; therefore, your confusion acts as an important emotional rest stop.

If you thoughtlessly push ahead, you’ll almost certainly move in an unhelpful direction, but if you can stop yourself and question your situation and your intentions, you’ll be able to reassess your true needs. When you can do this, you’ll often realize (sometimes with a start, sometimes with a thud) why you’ve been unable to think or act.

When you know your intentions, you’ll realize why your confusion is present.

Here’s an example of this practice: Let’s say you’re trying to decide between two jobs, but you absolutely can’t. If you push forward and force yourself to decide, you’ll probably become more and more conflicted until you drop into a serious confusion. Then, you’ll almost certainly make a decision you’ll never feel comfortable about (but at least you decided – right?).

However, if you can stop yourself and question your intentions, you may find that both jobs have serious and even insurmountable problems – and that the best decision might be to walk away from both of them. This can be a distressing discovery, especially if you’ve got to get a job right now because the rent is due.

However, if you’re dedicated to living a full and authentic life, you’ll much prefer scrambling for the rent this month and refocusing your job search over ignoring your intuition and possibly selling your soul or losing your vision. We all know people who took an ill-advised job just to pay the rent, and are still working there – miserable and stuck – fourteen years later.

Your confusion stops you for a reason! Take the time to rest in its soft and gauzy awareness, and in its not-knowing and not-doing. There are many times when the genius of confusion can help you take a breather and reassess everything so that you can move forward with clearer intentions.

It’s elemental, my dear: a deeper practice for confusion

Sometimes, questioning your intentions doesn’t get you to the crux of your confusion. In these cases, I’ve found that an elemental approach can be useful, because it can help you identify different aspects of yourself and discover if you’ve got an internal conflict that’s contributing to your confusion.

In this elemental approach, the fire element is your visionary (or spiritual) capacity, the air element is your intellect, the water element is your emotions, and the earth element is your physical body. I’ll use a personal example to illustrate this approach:

I was once offered a teaching gig on a cruise ship, which is not the way I want to work with people. However, I was absolutely doubled over with confusion about the job. I questioned my intentions and tried to get focused, but the confusion increased and I didn’t know what to do.

Finally, I woke up enough to organize my thoughts, and I asked each of my elements if they wanted to take the job.

My fiery vision told me that this was not the image I held for my teaching career, so, no, it didn’t want the job.

My airy intellect questioned the logic of doing something so clearly against my long-term vision and my better judgment, so it didn’t want the job either.

My watery emotions were very clear – this job held no interest for them whatsoever.

But my earthy body wanted to go on the cruise with a yearning that was flagrant! This was why I had dropped into such confusion; I had a profound conflict inside myself.

My work then was to understand why I had a bodily lust for the cruise when no other part of me was interested at all (I desperately needed a vacation at the time), and to find better ways meet my needs. I said no to the cruise and took some time off, took hot baths, went to the river, and scheduled some massages, which made me very happy.

Please note that I didn’t punish or ignore my bodily needs – nor did I allow any other part of myself to do so. My bodily needs were absolutely valid, but there were far better ways to meet my needs than teaching on that cruise.

When you’re confused, it’s very important to understand that something aware inside you (sometimes very deep inside you) is actually working on your behalf. There is true genius in confusion.

If you can stop yourself and reassess your position when your confusion arises, you’ll be able to connect to its deep awareness and genius and find your way back to the center of your authentic whole life.

Confusion is not the problem – it’s just a messenger. Stop yourself and listen closely to its message; after you take the rest it provides, it will help you find your focus, your insight, and your integrity once again.

Thank you, confusion! Your ingenuity is marvelous, and the rest stop you provide is vital.

In the next post: Welcoming the gifts of Anxiety

14 Responses

  1. Kendra Wood
    | Reply

    ok – I’m overwhelmed. I started reading your book because there were large sections where I felt like I was reading my autobiography. Very odd and yet really cool – all at the same time. My struggle is that I pick up other people emotions – generally those I am close to and I don’t know how to differentiate them from my own. I also pick up on their actions toward me before they tell me. IE I was feeling very abandoned at a conferenced and very sad. I decided it was for reason A. What I didn’t know was my friend I came with decided he was done and wanted to leave the conference a day early.. abandoning me. So I was feeling, but was not aware of the true reason. I don’t know how to sort this out. Do you have any suggestions for me.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Kendra,

      I’ve got a whole book of suggestions for you! The new book is The Art of Empathy, and it will be out in October, but I’ve excerpted some key concepts here. Take a look at this three-post set, starting here The Six Essential Aspects of Empathy. It sounds like you’ve got very strong Emotion Contagion and Perspective Taking, but that your Empathic Accuracy and Emotion Regulation might need some support. Take a look and let me know what you think.

      We empaths have to stick together!

  2. Kendra Wood
    | Reply

    I will take a look at it. I’m currently to the point of keeping people at arms length… simply to protect me.

  3. Gino
    | Reply

    Hi Karla,
    I am in a confused state of mind when I got this post in my inbox. ” What is my intention?” is profound. I am gonna try and work on breaking through the vicious circle of confusion I am putting myself through. Thank for sharing your insights.
    By the way, I came to your blog after watching a session on Self Acceptance at Sounds True. I was enamored by the way you describe emotions such as anger, shame with a useful purpose. Until then I felt guilty when I experienced those emotions. Now I try to stay with them and listen to what they are actually telling me. Eagerly awaiting your new book.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Welcome Gino! I’m so glad you’re feeling less guilty about having emotions! They’re such vital parts of our intelligence, and it’s a wonderful thing to approach them empathically and begin to listen to all of their amazing wisdom!

  4. kevin
    | Reply

    I feel like the reason merely taking action blindly is maybe not as good as looking inward is because alot of people will rationalize whatever actions they took are in fact right for them.

    I would definitely say that some folks, call them adrenaline junkies, or as Jung might call them, extraverted thinkers, need action to determine their intentions! Sounds a little out of order, but a friend of mine has no problem taking action, then immediately realizing his mistakes, and he’s learned alot about himself in the process!

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Yes, there’s always the problem of 20/20 hindsight, and the fact that we can talk ourselves into the things we did after we did them!

  5. Kirsti
    | Reply

    Dear Karla, thank you for bringing this topic back to my awareness, it’s mildly put timely! I seem to have difficulty to really grasp this – I am aware of perpetuating confusion to my utter exhaustion. I would like to ask if it would be possible for you to describe what was the discovery in relation to intention in the above mentioned examples. You make a point of it having been elementary, but I fail to follow what your intentions were and what you concluded of them. There was a conflict with instinct and intention – how had they differed?
    Love, Kirsti

  6. Kirsti
    | Reply

    I have the experience of major life-changing decisions made by forcing myself to act while in confusion – “any action is better than no action”-kind of reasoning. An eight-month struggle into it I can say it confirms that I fell back into the confusion over and over again, relentlessly second-guessing also every new choice I had to make. As if I brought the energy of confusion into all aspects of my attempt to help myself – now needing to reassess the whole scenario to stop the avalanche and move from a new energy and state of being. Re-reading this bit now confirms to me how profound this insight is, yet how poorly I may be able to execute the inquiry suggested.

    • Karla
      | Reply

      Hello Kirsti, yes, forcing your way through confusion is not optimal, as you’ve discovered! For me, the empathic work with emotions is to realize that they’re always there for a reason: Emotions are Action-Requiring Neurological Programs. They have a purpose, and they’re there to help, even when it feels like they’re just plain in the way. Sometimes, of course, emotions can be off kilter. Here’s a way to approach them that can help you know when they’re out of place: How Much Emotion is Too Much?

  7. Catherine
    | Reply

    Hi Karla
    Where did the elemental approach come from, I would love to look into it’s origins … and if it was your internal wisdom- thank you very much!!

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Hello Catherine — I first came across it in Carl Jung’s work and in western astrology, which places the birth signs into elemental categories. These were 4-element models.

      There are also 5-element models: The Chinese elemental model and the Dagara tribe’s elemental model from Burkina Faso.

  8. Robyn
    | Reply

    I just wanted to express my appreciation for this post, it was very helpful as I worked through an emotion of confusion. Your husband’s Tino’s dream about “what is your intention” is incredibly insightful. Thank you.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Thank you so much, Robyn. That dream message has become so important in our lives!

      My friends know it too, and when I’ll tell them about a confusing situation or when I don’t know what to do, they’ll ask me: “What’s your intention?”


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