The ingenuity of confusion

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

Both of these masking states are necessary and worthwhile, and it’s important to understand how and why they appear. 

CONFUSION: The Healing Mask for Fear and Anxiety

GIFTS: Diffused awareness ~ Innocence ~ Obliviousness ~ Malleability ~ Taking a pause

WHAT YOUR CONFUSION DOES: 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.

WHAT NEEDS TO BE DONE: Nothing! Confusion can be a lovely vacation from overwhelm.

THE INTERNAL QUESTIONS: How can I welcome not-knowing and not-doing? What is my intention? 

The message in confusion 

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

Confusion can be a frustrating state, but as it is with the masking state of apathy, confusion has a vital place in your emotional realm.

Meme about the Gifts of Confusion that says: "Confusion helps me soften my focus and take a healing break when there's too much going on."Confusion is a healing mask for your fear and anxiety, and it arises when there’s too much input, too much change, too many tasks, and too many decisions to make.

Confusion may also arise when your upcoming deadlines are rushing toward you, or when your excellent task-completion skills have turned you into something of a robot.

Confusion drops over your fears and blurs your instincts. It makes your focus misty and indistinct, almost as if you’ve become an impressionistic painting. It removes your certainty and it reduces your decision-making abilities.

Confusion also drops over your anxiety and stops you from completing your tasks, meeting your deadlines, or even making coherent lists. If you’re accustomed to taking decisive actions and knowing exactly what to do, confusion may annoy and frustrate you – but it has a vital purpose.

Confusion is a sign that your emotional realm is asking for a time-out.

The practice for confusion

First, can you welcome not-knowing and not-doing? If you’re like most of us, the answer is no. Nope!

This is not unusual; confusion lives in the deep shadow and receives little to no welcome.

Instead, we’re urged to know and do, know harder and do more, and then know all and do everything. There’s no time for confusion! We’ll rest when we’re dead!

Making room for the healing influence of confusion is difficult at first, but it gets easier.

All you need to do is nothing

And all you need to know is that you don’t know; not yet

You need downtime, rest, and space. Confusion can give you all that and more.

I’m a super task-oriented person, and especially when I’m in the flow of writing, I’ve been known to bat confusion away as if it were an annoying gnat. Luckily, I stopped doing that, and I’ve learned to get up and go outside or lounge on the couch and be confused.

No thinking, no plans, no activities – just me and my confusion hanging out in pause mode.

What I’ve found in those wonderful floating moments is that something important has been at the edge of my awareness and that I was in danger of rushing past it. I’ve also found that I’m simply tired and in need of a break, and in many cases, I’ll doze off and feel refreshed when I awaken.

Taking regular time away from focus and work is absolutely necessary.

If you’re rushing, you may be trying to skip something

A couple of years ago, I overheard my friends and aikido senseis Azzia and Nick Walker talking about rushing, and I heard the genius of confusion in what they said:


“If you’re rushing, you’re trying to skip something. Probably something tender. That’s where you need to slow down the most, and feel.”


Thanks, Azzia and Nick.

The practice for confusion is so simple, yet it has been made difficult by our push for certainty and rushing.

Confusion can help us learn to not know, to not do, and to slow down and feel into the mystifying genius of rest.

The practice for confusion is to simply, and profoundly, be confused.

Related post: Healing practices for confusion


16 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?”


  9. Danielle
    | Reply

    I definitely identify with the get up and go mindset you write about here! Those Aikido folks are full of wisdom. I’d never considered that rushing might be skipping. I definitely have put a lot on my plate and feel…maybe not confused, but blah lately. This post gives me lots to think about. Thank you.

    • Karla McLaren
      | Reply

      Yep, those Aikido folks are smarties!

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