Let’s Hear It for Uncertainty and Confusion
What is it that scares some people so about being confused or uncertain? Why does not knowing throw too many folks into a tailspin or make them want to crawl into bed and pull the covers up over their heads? What if you were to value not knowing what you want or what to do and not stress about it but hang in their and learn from it?
William Blake, the English poet, painter and printmaker, is quoted as saying that “Without contraries, there is no progression.” Author David Robson of The Intelligence Trap: Why Smart People Make Dumb Mistakes tells us that, “The latest neuroscience…shows that we learn best when we are confused.” Blake is saying that we need to engage with contraries (feelings, ideas, etc.) in order to emerge from them to make progress. Robson explains how we learn best when things are a bit tough, through “desirable difficulties” (WW. Norton & Company, NY: 2019, p. 192, 196).
Why, then, do many people, with and without eating problems, run from mixed feelings and not having immediate answers? They do this because they’ve learned to feel uncomfortable with these emotions and mental states and because they’ve mislabeled the discomfort as something that is wrong to have or due to a defect in them. How ironic that the uncertainties and contradictions they’ve been pushing away would serve them far better if they just hung around for a while with them to see what would happen.
There are times in your life when you don’t want to pressure yourself to find answers, but want to give yourself time to explore your jumble of thoughts and feelings to see what emerges: choosing a college or career, picking a life partner, finding purpose to engage you in retirement, moving to a new geographical area, deciding whether to have children, choosing to end a marriage, or figuring out a new way of living after the death of a spouse. Bulletin: You are supposed to feel uncertain during these times.
Consider how you learned to feel uncomfortable with confusion and not knowing. If your parents always needed to be right and focused on perfection, they modeled unhealthy behavior. If they insisted that you not waffle and hedge, but know your mind and proceed full steam ahead, they wrongly made it seem that mixed feelings and doubts were negative and unhelpful feelings—because they weren’t comfortable with these states and, therefore, couldn’t teach you how to be. Or if you were overwhelmed with mixed feelings for much of your childhood, far beyond what your young brain could handle, these same feelings now bring back the anxiety of your youth.
Start by valuing mixed feelings and being curious rather than judgmental about them. Be interested in them rather than in obtaining a final answer. Then see what happens.