Blog: insights from Dr. Keren Sofer

Confusion: An underappreciated phenomenon

Confusion is confusing. How do we make sense of the experience of confusion? Do we treat it like a feeling, a phenomenon that begins in the body? Or should we approach it from a more intellectual place, using logic and rationality to break it down? Even this attempt to explore confusion has resulted in more questions than statements so far.

In therapy, confusion is often treated as a throw-away, something that we try to move on from quickly because it appears to keep us stuck and going nowhere.

In my work with clients, I am paying closer attention to the identification of confusion, both my own confusion and theirs. I have begun to see confusion as an experience that straddles the line between self-protection and curiosity. On the one hand, the experience of confusion can be met with discomfort, frustration, and bewilderment. These negative emotions can activate our self-protection. Our self-protection system lives in our amygdale, the tiny structures in our brains that appraise situations and interactions. When we appraise a situation as painful or dangerous, we can become defensive, and withdraw or attack in order to keep ourselves safe.

Confusion can also signal to us that some piece is not fitting, that there is a block to clarity and resolution, and this can spark our desire to get curious. Curiosity lives in our midbrain (where the reward center resides) and our brain’s memory center. Curiosity pushes us towards a state of openness to new possibilities and learning, which is engaging and pleasurable.

The phenomenon of confusion can be a tipping point that can go towards curiosity or self-protection. Moving towards curiosity rather than self-protection requires a felt sense of safety. When confusion arises with clients who previously went straight to self-protection in the face of uncertainty or uncomfortable emotions I celebrate. It is a sign to me that the portal to curiosity is beginning to open. Confusion in place of defensiveness signals the presence of an opportunity to propel our work forward. With curious states of mind, we can develop deeper understandings of previously shameful experiences and blocked growth. We can discard old narratives that do not fit anymore, and replace them with more accurate and compassionate stories.

When have you found yourself confused and straddling that divide between self-protection and curiosity? What did you do? How might it be to stay with the confusion, to push through the discomfort to reach the curiosity at the other side?