June 13, 2011

The Power of Living with Ambiguity

For over three months now, David Robinson has been writing a series of daily posts on his web site, The Direction of Intention, about recognizing the power within ourselves.  David is an artist, a life coach, and the business partner of the equally multi-talented Patti Digh.

One of David's recent posts refers to the importance of embracing ambiguity:
Stepping back into your self requires some comfort with ambiguity, the capacity to stand firmly within paradox. You have to release what you think you are in order to inhabit who you really are.
Ambiguity is something I've never been good at. In fact, if I had to make a list of things that make me anxious, ambiguity would pretty much top the list.  It's not surprising, given that I've built a career and a life on "getting it right" and "doing it perfectly." Ambiguity, as in a situation in which something can be understood in more than one way, doesn't have a place in either approach.

As a recovering perfectionist and a long-time believer in the theory of The One Right Answer, I keep having to curb my instinct to make quick judgments so that I can move on to the next thing, or conversely, my tendency not to act until I have all the answers. In short, I'm trying to live with ambiguity.

It's like being accustomed to walking down a well-lit path when, suddenly, all the lights are dimmed.  And, oh, you're not allowed to run.  In fact, because you can't see where you're going as well as you did in the past, you have to walk more slowly. And you have to trust your instincts more, instead of relying on the touchstones along the way.

It's a whole new way of traveling. It requires a lot of trust, mostly in yourself.  And that's the big payoff, actually: that as you rely less on the external markers --the "experts," whether people or things-- you start listening to yourself more, gaining confidence along the way.  As my friend Davis says:
You come to see yourself not as fixed, a single identity, but fluid, an ongoing relationship (many identities). When you are ready to cease seeking your power from others you have the capacity to see your power within your self. In fact, you cease seeing power as something possessed by one and not by another. You see power in everything and everyone. You see.

The best reward --at least for ambiguity-averse people like me-- is learning to trust the process, whether tending a garden, creating a business plan, nurturing a friendship, writing a book, or raising a child.  It's the relief that comes from acknowledging that not having all the answers is o.k. (talk about alien concepts!). I'm learning that confusion and conflict and, yes, ambiguity, are not something to fear or run from, but to accept and treat kindly, bewildering as that sometimes feels.

Geesh this is hard.  What's your relationship to ambiguity?

Image by an untrained eye, in Flickr. Used under a Creative Commons license.


  1. Interesting ... talk about uncomfortable. I started reading and just the idea of ambiguity was making me all twitchy. May be kind of early for me to take this on. Will have to revisit later in the day when I've got my armor on!

  2. Kathy, I share your pain (not to menion the twitching). It's so alien to my get-it-done/Type A personality of long-standing. I suspect I'll be working on this one the rest of my life. The good news is that taking small steps make a (good) difference.

  3. Wow, you've hit a sore spot, but I am getting used to it bit by bit by just being here now and going with the flow. It's when I start "planning" so that everything will work "perfectly" that I get lost. Add allowing yourself to be vulnerable and it gets really interesting.