Learning to love Chaos

Chaos and Order are nature’s fundamental balancing act. The Yin/Yang symbol () shows us that Chaos and Order exist as intertwined elements, with a little of each in the other. Chaos is never free of Order, and Order is never free of Chaos.

For the sake of clarity, let’s define terms. Chaos is unpredictable – you’re in chaos when you don’t know what’s coming or what to expect, in situations you haven’t encountered. Order is predictability – you know what will happen, what to expect, and there’s certainty within your world.

Broadly speaking, people tend to prefer Order (or it may be better to say that we fear Chaos), because we enjoy being able to predict our lives, other people’s actions, and the causality of the world around us. Human beings are evolutionarily geared toward creating (imposing) order on their world. We categorise everything – even without realising it – and develop mental shortcuts to help us understand and predict people and situations (e.g. stereotyping and heuristics). We even create organisational systems in our homes and workplaces to help us find and use information (some of us do this better than others – but even ‘organised chaos’ is still ordered!).

What’s really interesting is that many of us tend to prefer Order to happiness. Have you ever found yourself in similar relationships wondering, “how do I end up with people like this?“… It’s because those relationships are familiar to you, therefore they’re predictable. Even if they’re an unhappy predictable, they’re still Order. We like what we know, even if what we know isn’t happiness – it’s an unconscious drive to seek out predictability and familiarity. It takes real strength and courage to step out of your comfort zone into a relationship that embraces Chaos, even if Chaos is feeling happy and being loved.

Anyway, back on track, that last paragraph could be a blog all on it’s own…

It’s quite easy to detail the ‘good’ things about Order and the ‘bad’ things about Chaos, right? Absolutely, especially when Chaos is a feared state. What we often struggle to think about are the negative consequences of Order, and positive consequences of Chaos.

Overdoing Order means taking predictability to its extreme – where nothing out of the norm (or nothing deemed ‘inappropriate’) ever happens. This is a dangerous place. I remember one episode of Charmedwhere the sisters were transported into a world where citizens obeyed Order because the consequences of breaking rules were dire. Phoebe was shot for parking a few inches over a driveway – absurd, right?! A real life example was the disturbing Nazi attempt to create an Ordered race of people and exterminate those who did not fit. Suddenly Order looks a bit different, doesn’t it?

As well as being the place where you can get tripped up, thrown off course and experience devastation, Chaos is the place for freedom, choice, change, growth, and resilience. We do not move forward in Order; we move forward when the world under our feet crumbles. From that, we adapt – we attempt to find a new Order within the Chaos. This adaptation is freedom of choice, where we can alter who we are, who we surround ourselves with, or what our world looks like, either for better or worse. Remember, though, that the potential for growth does not remove the overwhelming and scary nature of Chaos – but experiencing a myriad of feelings and responses simultaneously is one of the reasons Chaos is so beautiful.

Think about the most influential times in your life – the times when you felt a shift in who you were – were those characterised by Order or Chaos?

My biggest growth shifts have been in Chaos, when everything felt like it was falling apart.

This is actually why Chaos is considered the feminine side of yin/yang: because Chaos brings creation, and women create life. The term Mother Nature reflects this; nature is destruction and rebirth, the endless cycle of life. I used to hate that Chaos was female, because I thought Chaos = bad, but the more I learn about it, the happier I am that femininity (i.e. me) is not Order.

My former therapist (who I owe my life to) might read this and laugh, remembering the moment he told me that I had to learn to live in – and even enjoy – the Chaos, because its inescapable.

I honestly thought he was insane. In what universe can I enjoy Chaos? How on Earth am I supposed to learn to live in the unpredictable? I mean, it was a nice idea, but certainly not applicable to me. Of course not, because at that time I needed Order – I needed a specific timeframe and a set of steps to get me there. I couldn’t even handle the Chaos of not seeing the journey ahead!

So many of my clients think they need the same thing. I cannot count the number of times I’ve heard, “so what do I do about that?” as though there really is a universal step-by-step program for self-improvement. There are programs that attempt that, but to create lasting change that will withstand (inevitable) bouts of intense Chaos, you need to engage with the journey and gradually shift your black-and-white belief systems around Order, Chaos, and your capabilities – and there is no one-size-fits-all way to go about doing that!

Side note: You cannot just “let go” of beliefs either! Telling yourself to drop something doesn’t make it go away permanently. Ask Jonathan Haidt what happens when you tell yourself to stop thinking about a white bear.

Sounds pretty dismal and stressful, doesn’t it? It is. Learning to embrace, and even love, a state of unpredictability goes against human evolution in many ways… but let me quote an old cliché: Nothing worth having ever comes easily. It’s simple; if you want resilience to the most traumatic things the world has to offer, you must choose a path of difficulty and discomfort to learn to embrace Chaos as a fundamental part of your existence.

Its similar to thinking, “I want to get rid of my anxiety“. It won’t happen. Anxiety is a fundamental part of the human emotional spectrum because it is necessary to our survival. Instead, consider, “I want to learn how to cope with my anxiety when it happens“. So, thinking about removing all potential Chaos is setting yourself up for failure; consider whether you can cope with Chaos when it happens. Can you handle the Chaos? Can you survive the Chaos? Can you adapt to the Chaos? Will you allow the Chaos to exist around you? Will you choose to grow from the Chaos?

This is your self-efficacy with regard to Chaos: Do you believe you can ‘do’ Chaos?

The strength of that belief is influential in determining your behaviour around Chaotic situations.

Attempts to control the intrusion of Chaos make it all the more destructive when it arrives. Attempts to instil excessive Order lead to resentment and frustration when the Chaos does not conform. The best example of this I have are my kids: the days where we have a basic outline plan with no specific times attached are the best days. The days where Ihaveto be somewhere at xtime are the worst – because those days I’m trying to impose extreme Order on beings that are the personification of Chaos, and it’s impossible without tantrums (from them and me!), feeling rushed and overwhelmed, and mentally badgering myself for ‘failing’ and being disorganised.

Within every Ordered plan, there must be freedom to be flexible in Chaos.

Essentially, we must walk the line between the two, navigating our own delicate balancing act. We must recognise that whenever we are sitting more strongly in Order, Chaos will be present (or coming) in some form, and vice versa. The line between the two is where purpose and meaning develop – we have stability and comfort, without becoming stagnant, alongside opportunities for growth and development, without our world teetering off it’s axis.

One of the best things I’ve heard about the elements of Chaos and Order is that, “many things begin to fall into place when you consciously begin to understand the world in this manner” because this perception is not just descriptive – it’s prescriptive (Peterson, 2018). It prescribes the answer, so to speak.

Picture the yin/yang symbol. Recognising that, “right now I am in Chaos” lets you visualise that you’re sitting in the black space – but you can also see the white dot of Order that exists nearby. So you ask yourself, “What do I need to do to find some Order here? What can I control? What do I have the potential to influence?” Suddenly, you have a focus: instil some Order, find your footing, and proceed from there. Reflecting on the necessity of Chaos for life also helps you orient your mind: What is the Chaos giving you? What opportunities are there that you may not have seen before? What might happen as a result of this Chaos?

This happens in reverse too: When you recognise that, “right now I’m in a state of Order” you might orient your perception to what is going right for you; what things you’ve been working for that you’re now reaping the rewards of; what places you’re getting to cruise in, rather than panic through. On the other hand, if you recognise that your state of Order is too extreme, you can think about how to invite some Chaos. What areas are you willing to shake up? Where do you want to grow? What challenges are next on your horizon?

By actively inviting Chaos in ‘bite size’ pieces, you slowly build up your resilience and self-efficacy beliefs about your capacity to handle it. It won’t ever go away. Learning to reflect on it, and live in it – to embrace its existence – is the way forward to a happy and meaningful life. Remember, some of the best things in life are pure Chaos!

Sophie Gray

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