Simon Niblock, Men Couples & Family Therapy

We’ve all experienced that moment where we find ourselves at a crossroads. Which direction do we go? We weigh the options, pros and cons when faced with this choice, struggling to make a decision.

Our normal decision-making process just doesn’t seem to accommodate the situation that we face. We wax and wane, we procrastinate and on occasions, we avoid making a decision altogether. What’s even more confusing and anxiety provoking is when we notice that the way we’re behaving doesn’t align with the way that we think, our values, or our desired intentions.

We know that it’s in our best interest to do something different, but for the life of us, we cannot figure out what it is. Things simply feel discombobulated, and it begins to gnaw at us. This confusion ripples out and affects the way we interact with the world around us, including our relationships. This internal struggle, this confused state is best described as ambivalence, and it is a universal human condition.

Ambivalence is a state of simultaneous, conflicting values, needs, beliefs or feelings towards a particular scenario, person or object. It is a natural human trait to experience ambivalence. Whether it’s buying a new car or trying to determine what to wear to a job interview, a certain amount of ambivalence in our everyday life is healthy. We experience these moments simply because we are creatures of deliberation, critique, and exploration. Ambivalence is the experience that lends to our need to critically evaluate the benefits and consequences of given predicament.

We relate to ambivalence in a wide spectrum of experiences. For some individuals, identifying a source of internal conflict is relatively easy, and are able to articulate the struggles without too much difficulty. Others may simply sense that something feels misaligned, yet it can be troublesome, and right down confusing connecting with an underlying cause. Some experiences of ambivalence can be inherently unconscious. We just feel like something’s misaligned, and we can’t work out how to move forward. The effects of ambivalence can vary widely across individuals and situations.

What is important to distinguish is ambivalence is not the same as indifference. Indifference is described as a lack of sympathy, interest or concern. When it comes to forming a decision or making a choice, indifference can be mistaken as ambivalence. Just because someone is struggling to go to the gym to exercise, doesn’t mean they don’t care about their health. An individual may struggle to reach a meaningful conclusion, yet this suspension does not insinuate an indifference or a lack of desire to do something different.

The challenge with ambivalence is when it becomes chronic. Similar to being bogged down in cement, chronic ambivalence interferes with our ability to move forward, make decisions and implement change, resulting in feelings of fear, confusion, frustration, and anger. It is often experienced as familiar, repeated pattern and cycle of internal conflict, never realizing a true sense of resolution or reaching a natural conclusion. Chronic ambivalence can feel like a very real psychological obstacle.

Ambivalence leads to inconsistency in our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors which causes a disruption of congruence. Internal incongruence is experienced as stress, tension and uncertainty. ‘Psychologically uncomfortable ambivalence, also known as cognitive dissonance, can lead to avoidance, procrastination, or to deliberate attempts to resolve the ambivalence’ (Heregeld, Pligt, de Liver, 2009). This is often represented as thinking or saying one thing and then behaving in a completely conflicting manner.

Ambivalence may present itself within a relationship when opposing values, needs, beliefs or feelings are not effectively expressed or negotiated. While the foundation of most relationships consists of contrasting personal differences, discomfort may be experienced when ambivalence is avoided or unresolved. Couples often describe a lack of communication or conflict are in fact referencing an underlying cause of ambivalence. Furthermore, the discomfort or conflict that ambivalence creates is often exacerbated when an impasse occurs or an ultimatum is presented as a reaction between partners.

Overcoming ambivalence within ourselves or within our relationships is very possible. The challenge however that we often face when exploring our sense of ambivalence is the thought that we may have to, at some stage, make a deliberate conscious choice. Yes, it’s all about weighing the options and making a choice. Making a decision can represent a true dilemma for some individuals, as the act of making a choice implies that we then limit ourselves to the option which we have selected, thereby renouncing all other possibilities.

Often it is the fear of consequence, the unknown or the path least taken, that causes chronic ambivalence. We often reprimand ourselves by attempting to construe an ideal choice. Despite our intellectual debates, logical arguments and practical motives behind our decisions, the fear of making an incorrect decision and the fear of harboring regret, stop us from making any positive forward movement. Yet, by not making a decision, we remain stationary, never appreciate the potential of change or realizing the potential of an opportunity.

Focusing on resolving ambivalence requires deliberate and conscious self-exploration. Acknowledging what conflicting values, needs, beliefs or feelings are present is an ideal starting point. Understanding that no decision will ever be ideal and that every option will have its challenges and benefits. Next is to identify what fear we associate with the consequences of both the conflicting arguments, as well as the choice of maintaining the status quo. Yes, not doing anything is an active choice.

Recognizing and acknowledging our personal traits that can help overcome ambivalence is important. Personal traits or characteristics may include resourcefulness, adaptability, optimism, confidence, risk-taking, tolerance for ambiguity and initiative. ‘Research shows that certain personality traits may impact an individual’s likelihood of experiencing [or managing] ambivalence’ (Heregeld, Pligt, de Liver, 2009). These personality traits form the foundation of readiness for change.

It is often a matter of determining which value, need, belief or feeling that we find ourselves prioritizing above its counterpart, that allows us to make a decision. In decision making, regardless of what compass we adopt (think matters of the heart versus the mind), when we choose according in a manner that is congruent within ourselves, then the effects of our ambivalence are diminished.

Most importantly, take your time in making a decision. Seek counsel if you feel it is necessary, especially if you experience confusion, ongoing procrastination or even risky behavior. Offer yourself some self-compassion by recognizing that your ambivalence serves a valid and important purpose. It serves as a sign. Explore the possibility that fear may be associated with your experiences and recognize that your choices, both perfect or flawed are the most valuable lessons that you can make for yourselves.

Here are some options on how to overcome ambivalence.

1.     Set some time aside for yourself to explore your dilemma. Journal your ambivalent feelings, thoughts or fears and the various scenarios in which they occur.

2.     Remind yourself that no situation is absolutely perfect and that all potential scenarios have strengths and weaknesses. Acknowledge and honor your ambivalent feelings. Be compassionate towards yourself.

3.     Take your time to make a decision. Seek guidance if needed. Remind yourself that no situation is 100% perfect and that all potential scenarios have their strengths and weaknesses.

4.     Determine your readiness for change. Identify and connect with your personal traits that support positive, well-defined change.

5.     Make a choice that is congruent with yourself and stand behind your decision.

6.     Assess your progress. Make changes if your choices no longer serve you, or if ambivalence ensues.

Cheers, Simon

References

Engle, D.E., Arkowitz, H. (2006). “Ambivalence in psychotherapy. Facilitating readiness to change” Guilford Publications Inc. New York, NY.

Hersh, T.R. (2017) Ambivalence. Retrieved from: http://www.psychological-observations.com/key-concepts/ambivalence

Leslie, I. (2017) Ambivalence is awesome. Retrieved from http://www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2013/06/ambivalence_conflicted_feelings_cause_discomfort_and_creativity.html

Van Heregeld, F., van der Plight, J., de Liver, Y. (2009). "The agony of ambivalence and ways to resolve it: Introducing the MAID model". Personality and Social Psychology Review. 13 (1): 45–61. PMID 19144904. doi:10.1177/10888683083245