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Stress Management

What the hell am I going to call this? The nature of Ambivalence.

What the hell am I going to call this? The nature of Ambivalence.

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

The Mastery of Emotion: Anger

The Mastery of Emotion: Anger

We’ve all experienced it. That bubbling up of frustration when something consistently doesn’t go according to plan, the sheer exasperation of the person cutting in front of you in traffic or the argument that goes around in circles, becoming increasingly heated by the second. We’ve all experienced anger in its varying forms. We’re often aware we have our own ‘hot buttons’ and pretty sure that everyone else knows how to push them. But how much do we really know about anger and what purpose it serves?

What is Anger?

Anger is the disruption or interference of personal expectations. It is a core human emotion, which varies from person to person in strength and frequency. It is experienced in a variety of states and intensity ranging from simple annoyance to frustration, exasperation, argumentativeness, bitterness, vengefulness, and fury (intense anger).

What purpose does anger serve?

Anger as an emotion, according to evolutionary psychologists, formed as individual response to interpersonal conflicts of interest and as a method to bargain and satisfy such interests. However, anger is far more than a cave man’s negotiation tactic. Experiencing anger allows us to identify when our needs or expectations are not being met. It highlights when our personal boundaries have been breached and can create an intention of purpose or action to overcome the deficit in what we want for ourselves.

Anger, like any of our core emotions, is impossible to eradicate from our emotional repertoire, therefore it should be acknowledged, respected and managed in a way that allows us to evolve personally and improve the quality of our relationships.

How do we become angry?

How we become angry depends on a number of elements. These elements include an event or circumstance that triggers an emotional response (triggers), who we are as a person, or our own individual disposition (emotional characteristics) and how we perceive  the situation (cognitive appraisal) and on what evidence we adopt and our method of reasoning.

A trigger may be an interference with our ability to move forward with an intended task or action, it may include rejection or criticism from someone we love, experiencing inefficiency or bureaucracy, encountering opposite beliefs, being belittled or humiliated by an employer or authority figure or worse case, being wrongfully accused.

Our own individual disposition includes the dominant qualities or temperament of our mental and emotional self. Are we sunny and cheerful by disposition or are we more cynical or irritable in nature? Our emotional outlook or attitude has the ability to create the foundation in which we respond in a given situation.

Cognitive appraisal is our own, individual interpretation of a situation. When a trigger occurs, we instantly make an intuitive evaluation of whether the situation or event is considered a disruption or interference of our personal expectations. In this process, we reference beliefs, values, expectations, hopes and needs. Essentially, we incorporate a whole range of evaluative constructions that allow us to create our own inference or perception of a given situation.

What happens to us when we get angry?

Without going into great depth into the various physiological, neurological and psychological responses, the simple explanation of what we experience when we get angry can be described as an ‘amygdala override’. The amygdala is the neurological center for coordinating behavioral, autonomic and endocrine (hormone) responses to external stimuli, especially those with emotional content. The amygdala responds to a variety of emotional stimuli, but mostly those related to fear and anxiety (Swenson, 2006).

When a threat is perceived, the amygdala bypasses the sections of the brain (the cortex) that typically provides logic, reasoning, and judgment, and switches on a mass dump of hormones. This dump subsequently activates the secretion of adrenaline, noradrenaline, and cortisol into the body. Essentially, the ‘amygdala override’ activates our flight or fight sequence that we’re all too familiar with and we find we’re flying off into a fit of rage.

How can we manage our anger?

It’s important to recognize that it’s ok to get angry. What’s not ok, is if anger leads to aggression and/or violence. When you are angry, it is our responsibility to express anger in a healthy and constructive manner. We are individually accountable for finding constructive ways to avoid losing control that could lead to aggressive, destructive or other maladaptive behaviors that may harm yourself and others.

1.     Take notice of your ability to calm down: How long does it take? 20 minutes, 40 minutes, or a good couple of hours? The various hormones that flood the body take to secrete out of our bloodstream, so the timeframe in which we need to regulate ourselves can vary from person to person.

2.     Take time out: yes, just like we do with our kids, the same strategy applies really well for angry adults. It’s important to take into account that your mental and physical tolerance may be impacted after an experience of activation, so do not re-enter a heated conversation if you’re still calming down. Remove yourself from the environment if you suspect you might be ‘re-activated’.

3.     Adopt a method of self-soothing: Ask yourself, do you release your anger out, or do you harbor it in? Explore ways to be able to find to calm and regulate your anger. What are your triggers? How does your temperament influence your anger? Are there different ways of assessing particular experiences? What resources can you utilize to positively shape your response?

4.     Practical tools: there are a wide range of tools and options to help ease the internal dialogue and physiological responce that swells up in the heat of the moment. Here’s an example of a series of internal dialogue points developed by the Anger Management Center of Toronto (2015), worth saying to yourself when the anger starts to heighten:

  • I do not need to prove myself in this situation, I can stay calm.
  • As long as I keep my cool, I am in control of myself.
  • What other people might say is their own opinion. Opinions are not facts. I am the only person who can make myself angry or keep myself calm.
  • I will allow myself to take time-out to de-escalate, if I feel that I am getting worked up or recognize my anger cues or signals.
  • In difficult or stressful situations, I do not need to feel threatened or fearful. I can relax and stay cool. This will allow me to make better choices.
  • I do not have to be strong and competent all the time. It is okay to feel unsure or confused at times. This will not make me less of a person.
  • It is impossible to control other persons and all situations. I can only influence these in a positive way if I choose to if they are open to the process.

Anger is a complex creature. As humans, we are naturally predisposed to the emotion of anger and poignant experience. Our perception of anger can vary. Some individuals avoid anger at all cost, while others express it explicitly. Anger, like each of our respective emotions, serves the distinct purpose of highlighting when we are presented with an impediment to satisfying an expectation or need, or if we are faced with a breach of personal values or boundaries. The psychological and physiological effects of anger are complicated, however, if we are aware of the dynamics that create anger we are able to manage and control this important emotion without resorting to ineffective actions that compromise the relationship with ourselves and the relationships with others.

If you would like to learn more about how to positively express your anger or have been told that you have an 'anger problem', then call me on 512-470-6976 to start a conversation.

Cheers, Simon

Simon Niblock, MA is an Austin TX based, Marriage and Family Therapy Associate who is dedicated to helping men, couples and families find peace, direction, and meaning in their relationships. Click on the button below to book a consultation.

References

Image by Luis Marina n Flickr (2016) Grrr

Anger Management Center of Toronto (2015) http://www.angermanagementcentre.ca/programs-and-services/our-programs/anger-management-coaching

Center for Evolutionary Psychology (2016). http://www.cep.ucsb.edu/topics/anger.htm

Ekman, P., & Ekman, E. (2016) The Ekman Atlas of Emotions. https://www.paulekman.com/atlas-of-emotions/#actions:anger

Martin, R. (2011). Why we get angry. Psychology Today.  https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/all-the-rage/201110/why-we-get-mad

Swenson, R.S. (2006) The limbic system. Review of Clinical and Functional Neuroscience, Dartmouth Medical School. http://www.dartmouth.edu/~rswenson/NeuroSci/chapter_9.html

Keep Calm and Have a Cuppa Tea, Love.

Keep Calm and Have a Cuppa Tea, Love.

Image by Mike Nkiec on  Flickr

Image by Mike Nkiec on Flickr

Keep Calm and Have a Cuppa Tea, Love.

English breakfast, Irish breakfast, Earl Grey, Darjeeling, Assam, Ceylon, Green tea, Oolong, Masala Chai, Rooibos. If you’re a purveyor of tea, you understand that the range of this distinctly unique beverage is endless. You will also appreciate that having a cup of tea, also known as a ‘cuppa’ to those with English heritage, is more than having a hot drink. 

It’s almost magical. Let me explain…

I can recall seeing my grandmother make a pot of tea even as young as five or six years of age. Tea was a staple in our house – more so than coffee. For those who have had the pleasure of drinking tea as part of their daily routine, you can appreciate the relaxing, calming effect that tea produces. We didn’t have the fancy stuff like we do today. This was strong black tea, with plenty of full cream milk and a few good spoonful’s of sugar to sweeten things up. There is something about tea that instantly transports me back to memories of family and friends sitting around the kitchen table.

The other amazing thing about tea is that the moment that the first sip is consumed, the chaos that may have been encircling our world at the time, appears to magically ebb away. Tea for some unknown reason makes things feel better. Many people will describe that during moments of personal or family difficulty, it would not be out of place for someone to put the kettle on, or boil the jug to make a pot of tea. Life’s challenges were a wee bit easier to cope with once a good, strong, hot cuppa tea was shared. If a plate of biscuits (cookies) were offered, you knew that it was a special moment.

I’ve been fascinated about this experience, as I know many other people who describe the similar soothing, grounding, calming effects of drinking tea. I’ve often wondered if this experience is all just my imagination or whether there’s any real medicinal value from drinking this amber liquid? Intriguingly, there’s actually been a fair bit of research behind this phenomenon - yes, someone’s actually done research on this subject.

According to researchers (tea nerds), tea is known to reduce anxiety levels, increase positivity, induce relaxation and encourage interpersonal connections with others. Evidently, tea offers true psychopharmacological benefits due to an amino acid called Theatine. Theatine has an affect on our alpha brain waves which induces a calmer, clearer and relaxed state of mind. Groovy stuff.

On the other hand, I’ve wondered whether the stress reduction effects of tea are simply due to the social nature of sharing a cup? Again, research describes that the act of making and sharing a cup of tea for someone promote real social attachments. Part of this may explain why I think tea made by someone else always tastes better than if I made it myself. This is why I love to make tea for my wife each morning. A bit of love goes in every cup. 

Evidently, sharing a cup of tea with someone can create feelings of companionship and affection. The ritual associated with tea making is deeply rooted in many cultures. It offers immediate comfort and social connection for many. It promotes feelings and behaviors that lead to secure interpersonal connections, particularly the emotions associated with trustworthiness. There’s a feeling of genuine connection when friends and family sit around the table to share a ‘cuppa’.

So, the next time that you feel that the world is about to crumble down on you, call a friend over and put on the kettle. Life will be ok.

Arohanui, Simon

Simon Niblock is an Austin TX based, Marriage and Family Therapy Associate who is dedicated to helping couples and their families find peace, direction and meaning within their relationships. 

Contact Simon on 512-470-6976 to start a conversation.

CLICK HERE TO CONNECT

References:

Cross, M.C., & M.R. (DATE). The social psychological effects of tea consumption on stress. Retrieved from www.teaemergency.com.

Andrew, S., Gibson, E., Vuononvirta, R., Williams, E., Hamer, M., Rycroft, J., Erusalimsky, J., Wardle, J. (2007). The effects of tea on psychophysiological stress responsivity and post-stress recovery: a randomised double-blind trial. Psychopharmacology, Vol.190(1), pp.91-91.