Tuesday, July 12, 2016

Understanding Ambivalence

Ambivalence is a human experience where two contradictory emotions about a decision, a person or an object keep you from choosing one or the other.

The coexistence of both positive and negative feelings you have toward a person pulls you in - and then pushes you away. "I really like her, but she's too old for me." Ambivalence keeps you from finding out if this relationship could be meaningful, so you don't ask her out. 

Similarly, the simultaneous pull and tug you have with making a decision keeps you in the same holding pattern. Stuck between this or that. "I'd really like to take this new job, but I don't like the distance I'd have to travel." So this person stays in his current job, unhappy.

A simple decision about going out to dinner can become a circle of frustration. "I can't choose between Mexican or Greek food for dinner. " When a decision is made, you suddently feel the "other" might have been better.  And you second guess yourself. You just can't win. 

When you have two opposing feelings about a person, situation or decision, this rigid cycling pattern never moves you forward. You're constantly moving from one side of the fence to the other. Or you park yourself entirely on the fence. Stuck.

Ambivalent thinking has been linked to obsessive compulsive tendencies, to defensive styles like "splitting" (seeing things in an all or nothing way) or can be a result of underdeveloped styles of problem solving. 

If you're ambivalent, there are things you can do to break the holding pattern. 

1.  Acknowledge that your ambivalence may be a way to protect yourself from having a negative experience. 

2. Remind yourself that nothing is perfect, and that uncertainty and doubt are givens in life. By doing this, you give yourself permission not to make a "perfect" decision. 

3. Encourage yourself to live in the present. By doing so, a decision you make can be based on this moment in time. Right here, right now. This can loosen the rigid hold ambivalence can create.

4. Reframe negative thinking to more positive statements. Remember the examples above? Here's how they can crush ambivalence reframed with positivity. "How will I know if she's too old for me if I don't go out on a date?" "Yes, the commute will be more time, but the job will be more meaningful to me, so it'll be worth it." "I'm choosing Mexican tonight, and Greek will happen for another meal next time."  

5. Understand that ambivalence is a normal experience. Especially for children and teens, and adults who are faced with difficult decisions. But if you find yourself overwhelmed with daily decision making, or bewildered by taking care of your needs, a mental health professional can help you find your way. Sometimes depression, anxiety and trauma can cloud your ability to freely make decisions - and amplify ambivalence. 


Dustin MacDonald said...

Ambivalence is such an important concept that I think is undervalued by people who are struggling with their mental health.

I find it coming up in both Acceptance and Commitment Therapy (often when torn between two choices we're really deciding between two emotions) and more general suicide prevention work where acknowledging that someone feels like dying but also that a part of them wishes they could live without the pain they're experiencing.

Wendy Love said...

This is kind of new to me. I had always thought of ambivalence as indifference. Clearly I was wrong. Ambivalence is a big part of depression and I guess I just thought of it as a package deal and when the depression would lift the ambivalence would go away. Never dawned on me to take care of that ambivalence. I particularly liked your #4 tips, kind of good self-talk.
I've learned something new. Thanks.

Dr. Deb said...

Dustin - ACT is a terrific way to address ambivalence. Thanks for taking the time to share here.

Wendy - Ambivalence can be a kind of indifference....but once you identify how it works, you can learn to offset it. I'm so glad you found something meaningful in the post.