Living with Ambivalence

Ambivalence. It is a seemingly simple concept that is a part of many of our everyday lives. To be ambivalent about something is to simultaneously feel two ways at once. This comes up at every stage of life. Ambivalence comes in several different forms. It could be ambivalence around making a decision; for example, if you were offered a new job that came with all kinds of advantages, but also requires you to move across the country away from all of your friends and family. Ambivalence can also arise regarding past decisions; for example, you could wonder if you made the right decision regarding college, sure you had a good experience and enjoyed your college years, but what would have happened if you had gone somewhere else or majored in somewhere different. Ambivalence can also be related to things outside of your control. For example, if your best friend got a promotion you were hoping for, you might simultaneously feel happy for them and upset that you didn’t get it. It can also appear in relationships. You can simultaneously love your child and realize that they are driving you up the walls. Or feel a deep affection for your spouse or romantic partner while wishing they would be just a little bit more considerate.

Ambivalence is a natural part of existence. We humans are very complex creatures who are capable of feeling a lot of different things at once. The problem with ambivalence arises when it causes distress. This happens because even though we have a tendency to feel ambivalent, we also tend to be unable to accept ambivalence. Things are nicer when they make sense. Life seems like it would be so much easier if we could package everything into nice, boxes and ignore everything that didn’t fit into a box. The most common reaction to try and push those feelings aside and move on. Unfortunately, that doesn’t usually work. Instead, it leads to more and more unhappiness and (when the ambivalence is around a decision) an inability to decide.

The trick with ambivalence is to accept that contradictory things exist at the same time. Often the best way to begin is to change the language that you use. Usually, when we think or speak about things we feel ambivalent about, we use the word “but”. “I am glad my friend got that promotion but I wanted it too.” “I love my daughter, but I hate that she doesn’t sleep through the night.” “I want that promotion but I would be very sad to leave my friends and family.” This language makes the ambivalence harder to deal with because it sets the two feelings up as opposites that cannot exist together. Instead, try using the word “and”. “I am glad my friend got that promotion and I am sad I didn’t get it.” “I love my daughter and I wish that she would sleep all night.” “I want that new job and I will miss my family if I move.” Moving from buts to ands allows us to embrace the contradiction. Instead of putting the two feelings in contrast with each other, we allow them to exist together, which helps us make peace with our ambivalence. This also helps facilitate decision making. When we accept that we simultaneously feel two ways it allows us to fully look at the different sides of the situation and see that there are pros and cons on both sides. Realizing that there are no perfect choices prevents us from constantly looking for one and leads to a more realistic approach to making decisions. By accepting the ambivalence that we all feel, we can grow to lead happier and more productive lives.

For more information on ambivalence and how to live with it look here or here.

This blog was written by our intern, Hannah Shaffett

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