Ambivalence is what we experience when we have having mixed feelings or opposing ideas simultaneously about an individual, situation or object. I believe that we always have some amount of mixed feelings about everyone and everything in our lives.
We even have ambivalence about situations involving life and death decisions. For example, if you are on the second floor of a house that is on fire, choosing to jump out of the window or stay and wait for help certainly involves mixed thoughts and feelings. Jumping out of the window may save you from being burned but you may risk injuring yourself in the process of climbing down to safety, while staying in the house and waiting for help while the fire and smoke builds is also a very risky choice.
The amount of ambivalence that one has about someone or something exists on a continuum, ranging from a small amount to a great deal of mixed thoughts and feelings.
Why is this important to talk about? It has been my personal and professional experience that when it comes to someone or something that we feel we should not have any ambivalence about (i.e., parents, partners, children, family, pets, jobs, etc.), we may judge these feelings or thoughts as unacceptable and believe that having them casts us in negative light or be hurtful to others. This assessment/judgement can be so unacceptable to us that we may not acknowledge these mixed feelings to ourselves, or we may actively suppress the mixed feelings. That, however, does not make them go away.
Chronic ambivalence may interfere with our ability to move forward and to trust (ourselves and others). At the extreme, chronic feelings of ambivalence can be emotionally debilitating. When our mixed feelings are significant and lasting, we may disconnect from them because they are too distressing, or we may justify them and project our distress onto the person who is the object of our extreme ambivalence. This is often not a conscious process, but the result may lead to our becoming inauthentic and disconnected from ourselves and others. And, at the extreme, can result in chronic feelings of disappointment, guilt, shame or even anger.
Since we all have some amount of ambivalence about everybody and everything, it is critical that we acknowledge the existence of our negative or unacceptable thoughts and feelings TO OURSELVES to avoid behaving inauthentically and emotionally disconnecting.
Notice that I emphasized the words, ‘TO OURSELVES’. In intimate relationships, as well in a civil society, we are not obligated to narrate our every thought or feeling. In fact, should we narrate at the wrong time or with the wrong person, the consequences may cause injury or even irreparable damage. Effectively managing ourselves and our impulses is a critical aspect of maturity, and those that do so effectively are often considered to have high levels of emotional and social intelligence.
Since some amount of ambivalence is natural, it must have an adaptive intent. I believe that when we acknowledge and understand our mixed feelings, we are less likely to act out hurtfully as we do when we are disconnected from our negative thoughts and feelings.
Being aware of our ambivalence can also provide us the ability to see a person in a balanced and realistic way. It aids us in evaluating all sides of a situation and affords us with a method of considering potential options and outcomes.
What can you do?
1) Write down and/or talk about your opposing thoughts and feelings with a trusted person. Acknowledging the mixed feelings you have about someone or something does not necessarily amplify them. In fact, it may actually help dissipate or neutralize the negative feelings when you do so.
2) Remember, all of us have ambivalence about everyone and everything in our life. Having mixed feelings do not mean you are a bad person; in fact, you are normal.
3) Recognize, understand, and accept your ambivalent feelings. Guard against making rash decisions when you think you shouldn’t have mixed feelings about people, experiences, and things in your life.
4) Sometimes, talking about your mixed feelings with nonjudgmental and safe person can offer a lot of relief. Think about these unacknowledged and misunderstood negative feelings as being in a spray can. They live in the can in a concentrated form. When you spray the material in the can, the molecules come out and mix with the air and they are no longer under pressure or concentrate. They’ve become aerosolized! I think that is often what happens when you talk about these negative thoughts and feelings in a nonjudgmental and safe environment. I think this is essential in being able to shed the feelings of guilt and shame that often accompanies these unacceptable thoughts and feelings.
The aspects of our ambivalence that we see as unbecoming or unacceptable provide us with a wonderful opportunity for our own insight, humility, and growth. For example, in relationships, when you can acknowledge that your partner’s actions may frustrate or embarrass you at times, you are less likely to harbor and grow negative feelings. Growth and intimacy can occur in a relationship when we are able to talk about needs and feelings with our partner without judgement or anger.
It takes an enormous amount of psychic energy to defend against the thoughts and feelings that we deem as being unacceptable. By acknowledging and understanding these emotions, we can dissipate the feelings of guilt, shame and, possibly anger. When we are not using all that energy to defend against these negative feeling states, we liberate tremendous amounts of positive psychic energy which can be used for improved connections with ourselves and others.
Please don’t hesitate to contact me if you would like to talk about the mixed feelings that may be keeping you from connecting with others and moving forward in your life.
Remember, change begins with a conversation. Be brave enough to start one that matters.