1. uncertainty or fluctuation, especially when caused by inability to make a choice or by a simultaneous desire to say or do two opposite or conflicting things.
2. Psychology : the coexistence within an individual of positive and negative feelings toward the same person, object, or action, simultaneously drawing him or her in opposite directions.
Earlier this year, an Italian journalist who was writing about the concept of ambivalence for a Milanese newspaper came upon this earlier post where I covered ambivalence definition number two above. In our interview, we discussed the ideas I put forward in that post, but her article examined ambivalence definition number one, as well. I have some thoughts about that first aspect of ambivalence –the problems inherent in choosing — and some further reflections on the second.***
Over the years, many of my clients have discussed an inability to make up their minds when confronted with an important choice: which career path to follow, where to vacation, how to spend some extra money, whether to accept a job offer, etc.; one client couldn’t decide which of two men she wanted to date on an exclusive basis and went endlessly back and forth between them without ever committing to either one. In my experience, there are various reasons why people have such a hard time choosing, but at base, they usually reflect idealized expectations and an underlying perfectionism.
Early in my own treatment, when I was confused about what to do with the rest of my life, my therapist told me something very wise: he said that the problem with making a choice for one option is that you have to give up every other possibility — that is, you have to limit yourself to the one thing you’ve chosen and renounce all the others. Over the years of my own practice, I’ve often found this issue to lie at the root of ambivalence in the first sense.
Many people have a hard time deciding between different options because, on some level, they don’t want to have to choose: They want everything. (In psychoanalytic terms, we might discuss it as a kind of omnipotence.) A related problem with choosing is that, whatever choice you make, it will lead you to the realm of the real, the ordinary, the imperfect; as long as I don’t actually choose, however — as long as everything I might do is still a potential, a fantasy of what may come to pass, it can be as grandiose as I imagine. As Lady Catherine de Bourgh says in Pride and Prejudice: “If I had ever learnt [to play the piano], I should have been a great proficient.”
Fear of making the wrong choice also fuels ambivalence. We may be afraid of loss or regret if we choose “badly”, and/or we may fear the savagery of our own conscience if we make a “mistake”. In other words, ambivalence may reflect an intense fear of the consequences involved in choosing. This is especially true when we’re dominated by a kind of perfectionism. We may expect ourselves to make an ideal choice when one doesn’t actually exist.
Once again, so-called ambivalence keeps us in the realm of ideal possibilities while actual choice leads us to the imperfect and the real. With my client who couldn’t decide between her two boyfriends, the expectation of a perfect fit, an ideal relationship lay behind her “ambivalence”. She couldn’t tolerate an authentic (and therefore imperfect) relationship with an actual man but wanted a perfect bond without frustration, conflict or disappointment. As long as she didn’t actually choose, she unconsciously held out for a perfect relationship. If only she could decide which of the two men was Mr Right!
Here we connect to definition of ambivalence number two, the presence of opposing emotions for the same person. My ambivalent (unable to choose) client couldn’t bear emotional ambivalence in a real relationship; instead of committing to one or the other of her boyfriends and thus confronting the mixed emotions that are part of all human bonds, she remained in a state of uncertainty. In other words, ambivalence definition 1 helped her to avoid ambivalence definition 2, with all its emotional ambiguity and conflict.
In general, our culture doesn’t cope well with emotional conflict and ambiguity. Popular psychology instructs us to “triumph” over a variety of “negative” emotions in order to feel love, gratitude, happiness, self-esteem, generosity, etc. We might have made some headway in recognizing the “upside” of anger, but we still have a hard time accepting hatred, envy, jealousy, etc., or for that matter, the reality of lasting regret. Some recent comments from visitors to this site reflect such an attitude; readers have insisted that we must get beyond anger and hatred, discover the meaning behind them and thereby progress to a state of peace, acceptance and generosity. To me this attitude reflects the same idealistic expectations that inspire ambivalence number 1 and lead to inauthentic, sanitized relationships to avoid ambivalence number 2.
The real challenge, of course, is holding onto love and concern in the face of our occasional destructive emotions, and to bear regret without losing sight of all the genuine good in our lives. I get angry with and sometimes hate my loved ones; I lead a privileged life and feel some painful regrets about choices I’ve made, goals I haven’t accomplished. That’s just reality, as far as I’m concerned. How about you?
***At the end of our interview, this journalist asked me about my Italian surname; when I told her the name of the small Sicilian village where my father had been born, she laughed and said her own family came from the same village. We both have family still living there and it’s likely that we’re distant relatives. Small world!