Ambivalence and the Perfect Answer

Ambivalence:

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!

Joe is the author and the owner of AfterPsychotherapy.com, one of the leading online mental health resources on the internet. Be sure to connect with him on Google+ and Linkedin.

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37 comments

    Thank you for another great post.

    Your speaking of the inability to choose really ‘spoke’ to me.

    All of my life I have had trouble choosing which career path to take. I have gone from one thing to another but never committed to any one by engaging fully in it. It has almost been like “the thrill of the chase” kind of feeling as I began to move in a new direction but as soon as the business or idea was set up and in place, I was no longer interested in continuing with it. In that respect, I wanted it all but now find myself without formal qualifications (because I didn’t commit to getting any because I couldn’t choose which to do) and unable to progress financially in my career path because I have ‘hit my ceiling’.

    And, by not committing to any one direction, I can still, to this day (but maybe not beyond this day after this realisation) in my mind have a fantasy that one day I will be a …

    As I type this response I feel a great sadness rising up; in a profound and ironic way, I have lived half a life in terms of my career because I did not commit to one thing, and in doing so maintained my fantasy that I would always be something grandiose.

    Thank you.

    I’m glad this struck a chord with you. Since I wrote the post, I’ve also been thinking about the “Peter Pan” syndrome type of person who never grows up. I think there are many reasons why people are stuck in a state of perpetual adolescence (not wanting/fear of responsibility, fear of intimacy, etc.) but another reason is exactly what you described.

    I can understand that ambivalence can be caused by a desire to find a perfect answer, but I think there is a similar but slightly different cause of fear that one is not capable of making any good any good decision. Or is this a distinction without a difference?

    No, it’s a very real distinction. I think most people would feel ambivalent in that case. I guess what I’m talking about is chronic or habitual ambivalence that applies to many situations. Most of us feel ambivalent at various points in our lives but it’s not our characteristic way of being in the world.

    Thank you for today’s insight. I’ve never been in therapy but find your site to have wonderful insights that give me many reasons to reflect professionally and personally. I too have had the ambivalence you mention in my professional life and sometimes in my personal life. Your insight today has caused me to look at these situations differently. So once again, thank you. I continue to look forward to all your posts.

    I appreciate what you have said and do agree, but being angry all the time isn’t fun. Don’t you want to get to the bottom of it?

    You do admit there are some people that experience less anger and impatience than others.

    I will admit my childhood was filled with perfectionistic messages, alot of angry outburts and just plain meanness.

    I was pretty patient with others until I had put up with everyone else’s garbage and I couldn’t do it anymore.

    Just as some bosses can make work easy or tough, I found this with the people I chose.

    You seem very practical and down to earth. Realistic. The only problem with seeing things from this viewpoint all the time is that it doesn’t leave room for anything outside of the practical and realistic to happen.

    I believe that one of the most fundamental skills to teach a child is the ability to tolerate ambivalence (definition 2 in the article above). E.g. You can love someone and be angry with them/their behavior. Growing up with expectations of perfection will create a black and white world – like you say, you put up with it, until you couldn’t do it anymore (one extreme to the other). Becoming aware of these blueprints and scripts allows us to let go of them and learn new more a more healthy, sustainable and balanced way to live. I grew up with a “good” mother and a “bad” father and have realized what an impact that “story” has made on my inability in adulthood to tolerate ambivalence in relationships. But with therapy and constant awareness I am learning to form relationships at a rate that feels safe to me where I can risk ambivalence without swinging into the default state of extremes I learnt when I was a child. I realize that my inability to tolerate ambivalence was a way of protecting me from my feeling emotions, so in a way your ability to feel angry makes me envious. Only now am I learning that it is perfectly okay and healthy AND SAFE to feel angry in relationships. It is your body/brains way of protecting you and guiding you away from injustice and danger. But like you say, it is all well and good on paper – integrating it all into day to day life is a process that requires careful effort and commitment. Good luck! And thanks for posting your thoughts. Very engaging.

    I agree with you, that teaching children that ambivalence is okay is crucial. Not much social messaging around us that supports that point of view, unfortunately. One parent once overheard me telling my son that it was okay to tell me he hated me, but not okay to hit me. This parent was appalled that I would allow my child to express his rage.

    Could the person be refering to someone who is chronically angry? It’s similar to the post you did on taking anti-depressants and that depression may be something deeper, such as being in a bad relationship, finacial difficulties…ect. That leaving the bad relationship, changing the circumstances are what was needed. Could that not as well apply to anger?

    So are you saying that it is normal and healthy for a spouse to be constantly angry, that sighs, complains, belittles, criticizes, explodes when things don’t go their way.

    Could they not develop healthier ways to cope and relate?

    Could looking within to see what is triggering the anger, and why and make a change help out?

    There is a difference between feeling anger, and being chronically angry.

    In life we experience ranging emotions, but if you go and google “is chronic anger healthy?” You will find that its not normal and that it has health ramifications, some examples are cancer, difficulty with your heart, emotional tolls. Some of the examples are low self-esteem, loss of security, loss of control and more. I’m also reading that anger can be a symptom of depression. This is why they have classes called Anger management. It benefits everyone involved. Protecting your health and wellbeing is reason enough, but if that’s not a good enough reason to get to the bottom of it, them possibly your spouse or children having to walk on eggshells is. Consider asking them how they feel in response to chronic anger.

    Now possibly in the past you may have judged yourself for you anger. (Be easy on yourself) Never judge, because judgment never changes the behavor, and makes it harder to change, but finding the reasons and make a change. Do it for your health, family life, career, time with the kids….ect. Which in the end gives you more reasons to be happy.

    I don’t believe I ever used the word “chronic”. To me, anger is an emotion like any other — it comes and it goes. If it does become chronic and persistent, then I’d agree with your assessment — it’s about defending against or warding off something else.

    Wow, I just realized that I’ve always, ever since I had my first “relationship” at 14, thought that if there is something I dislike about my boyfriend, something is wrong. Either with him, the relationship or me. I rationally know this is crazy, but still, everytime my husband annoys me with his snoring, a little voice inside me says that it’s not ment to be because my true love should not annoy me (or snore so disgustingly)(appearently, adding to the crazyness: I snore myself).

    I completely understand what you’re describing and earlier in my life, often had exactly the same experience. That ideal relationship in your head can be so destructive to the actual one in real life, because each time a problem or imperfection comes up, a part of you turns away from the real one. Speaking from experience, it’s so undermining. But if you know that about yourself, you can see the thought come up but not be taken in by it — just let it pass through.

    Joe, thank you for this extremely helpful post. I have been trying to understand this kind of ambivalence in myself and have never been able to put my finger on its root cause. There is something so dear about hanging onto the forever-unrealized fantasy. A very wise teacher of mine once noted offhandedly that choice is often painful because it always involves loss (of other possibilities). I find this to be equally true of big and small choices. Who should I marry and which calling plan should I select? It reminds me of the marketing and pop psychology notion of “the tyranny of choice,” e.g. consumers actually desire fewer choices because more choices means more opportunities for painful regret.

    I had forgotten about “the tyranny of choice” — who was it who said that? It’s so true! And your teacher sounds a lot like my therapist.

    Barry Schwartz?

    He has written some truly interesting stuff on consumer behavior in the face of choice. I also liked his use of the distinction between maximizers and satisficers (I don’t think Barry coined this distinction, though).

    As you write, people don’t generally cope well with emotional conflict and ambiguity. I am absolutely certain that I also have issues with emotional conflict and ambiguity (I guess we all do to some degree).

    But what kinds of defence mechanisms do you think people use to defend against ambiguity?

    I have met people who evalutate people completely binary; either they are “saints” or “sinners”. And if you cross the thin line, you will end up on the wrong side…..

    I have always thought that they did not cope well with complexity, but maybe ambiguity is a better word?

    Probably the same with self-evalution. I guess learning to deal with our inherent worthiness and our flaws at the same time is also a question of learning to accept ambiguity?

    I can relate to ambivalence. Making decisions has been difficult for me for most of my adult life. I am in therapy, and found your blog in search of information on dependency. I found some excellent information. Thank you for you insights and experience. Following is a poem that I wrote to try to express my conflicting (ambivalent) feelings even about being in therapy and trying to be open, honest, willing to cooperate with the process and to trust:
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Awash in eagerness, I schedule a meeting,
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~My mind is full, though clarity is fleeting.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Between the car and office the shift ensues,
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~I feel the weight of fear in my shoes.
    ~~Cloaked in shame each step I Vacillate,
    ~~~~Can I succeed this time to Articulate?
    ~~~Molded by messages I have Learned,
    ~~Attention, affection must be Earned.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~New patterns of thought I try to assimilate.
    ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~Trust, in the process of growth, I will imitate.

    I don’t know if this message will appear the same when I try to post it, but it is an acrostic poem for the word “AMBIVALENT” – my take on much of life.

    I don’t think I would have spotted the acrostic, but I see it now. I don’t know how to reformat it so that the letters will appear at the beginning of the lines, but other readers will see it. Thanks for adding to the discussion and letting us read your poem. Your ambivalence definitely comes across.

    The words that make up the acrostic for AMBIVALENT are actually at the beginning of some lines, and buried in some lines…. like me, they are unsure what they want…. it is part of the message, but making the right words line up as it transferred to the posting was what I was concerned about…. slightly OCD concerned about. Thank you for posting it. I am taking part in the process of growth through therapy and practice. Also, I really appreciate what I have read in your “columns.”

    Thank you so much for this post!
    I totally agree that our culture promotes being perfect and having total control over everything (bad feelings, thoughts, reactions etc.) even in cases we do not really have to. Sometimes we just have to embrace the bad feelings and bitterness so we can let go.

    Control is an illusion.

    Def 1 of Ambivalence
    uncertainty or fluctuation

    That is life! We can be certain that it will be uncertain and subject to flux.

    It’s also what it’s like living with MS. Never knowing what stunt your body is going to pull next. Is it going to be paralysis? Incontinence? Parasthesia?

    Trust me when I say. Before MS Diagnosis – The Illusion of Control Caused Depression. After MS Diagnosis: – Control recognised as Illusion, attempt to control recognised as futile, heavy burden of failure removed, depression surprisingly reduced through this realisation (but not removed entirely cos it’s depressing not knowing if you’re going to be still walking at 40)

    Forget the illusion. Control is a lie.

    Thank you for your insights about ambivalence. I am interested in strategies to deal with ambivalence after infidelity. My husband had an affair after 29 years of marriage and 23 months after discovery, I am very ambivalent about staying in the marriage. We are not in counseling as he refuses to go. He shows himself to be remorseful and we are reconciling but my ambivalence is disconcerting. I found your remarks helpful.

    The truth is, I don’t think in terms of simple steps or tips. Usually, learning to bear ambivalence is the result of a long struggle.

    Dear Joe, in Buddhist philosophy/ psychology
    Anger is seen as a delusion.. The aim is to root out the seed
    Of anger so it never arises. This is achieved after
    Much effort put into training the mind…
    Such theories run counter to your position.
    It seems to me.. I try in my everyday life, to
    Develop patience.. And not generate anger. Doesn’t mean I am a
    Doormat/ allow others to trample me/ or
    Move away emotionally when someone
    Is disturbing my mind.
    I really enjoy your posts.
    And feel the privilege of being part of others
    Intimate sharing. However, on this point.. Anger and
    The validity of its existence.. In the mind.. I differ from you.

    Last fall, I broke up with my boyfriend because he just wasn’t part of the relationship. For many months, I was trying to figure out what was going on, making sure that it wasn’t a misinterpretation of his behavior by me. For someone who acted like he wanted a relationship, he really did some hurtful things, such as telling a perfect stranger in an airport (in my presence) that we weren’t married, we were just friends with benefits, or dismissing me when I tell him his behavior is hurtful to me, just to name a couple. In between, he would talk of the future, and act like he had plans for me to always be in his life, even to the point of involving me with his family, who are very nice people. It was very confusing, like being pulled back and forth through a wringer. This is just a brief synopsis of what happened.

    I finally talked to him, told him what I felt and wanted, and asked him what he felt and wanted. He said he loved me, but it was totally emotionless….no warmth, no facial expressions…..just nothing. Then he said he didn’t know what he wanted. This from a 52 year old man. He admits to never being able to move forward in a relationship because he’s afraid of what might happen. I’ve tried to understand, but I am not super-human. It seems like no matter what I do, I get very little of anything back. I had to leave. I didn’t know what else to do.

    I have not heard from him since. I understand that he is telling people that we had a discussion, I didn’t like something he said, and I left. He said he wasn’t sure what was happening.

    I feel like a chump for getting involved with him, but I know I am not alone in this club. Someone said his lack of empathy makes him sound like a narcissist. Does this sound correct? I don’t like thinking badly of him, but his treatment of me was unacceptable. It’s hard to reconcile this side of him with the generous, fun-loving side of him. It’s almost like two different people.

    Will fear drive someone to such extremes, and what causes that fear? I can’t begin to imagine it. It has torn me apart, but I’m dealing with it.

    I’d hesitate to call him a narcissist, although he does seem insensitive to your feelings. Probably it has more to do with a fear of intimacy — fear of being truly seen and known, fear that if someone sees the “real” him, he’ll be rejected, found to be unlovable.

    That is so sad, because I think he has many good qualities, and have told him so. I learned a long time ago that words, actions, and feelings need to be shown so that the other person knows they are important, loved, and safe. I have done this so many times, and I finally realized that I have NEVER received that kind of validation back. I know you aren’t supposed to make blanket statements like that, but if I had ever heard those words or felt those feelings from him, I would have remembered it, and we wouldn’t be where we are now.

    It makes me terribly sad. Don’t people realize that if they keep pushing people away, even the ones of us who really want to stay eventually will have to leave, just to protect ourselves? It’s like being rejected over and over again.

    I wish I could help him, but it seems to me there is a time to quit using fear as an excuse and do something about it, especially if you really want a true relationship.

    Greetings, dear doctor. I can totally related with the thoughts you have in the article. I think I’m ambivalent. I am ambivalent. There’s this decision that I’ve been trying to decide on – I’m not kidding – for about a year. This is what happens to me: I’d wake up in the morning brave enough to make a decision. As the day progresses, I find myself slipping back to ambivalence again. When nighttime falls, I’m in my bed wide awake crying about what the consequences will be of my decision. The next day, I find myself with a different decision, but then again, I’d be crying about it at 3 AM. Whenever ‘I think’ I’ve finally decided on something, the thought of the possible consequences and the future really scares me out. I think, I’m like, in the same cycle of pushing and pulling my decisions and it has affected my life, my career, and the people around me. Thinking about this ‘one decision’ also led me to another dilemma: I can feel myself spiraling down to depression. I began to lose interest in my job, in fact, I already quit my job. I tend to oversleep. I’d go to bed around 3 AM and wake up 1 in the afternoon still stuck with the same problem. Nothing seems to bring color in my life anymore. I really don’t know if I’m being a ‘neurotic’ or experiencing some form of mental disorder. My ambivalence has driven me to think that I might have dual personality or something. My friends are beginning to despise me for this. I would promise to meet them and I’d cancel out plans thereafter. I really don’t know what to do. And, this decision highly concerns my future. Like, if I say ‘yes’ to this, I’d have a better future but I think I won’t be happy. And if I say ‘no’, I’d be happy but I wouldn’t have a good future. The practical and achievement-hungry-person in me would say ‘yes’, but the soft and carefree in me would say ‘no’. I’m really torn apart about this.

    I guess I’m ambivalent It’s very hard to live my life this way. I’ve always wanted to be a cartoonist. For ten years now I’ve been designing,writing and drawing strips. I put a lot of work into designing a comic, toiling over every last detail. Every choice I make I simultaneously love and hate. This continues until inevitably I just trash the whole concept and start over. Or I “give up” only to find myself trying again in a few months or even a few weeks. What is this ambivalence all about, I wonder. Ten years of being poor, ten years of being frustrated. Is it all really just because of a psychological block? It’s an inability to accept my flaws. I want to be perfect and I can’t. So the solution can only be to try the best that I can, regardless of the ambivalence. That seems hard to do. How do people just love themselves? They just do, I guess. They’re not ambivalent like me.

    Thanks a lot, Joseph. I totally relate to ambivalence; it is such a debilitating feeling; I feel wobbly, shaky, uncertain, self-doubtful and unassertive all the time. I even experience sort of panic attacks when faced to making crucial choices. No matter what I end up choosing, I always regret; even more, I feel sad even before experiencing the results of my choice; just choosing makes me feel sad and anxious! Like if I were doomed to failure no matter what. My question is: when making a choice, what is the “right” criteria to choose? It seems like my inner voice cannot speak and I’m clueless, wondering about the choices and not taking any. If I could only hear my inner voice!
    Speaking of which, it seems like my only voice is fear… Hence, how to interpret that fear? Should I take action anyways or is it a feeling that is telling me that I don’t want to go there?
    Yes, life is hell when you are ambivalent…
    Thanks Joseph!

    P.S: or ambivalence also comes from the lack of self-trust, ergo, we doubt our own desires, being too fearful to trust them and take action?

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