Katherine* peers over her left shoulder, scanning the café to make sure no one’s listening. She continues, “At the time, I was horrified. It should be perfect, I thought there should be no doubt. That’s when I still lived in the fairy tale, before I knew about life and relationships. I suppose it’s ironic that years later, when I got married at 40, I felt the same way. Is this the right choice? Should I wait? Really, it was 50-50. I decided to marry him. But just because I got married, it doesn’t mean my ambivalence went away. Now I ask myself every day, ‘Should I stay married?’”
Katherine loves her husband, but a lot of the time, she also can’t stand him or herself. Her struggle, though quiet, is not an outlier.
Examples of similar struggles
- The lawyer who wants the financial benefits of his career, but feels constantly stressed and dreams of a quiet life as a writer.
- The parents who love their “oppositional defiant” son, but hate him for making their lives so difficult.
- The priest who feels called to his vocation, but is tormented because he has fallen in love.
- The happily married analyst who loves her family but longs to be with a woman.
- The daughter who struggles to maintain a relationship with her father after he molested her sister.
All these scenarios involve feeling torn.
Across marriage, politics, career, religion, health and sexuality—in situations ranging from death to ordering a meal—most people, at some point, will find themselves entangled in ambivalence. Chances are, they’ll desperately seek a way out.
What thought leaders think
Interviews conducted with 60 U.S. thought leaders over the past two years reveal ambivalence about ambivalence. More than half of the interview participants work in the fields of psychology, spirituality and religion. Others are professionally engaged in corporate business, non-profit work, the arts, humanities or the government.
Beyond research qualifiers, these participants are vibrant people moved by daily kindnesses. Most volunteer, know their neighbours and have close friends and family. Many feel that contemporary society, as a whole, is more interested in staying superficially busy than in being intimately present with others.
“Society doesn’t want to go there,” says a marketing executive. “People listen to you as long as you talk about surface stuff. But when it gets into personal or deeper subjects, they get uncomfortable.”
Throughout this crowd, there’s a resounding opinion that American society isn’t a big fan of ambivalence, a condition that relentlessly creates self-doubt, worry and confusion. In fact, several participants believe that U.S. society, in general, perceives the experience of ambivalence as a weakness.
Ambivalence: What it is and how it feels
“Everyone has ambivalence, they just don’t talk about it,” says a social worker. “It’s what keeps us in business as therapists.”
For many participants, the mere mention of ambivalence about a job, marriage, friendship or anything that matters feels too risky. It suggests dissatisfaction or tentativeness, both unpopular qualities.
An environmental business leader comments, “People don’t share their ambivalence because socially, there’s a pressure to be certain or right. To have your shit together.”
Ambivalence is sometimes confused with indifference, but it actually couldn’t be more different. Whereas indifference is a bore, ambivalence sends us into overdrive as we experience the tension of feeling both love and hate for the same situation, idea or person (which could even be the self).
Whether it’s debilitating or intoxicating, there’s nothing neutral about ambivalence, including the ambiguity that surrounds what we want. A psychiatrist says, “People think ambivalence is some kind of amorphous thing. It’s not. Ambivalence always has some component of something you don’t want to do.”
It’s true. When a person’s mired in ambivalence, they often know exactly what they want. It’s simply not an option. For instance, Katherine wants a husband who can financially support the family and help care for their child. She also wants passion. But that’s not what the relationship looks like.
Real choices can be complicated. Katherine shares her internal conflict—she could leave and has thought about it, but in her words, that would be “disastrous.” Alternatively, she can stay and try to find peace.
Either way, she persistently feels distracted and isolated. However, she’s not alone. Others experience sleeplessness, anxiety, back pain, stomach problems, depression and fatigue.
Says a theology professor, “I have a lot of ambivalence about my career, and yet I could never express that at work. I could easily be fired for it. I resolve it by saying it doesn’t matter whether I’m happy. Even if it’s hurting my body, it could be worse. So I press ahead.”
A not-so-unique kind of struggle
When some people deal with ambivalence, they stay quiet or “pretend,” a word some participants use to describe a coping mechanism for dealing with mixed feelings. Some assume this is a struggle unique to them and that everyone else has it together. Deep down, they know this isn’t actually true, but just in case, they feel that it’s better to post happy pictures online and share all the good stuff.
There’s also a tendency to be hyper-focused on making a decision quickly. Ideally, this’ll be the choice that will produce the least amount of suffering. Yet, placing all bets on one decision typically makes an experience worse. Any move feels like it could radically redirect the course of an individual’s otherwise controlled life. Plus, the mounting pressure can end up tainting the choice that’s finally made.
Visions of the worst-case scenario thrust people into the grittiest corners of anxiety: Abandonment. Hurting loved ones. Loss. Yet in the throes of ambivalence, the very thing we fear is already happening. The inner life starts to look like a building on fire, and the response follows: Grab all valuables and run!
Decision, distraction and shifting the question
“Be careful when you hear questions like, ‘What should I do? What if? Are you sure?’” says a psychologist. “It’s a setup. The very nature of them implies guilt and self-doubt. We beat ourselves up with those questions.”
Why does this matter?
The questions above aren’t only diminishing, they’re distracting. Ambivalence isn’t really about making a decision. It’s about asking wiser, more compassionate questions such as, “What is my life trying to teach me? How can I be loving to myself and others during this discernment? How can I cultivate strength and trust?”
Though it may feel abstract, herein lies the actual triumph. The second set of questions more honestly reflects what it means to live authentically.
For many interview participants, particularly leaders in the fields of spirituality and psychology, ambivalence is an essential part of what it means to be human. It’s in our nature to be ambivalent.
A chaplaincy director pauses, mindfully choosing words that’ll honour a variety of religious beliefs and non-beliefs. “We live in flesh and in spirit, in love and in hate,” he says. “To use a Paulist image, we live with the tension of being a saint and a devil.”
By denying our experience of ambivalence, we’re essentially denying our nature—our human nature—and the point at which it conjoins with our spirit. But the high social value placed on certainty distracts us from the deeper experience that’s asking for our attention. It may be as clear as what the ambivalence indicates; for instance, facing a difficult time in a marriage or considering a new career.
It’s not always that straightforward, though. According to a non-profit director, “It’s like going to the beach and stressing for hours about whether to take sandals or sneakers. It’s not really about the shoes.”
Trying to understand the confusion can be bewildering, so we begin to question what we feel, think and do. “Ambivalence suggests someone is doubting what they know. It’s a discursive thought loop. There are times in my life when I used ambivalence as a mindfulness bell, an alarm clock. When it shows up, it means something isn’t being accepted or really known. And I need to investigate that,” says a Buddhist leader.
This can be a painful revelation. We may not have access to our “knowing” quite yet and we may never come to understand it. On the other hand, we may be fully aware of what’s going on, but honouring that might bring some kind of loss.
Almost all scenarios call for exploration and this takes time. Taking the time that’s necessary can be tricky, since feeling torn comes with a potent sense of urgency. It’s the last place we want to hang out.
The beauty of our nature
What if the discomfort we feel is actually a point of entry for growth? Participant stories reveal another side of ambivalence: It shows as up an invitation to explore the internal chambers of our lives.
“We may think the ambivalence is about getting married, but it’s actually about a childhood trauma that’s asking to be healed,” says a contemplative prayer leader.
Ambivalence asks us to connect with an experience, which is rarely easy but almost always meaningful. By sticking around, we may actually uncover parts of ourselves that we disowned somewhere along the way. We can contemplate the murkiness of the past rather than avoid it.
Several participants describe a radical shift in mindset that comes with delving deeply into their lives. They feel more embodied, with a greater sense of personal authority. “From here,” says a chaplaincy director, “you can access your humanity and become more vulnerable and transparent. Then, you can truly touch others.”
These participants also describe a deepened trust in a divine force greater than ourselves, be it love, God, friendship or universal benevolence.
A technology vice president (VP) reflecting on 17 years of discernment within an ambivalent marriage allows, “I used to think making career choices and working on my marriage meant I was in control. But I was just going through the motions, as if my life wasn’t really my own. I saw a fork in the road like this: You make a decision and force yourself onto one path or the other.”
While several participants describe the exhilaration that comes with making a decision, this usually stems from hard work. The deepest relief rarely emerges from a journey of certainty.
“Now I realize you can take a lot more time to get to that fork in the road. I worked through a lot personally. I do things more consciously than I did before. I finally realized it was about having faith and trusting in a bigger plan. It’s not like I don’t have my eyes wide open or that I’m surrendering my free will. But I look for what God wants, because before, I only focused on what I wanted,” the VP adds.
The most valuable external move can simply be sharing your story. When this is done with the person most intricately tied to your struggle, such as a spouse, the experience can be profoundly liberating. In many cases, it can be healing for the individual hiding their feelings and bonding for the couple.
Interestingly, the majority of participants don’t personally espouse negative attitudes towards ambivalence. On the contrary, they consider the ability to engage with it as an indicator of emotional and intellectual acuity. Many appreciate the need for certainty in high-stake situations, particularly those that involve politics and business decisions. Interpersonally, however, they prefer to be around others who are willing to traverse the murkiness of doubt.
Mortality, control and surrender
“There’s a spiritual component to ambivalence. Trusting in God, or in even in myself, that whatever the answer is, I’ll be OK,” says the president of the environmental corporation, quoted earlier. “It’s like Yoga’s savasana pose: practicing death, surrendering.”
Letting go of control unearths our most primal fear: death.
“What do I really want? I want a lot of things. If I say yes to this one thing, I say no to all the others. It’s a sacrifice to make a decision. It’s a death,” says a Presbyterian minister.
We consistently underestimate our capacity to suffer, heal and grow, so we grasp more tightly. Yet the very experience we stifle is the one that’s longing to emerge. Ultimately, we need to loosen our grip.
Spiritual traditions share stories of waiting, sitting in the tension of life with compassion and inquiry while wrestling with the dualities of joy and sorrow, birth and death, humanity and divinity.
Prophets step into a life of discernment, leaving behind daily reminders of their individual identity such as wealth, family and a schedule. (Unlike them, we tend to hold onto these things dearly.) They live out “the hero’s journey,” along with all the suffering, bliss and renewal that comes with it.
As we can see within these stories, ambivalence isn’t an interruption of life, nor is it a mistake asking to be fixed. It holds within it the potential for growth, if we allow it to. It can be a creative energy that rouses us to awaken and integrate. Sometimes, it involves coming to terms with difficult discoveries or decisions.
Does this sound weak? Not at all. But it sounds hard.
However, sometimes letting go can mean coming undone so that we can become more fully ourselves, and the way the opportunity to do so shows up in our lives is uniquely and beautifully specific to every one of us.
*All names have been changed or omitted to respect confidentiality.
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