To do or not to do, that is always the question. Ahh, ambivalence. So I used to mix up this word with the word indifference. The latter means something like, “I don’t care.” The former means the opposite of that. Sort of. It means I feel strongly in at least 2 different ways about the same thing at the same time. Like whoa! I asked Merriam, he said “simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action.” And there shouldn’t really be a period there cuz ambivalence doesn’t end. In my experience, it just keeps going. And going.
We always feel at least two different ways about almost everything. Sounds crazy right? Well think about it… the relationship you are/were in, ever think you wanted to be with them and you didn’t want to be with them, maybe even on the same day? Or in the same moment? Or the questions that crop up like should I go to graduate school? Yes I should, definitely. Actually, no I definitely should not. Kicking my roommate out? Yes, because he’s a slob, their sex noises are too loud, and he never sweeps. No, because I don’t want to have that conversation and what if the next roomie is even worse and, and… and…!
What’s something you don’t feel ambivalent about? Go ahead, I’ll wait. Yeah I stole that line from Katt Williams, and I’d embed a link here but I don’t know if any of his sh!t is actually SFW. Well I guess we can talk to google. While I’m feeling different ways about whether or not to share this link, did you come up with anything that’s even somewhat important that you don’t feel ambivalent about?
I feel all kinds of ambivalent about sharing that Katt Williams link with you, and on the scale of things that are happening in my life even today that’s pretty small sweet potato fries. And you might realize you actually feel fairly ambivalent about watching the clip. Is it worth my time? Maybe it’s hilarious? Will my boss peek over my shoulder right when Katt is saying exactly the kind of thing that… O my. And on, and on.
Okay, so maybe the only thing we don’t feel at least somewhat ambivalent about is really, really unimportant stuff, like whether or not to have a second cup of coffee or if we are having granola or bran flakes for breakfast. And yes, even these minor things can provoke some internal debate on a foggy morning, I’ve totally been there. And the only other thing I can think of that does not stimulate the ambivalence cortex would be habits since we just do those automatically.
So what does this really have to do with relationships or anything else? Glad you asked. It helps us better understand ourselves and not feel so alone when these conflicts arise. Next time you try to make a decision about something important in your life such as pondering whether or not to vacation to San Francisco, you will think of umpteen reasons to do it and not to do it. And that’s a totally human experience. Phew, feels good to hear that doesn’t it! In fact, I’ll bet you are debating something if not several things in your mind right now. How’d I know? Cuz so am I.
As you are able to notice yourself having all of this ambivalence and realize it’s totally normal, it helps you cultivate self-compassion. It also helps you create the space for a friend next time she calls and says she’s still on the fence about whether or not to break up with her boyfriend. Your tendency in the past would have been to say with perhaps a note of exasperation in your voice, “Chelsea, haven’t we been over this a hundred times?? Break up with him already!” And as you may now be realizing, Chelsea’s actually feeling a lot of ambivalence so your response would probably make her feel defensive, she may begin to shut down, and it ultimately might become a sore point in your relationship with her.
Instead you can respond with some compassion in your voice like, “I totally get it Chelsea, seems like a really difficult decision to make.” Because you do get it. Because you’ve been there a hundred times. This week. Then Chelsea feels totally listened to–which is really all she needed to begin with–and your relationship a little stronger. And my guess is, next time you call her with your own story full of ambivalence, she’ll be a little more understanding.
If you’re curious about how to build on self-compassion and other skills that help you create healthier, happier relationships in your life, I’d love to hear from you.
Jeremi McManus is a Relationship Coach, Psychotherapist, and Couples Therapist who works with people who want more fulfilling and satisfying relationships. His own ups and downs in dating and relating were instrumental in leading him into this field. If you feel like you could use some perspective, he looks forward to hearing from you. Jeremi is a Licensed Psychotherapist and delighted to call San Francisco home.