Ambivalence is one of our more perplexing psychological ailments. The source of this paradoxical mental-emotional state lies submerged in our psyche, almost as unfathomable as those bizarre deep-sea creatures that underwater cameras have discovered.
Ambivalence is the misery we feel when we have conflicting feelings—love and hate, for instance—that we experience simultaneously toward a person, group, object, institution, idea, or action. Ambivalence constitutes an excess of conflicting thoughts. It’s a tortured state of mind that involves failing to reach a coherent point of view on a subject one feels strongly about.
This psychological impasse contains elements of indecision, cynicism, confusion, and mixed feelings. But ambivalence has its own special psychological configuration. Under its influence, a person hovers in pronounced self-doubt, unable to feel or even to imagine a genuine or authentic self capable of assuming inner authority. This person is unable to feel or connect with the part of himself or herself that’s reasonably confident of knowing and acting upon one’s best interests. This state of self-alienation, of “not knowing one’s mind,” is one of many symptoms associated with inner passivity.
How widespread is the problem of ambivalence? Its collective effect could be contaminating many social and political issues. Ambivalence would likely be at play in people who hate the government while claiming to be patriots who love their country. Ambivalence is conceivably a factor with people who believe they’re decent and good while also convinced they’re wretched sinners. Also under its influence are people who understand the need to have police forces yet personally detest representatives of that authority. So too for those who denounce “forbidden” sexual attitudes and behaviors while in their imagination experience a compulsive allure for them. The ambivalence in these examples can be painfully acute.
Here are three more situations where it arises: when loving and feeling sharply negative toward a spouse or partner; when cherishing and resenting motherhood or fatherhood; and when thinking of oneself as a caring person while cheering the misery of certain others.
We can sometimes see ambivalence more clearly by understanding what it’s not. It’s not ambiguity, which is the feeling that can arise in viewing an optical illusion or, say, contemplating the Mona Lisa. Nor is ambivalence necessarily indecision or mixed feelings, both of which, when processed rationally rather than through unresolved inner conflict, have no particular misery associated with them.
A person with ambivalence can feel painful self-estrangement and confusion. One client, a former teacher in her early thirties, found herself frequently agonizing, through inner dialogue, whether she had made a wrong decision in leaving teaching for another job. She would find herself dwelling on how much she loved the kids, then a moment later shudder at the memory of teaching’s exhausting demands and how she felt it was not her true calling.
“No, I don’t like teaching,” she would say to herself. “Oh, but I do love the kids.” And then: “Maybe it’s right, I do love teaching.” And then: “No, I don’t, I don’t.” Soon she would snap out of this confusion, becoming adamant: “I do love the kids, I do!” Yet she would quickly collapse back into feeling confused and helplessness, often after going through this litany of pros and cons with other people, particularly with her husband and parents.
“I’m driven by a sense of urgency,” she said, “cycling in and out of self-doubt, with a pit in my stomach because I can’t figure it out. It’s all exhausting and it runs deep. I feel like a hound dog chasing a scent, only to suddenly smash into a brick wall.”
Some of her ambivalence centered on the question of where, professionally, she might make the biggest impact. She described her thoughts and feelings: “I taunt myself, saying I would have the biggest impact teaching kids in the classroom. Yet mentally I know that the whole idea of where the bigger impact will be made is debatable. Yet I can still feel wrong for choosing my new career, even though it involves helping adults. The recurring thought is that I’m selfish and not doing what’s good for society, making a mistake, and so on.”
Ambivalent people often look for “allies” with whom to share their ambivalence. By “enlisting” another person to share their confusion, they’re able to lessen the inner guilt they feel for chronically experiencing situations as if they’re being pushed into a passive corner. “See, others feel this way, too,” their inner defense claims. They also tend to seize on the offhand comments of others to feed their ambivalence.
As mentioned, ambivalence is its own brand of inner passivity. Inner passivity is a universal human vexation involving an unconsciousness willingness and even determination to identify with a weak sense of self. Through inner passivity, and then symptomatically through ambivalence, people experience an unpleasant if not painful disconnect from self. This disconnect is a familiar emotional default position that represents their unconscious willingness to identify with themselves through self-doubt and self-alienation.
They often feel unsupported emotionally by others, yet in their ambivalence they’re failing emotionally to support themselves. For instance, they frequently undermine their trust in a decision they have already made. Sometimes, as well, their experience is felt as an urgent need to resolve their state of confusion. However, this urgency can be, in itself, a psychological defense, a means whereby they deny their underlying intent to remain in a state of emotional uncertainty. The defense claims: “I don’t want to remain stuck in this old, familiar uncertainty. Look at how urgently I want to resolve this!”
A key factor in ambivalence is the stress placed on the pronoun “I”. The individual says to himself, “I doubt whether I should do this or that. Or, I haven’t decided yet.” Or, “I have changed my mind!” This person is making a claim to power, a claim that serves as a compensation for the underlying passivity. The claim is often ironic because the conflict usually has been decided—unknown to the individual, of course—in favor of continuing ambivalence and passivity, based on resistance to giving up inner conflict.
One person expressed his ambivalence in these words: “I feel a need to process this. I need to understand this better. It’s not clear how things have to be worked out. Am I locking into the right frequency here, am I on the right path? I need to find out what these feelings mean for me. Am I being true to myself? The problem is, I can’t get in touch with my feelings. What do I really feel?”
The emphasis on the pronoun “I” denotes a phony battle, or the semblance of a fight, against the individual’s underlying identification with the deposits of passivity in his or her psyche. The ambivalent person’s felt need to put forward this claim to power (producing the illusion of being active, as in active doubter) serves as a desperate attempt to deal with what are likely larger than normal deposits of inner passivity. Of course, the entire process of saving face by making this claim to power is self-defeating because of the emotional pain that’s experienced and because of behavioral consequences that often include poor decision-making.
As another example, an ambivalent person can feel strongly conflicted in the hours following an encounter with other people. One feeling is, “I messed up. I looked bad, I said the wrong things.” The other feeling, simultaneously experienced, expresses the opposite point of view: “I did fine. What I said was good. People were impressed.” An inner debate of this kind is also common among people who are emotionally attached to feeling a disappointment to themselves and others.
Essentially, ambivalence operates as a psychological defense. Ambivalent people are claiming unconsciously in their defense that they are neither inappropriately aggressive nor shamefully passive. They feel caught in the middle of these two choices (both of which are vetoed by their inner critic) that remain in their emotional memory from childhood when they oscillated between passivity and rebellion. The defense reads: “I am neither passive nor aggressive. I hold the middle ground. I have yet to make up my mind.” Again, emphasis is placed on the pronoun “I”, which creates a face-saving illusion of power. These individuals also are likely to feel a distressing urgency because the defense is based on the pretense that rational, sincere consideration of one’s dilemma is taking place.
Ambivalent people often produce black-and-white, either-or thinking, thereby unwittingly intensifying their inner conflict.
The most famous words in English literature—Hamlet’s statement, “To be or not to be”—express ambivalence. The fame of this question attests to humanity’s powerful resonance with ambivalence. On the surface, the words refer to Hamlet’s thoughts on committing suicide, yet a deeper meaning is inherent: Should we humans take the high road and learn to live alert and highly conscious (to be) or do we take the low road and submit to a wrath of negative emotions and a passive disconnect from our better self (not to be). A person who is conscious of this vital choice and the high stakes involved, while simultaneously declining to take the high road, is likely to experience painful ambivalence.
For people on the low road, their encounters with career failure, ill health, addictions, homelessness, and even suicide might signify the ravages of an ambivalence toward one’s own self.
A deeper understanding of ambivalence, once assimilated, becomes self-knowledge that empowers our intelligence. This in turn guides us away from the inner conflict and inner passivity that produce ambivalence, toward greater self-trust and connection with our authentic self.
My latest book has just been published. It’s titled, Our Deadly Flaw: Healing the Inner Conflict that Cripples Us and Subverts Society (2022), and it’s available here in paperback (315 pages) or as an e-book.