Do I contradict myself?
Very well then I contradict myself;
(I am large, I contain multitudes.)
Walt Whitman, Song of Myself, Leaves of Grass
Having the capacity to hold and experience two opposing or contradictory feelings, thoughts and desires at the same time is human, very human. It is both a blessing and a curse to have this capacity. It is confusion entire at times. It is also a vital part of sorting through seemingly impossible tasks or options.
Introspection, which is sometimes active (as in “soul searching” or just attempts at self-discovery) and sometime passive (meditation, contemplation, observation, or just sitting with “what is” inside yourself), can often lead us to believe or become aware of our ambivalence about a very large number of things. We can have within us contradictory opinions, values, desires, goals. We can have at the same time likes and dislikes about the same thing, depending on our mood, or the day of the week, or our last encounter with such things as food, people, music, our job, our homes, our leaders, our creative endeavors.
“Ambivalence” is defined by Merriam-Webster (online) as “simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (such as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action.”
We use ambivalence as a kind of “internal dialectic,” a kind of ladder of opposing thoughts, feelings and attitudes to reach a point of synthesizing them to an acceptable thought, which is sometimes an excruciating process. What could possibly be the point of the sometimes-grueling confusion and frustration embedded within ambivalence? Balance. Or, okay, striking the appropriate balance (for ourselves).
You will often find me in therapy creating and drawing on the white board various “spectra” (the plural for spectrum) designed to help clients see how they are trying to balance opposing directions of thoughts, feelings, or even decisions. I do this by drawing a simple line on the white board. One end of the line, underneath the line, I put one possible end of the spectrum and on the other end of the line I put what I think might be a word to describe to the other end. Somewhere near the middle is a balancing. A common example of a spectrum that I use in the context of talking to someone about co-dependency is to call the spectrum (line) “focus on needs.” In other words, where is your primary focus when it comes to your needs and other people’s needs. At the left end of the line, I put “other” and at the right end of the line, I put “self.”
Focus on Needs
Other Balance Self
I ask the client where they’d put themselves (in other words, are they mostly focused on others, themselves, or somewhere in between). Hopefully, eventually, they will be able to put themselves somewhere in the middle, to balance their needs against the needs of others. The line in the middle is supposed to represent something like complete balance between the two opposing ends, but it is just a marker. Rarely in our lives can we or do we want to attain complete balance and stay there. In reality, we move back and forth toward and away from the ends. That’s why the diagram above has brackets around the line in the middle, to represent the advantage of flexibility and adaptability to circumstance as often just as important as balance. Before moving on, I thought I should also point out that in this particular case, I have placed an “x” just to the right of the middle line. This is to show that I think the optimal balanced position, when deciding on whose needs are most important, is to start with yourself, in most cases. Sometimes, the needs of others will outweigh the importance of your needs (which is why the left bracket is on the “other” side of the middle line), but that should not be your default position.
Ambivalence rarely feels good. It is confusing, complex, difficult. Yet, it is a gift. The capacity to weigh two or more conflicting possibilities or priorities as both being worthy of our considerations is essential for making good decisions. We are prevented from allowing immediate impulses to dictate our responses to new situations. We slow down. We ponder. We consider. We weigh. And all the while, we maintain balance. We thread the needle, take the bull by the horns, we solve dilemmas, we choose a path when there is a fork in the road.
I sometimes use the analogy of driving to describe the kind of balance by ambivalence I am trying to explain. Roads are generally built with a “crown” in the middle. Think of a two-lane highway. The highest point on the road is right on the center. The road elevation falls to either side, often ending in a ditch. Our job in life is to pay attention to how the road turns, constantly shifting the steering wheel to stay near (but not over) the center of the road. If we stop paying attention, we will either end up in the ditch or in a collision. Life is like this in all kinds of ways. We have so many internal conflicts that we are constantly trying to navigate. I need to get up early to make lunch before heading out to work, but I want to sleep in, but if I don’t make lunch, I’ll eat crappy food that isn’t good for me. When I get to work, I need to respond to an email exchange with a colleague that’s waiting for my response, but then I’d have to miss a meeting I said I’d attend. This evening, I should do some grocery shopping, but the dogs need to get outside after such a long day. And on and on and on. Such is life—a cornucopia of conflicts and contradictions.
The good news is that we have the ability to cope with all this complexity. For the most part, we do it quite well, without even really thinking about it. Our habit of navigating contradictions becomes almost automatic, except in really crucial and difficult situations: should I marry this person or not, should I buy this house or not, should I take that job in Seattle or stay in here in Minneapolis. Introspection embraces self-knowledge, including ambivalence. Embrace ambivalence? Yes. When you are feeling ambivalent, when you have two very different feelings about the same thing, ask yourself what you are trying to weigh, what priorities you aren’t sure how to measure against each other. By directly addressing these facets of your ambivalence two things will happen. First, you will better understand how to make the best decision for yourself by knowing what specifically pulls you in each direction and then deciding which pull (if any) is the most compelling. Second, you will likely find it easier to then make a decision, and remove yourself from ambivalence.
Embracing ambivalence as part of an overall embrace of introspection can also dramatically reduce anxiety. I have so many times in therapy sessions watched in real time as clients’ anxiety dropped from very high to almost nothing when they were able to figure out why they were stuck ruminating about something (being ambivalent), going over and over and over the same considerations, but not really understanding how they were stuck, because they were not actually aware of how the two or more considerations were working against each other.
Jack had been ruminating over a job change for weeks before coming in for a session. He’d accepted the job, felt good about it at first, but then had been having serious second thoughts. Jack was confused, though, because he liked the work, liked his new supervisor, the location, hours, everything about it. So, why was he confused, anxious, and now ambivalent about it? It turned out that his anxiety was mostly financial and not entirely related to the job itself. Jack had accumulated some credit card debts over the past year. He’d been looking for a new position in part because he wanted an increase in pay to help him pay off the debts. While this new job did include an increase in pay, he realized it wasn’t enough to get him where he wanted to be. Worse, he had hoped that by taking the new job, he wouldn’t need to tell his partner about the credit card debt. Now, he might have to reveal his financial situation, which it turns out was the main source of Jack’s anxiety. Once Jack realized his ambivalence was not actually about the job, but really about financial and marital conflicts, his anxiety about the job diminished right then and there in the session. He determined that he did not want to leave the position, after having just accepted it, that it was a good fit for his needs in every other way, and that he would need to address the financial and marital conflicts in some other way, possibly by telling his partner and dealing with the fallout from that, as a separate consideration from his job. Jack had resolved his ambivalence about the job completely, although he now faced a new dilemma about whether and how to tell his partner about his debts.
We walk down trails in life. We come upon intersecting trails, with choices. We try to figure out which new direction to take. We aren’t always sure which is the right away. We might be confused. We stop. We “get our bearings.” Once we have a better idea where we are, where we are trying to get to, and which new trail ahead will get us there in the best way, we can make a decision, and put the intersection of trails behind us. This is ambivalence. This is the stopping, the weighing. Introspection about ambivalence is the equivalent of “getting our bearings.” So, when you are confused, not sure, stopped in your tracks, embrace this ambivalence as a gift, even when difficult. Once you understand the contradictions you are weighing and have prioritized them (counted up the pros and cons of each), you can make your decision and leave the ambivalence, glad in the knowledge that by understanding why you were stuck for a little while, you’ve now probably made a much better decision for yourself and don’t need to be confused or stuck any longer.
Copyright, Michael Kinzer. Blog entries and other materials available on Jupiter Center’s website are only intended to stimulate thoughts and conversations and to supplement therapy work with Jupiter Center clients already in therapy. If you or someone you know suffers from a mental illness, you are strongly encouraged to seek help from a mental health professional. For further information about this blog, or Jupiter Center, contact Michael Kinzer at 612-701-0064 or michael(at)jupitercenter.com.