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Is Ambivalence A Strength or A Problem To Solve? Yes.

      One of my favorite Seinfeld episodes - The Nose Job - has Jerry involved with a stunning woman he is attracted to and dislikes with equal intensity. She's ignorant, bigoted, physically perfect, and sexually electric. There are some things about dating this woman that are truly spectacular for Jerry, so the conflict doesn't quite rise to the high stakes of Shakespeare's Hamlet - whose tortured paralysis of analysis was about whether or not to commit murder. It doesn't even rise to the level of head vs heart. It's chemistry vs character. Episodes of self-loathing vs fantasies fulfilled. In the end, it is her terrible acting that tips the balance of awfulness just enough for him to break it off. At least he has some standards
     Stay put or make a move. Desire or integrity. Familiarity or adventure. Deep emotional ties or freedom from commitment. The inner tensions between opposite but
by Jude Treder-Wolff, LCSW, RMT, CGP
equal "wants" is part of most important decisions, and a sadly under-rated element of conscious choice-making.
 Ambivalence can be woven into the process of change at every stage, if for no other reason than taking action in a new direction means giving up something else. Want that promotion and the nice pay-raise, but do not want the added pressure. Relish the joys of parenting, resent the loss of freedom. Its not crazy to feel mixed emotions about the things we want the most in life - its crazy not to, and it feels crazier when we try to deny or suppress the conflict.
     Dutch reseacher Frenk van Harreveld, of the University of Amsterdam’s Uncertainty Lab found evidence of the biochemical stress response - which can be induced by a psychological threat as much as a physiological one - in ambivalent individuals who were pressured to settle on a point of view. "This discomfort only increased once they had committed," writes Ian Leslie on "They literally sweated over their decision." He writes that, according to Van Harreveld, "for the ambivalent person to commit to a position, even though the decision has no consequence, is inevitably painful: 'If you believe two things at once and you’re forced to give one up, then you will experience a sense of loss.'"
      The creative process provides a template for how to use ambivalence, but its tricky. We need to look at it in a glass-half full kind of way. Or is it a glass half-empty. You decide. Letting go of control over outcomes makes creative work both intensely demanding and intrinsically rewarding. We bring our knowledge, skill and all of our experiences to the process. That's the glass half-full. Then there is the empty canvas, the blank page, the unstructured improvisation - glass half empty. This is our own personal uncertainty lab. We take some action, always a risk of course. Without risk, nothing interesting can happen. But risk raises anxiety. Anxiety can trigger the stress response, which derails the pre-frontal cortex and disables our capacity to think creatively, reinforcing the fear of failure and shutting down the capacity to risk. To let go of control enough for creative energy to flow means dealing in some new way with the sense of threat we have managed by holding onto control. At least we have the perception of some degree of control over how things turn out.  Aiming for perfection is another popular choice to avoid feeling threatened, but that leads to another kind of paralysis. The paralysis of needing to know how the story ends while the chapter is being written. 

    So with the creative process we acknowledge that we are unsafe, uncertain and bound to trip over something painful or at least unsettling. We think about control and structure and perfection as potential end states that might be redefined by creative action and redefined yet again before we are finished. This sounds like an insane choice unless you think about the alternative position, trying to achieve the unachievable - consistency, control, perfection, and the illusion of safety  - as a way to avoid the unavoidable. 
        Ambivalence is dueling discomforts and emotional pulls in equal but opposite directions, but it is also part of an honest examination of our options. It is the curse of the conscientious, the realm of the reflective and thoughtful. The self-satisfied and smug are spared this internal tension. The true believer faced with facts that could shatter his worldview will simply reject them. A true scientist accepts the uncertainty of the scientific method, "where the things we know and the things we don't know collide, and we are left to figure out how to use what we have to make decisions anyway," writes Maggie Koerth-Baker in "A Twist on Climate Change, Risk, and Uncertainty" on the World Science Festival blog. "That process is so confusing that researchers like Gerd Gigerenzer, director of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development in Berlin, actually make their careers studying the psychology behind it."
    And there is increasing evidence that there are real benefits and life skills available through struggling out our love/hate relationship to ambivalence. The Academy of Management Journal published a study showing that employees with the capacity to tolerate dueling ideas and conflicting emotions contributed more creative thinking. "Primarily happy or sad workers, or those who lack an emotional response, might not have this increased sensitivity for recognizing unusual associations," states Christine Ting Fong, of the University of Washington Business School and lead author of the study. "Rather than assuming ambivalence will lead to negative results for the organization, managers should recognize that emotional ambivalence can have positive consequences that can be leveraged for organizational success." The Journal of Clinical Psychology published a study showing that psychotherapy clients who acknowledged both the costs and the benefits of change achieved better outcomes than those who acknowledged benefits but not costs, or weighed in on the costs but could not examine the benefits. 
     F. Scott Fitzgerald said that “the test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposed ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function.” There have never been so many interesting choices in life as we have today. Its fantastic and its overwhelming. It may be difficult to play with dueling ideas and mixed emotions, but there is no better training for creating in the real time complexities we face every day.


Jude Treder-Wolff is a trainer/consultant and writer/performer. She is host and creator of (mostly) TRUE THINGS storytelling slam.


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