Everyone struggles with ambivalence from time to time. Defined by Merriam-Webster as “simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (such as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action,” the experience of ambivalence often provokes feelings of doubt, confusion, and fear of making incorrect choices. The experience can be further complicated by common conventions that urge people not to commit to things/people that they don’t feel 100% positively about. I find that this is an unrealistic way to navigate tough choices that inadvertently abandons the important opportunity for healing work that is presented to us when we experience ambivalence.
It’s natural for experiences that lead to growth and significant shifts in our lives to be accompanied by feelings of insecurity and fear. Growth is about expanding beyond your present limits, and with expansion comes unexplored territory for which we have no prior experience to draw upon to reassure ourselves – or, sometimes it means revisiting territories with which we’ve had adverse experiences. These kinds of moments are an incredible gift to heal and overwrite old programming with new, corrective experiences that can increase our confidence, curiosity, and capacity for transformation. So, how do we move forward when we are experiencing ambivalence?
What is the root problem of ambivalence?
In my experience, ambivalence cannot be resolved with pros and cons lists or rational evaluation of the situation. It’s not an issue of one option being objectively better than the other, but rather for me ambivalence tends to arise from a state of being disconnected from my inner knowing. In most instances where I’ve experienced ambivalence, I had a vague awareness for what I would actually really like, but it was either completely unable to be felt in my body or it was competing with fears and emotional distress about potential fallout from my choices. This type of conflict is sure to cloud anyone’s inner knowing.
Clear inner knowing, in my experience, is equanimous – it is therefore impossible to experience it when highly aroused by fear and ungrounded emotion. In fact, according to Louise Delagran, MA, MEd: “Fear can interrupt processes in our brains that allow us to regulate emotions, read non-verbal cues and other information presented to us, reflect before acting, and act ethically. This impacts our thinking and decision-making in negative ways, leaving us susceptible to intense emotions and impulsive reactions. All of these effects can leave us unable to act appropriately.” The first step to overcoming ambivalence then becomes to recognize and treat one’s emotional arousal, especially distressing emotions such as fear.
There are many strategies available for accomplishing this. Some of those strategies are covered in my previous posts, Release Sticky Feelings Pt 1 and Pt 2. The strategies offered in those posts will be helpful for exploring and processing overwhelming emotions associated with whatever conflict you may be experiencing. To address the physiological hyperarousal or dissociative experiences that can accompany fear or emotional overwhelm, it becomes pertinent to engage in grounding exercises:
- Find a quiet area and sit with a gentle sensory stimulus, such as a pack of ice on the back of the neck or a bright essential oil on your wrist. Hold your attention on the sensation you are experiencing and use it to ground yourself into the present moment. Every time your mind wanders, simply notice that it has wandered and bring your focus back to the sensory experience. Breathe slowly and deeply.
- Sit outside barefoot, if possible, without any distractions. Focus your attention on the different sights, smells, sounds, and sensations available as you do this. Breathe slowly and deeply.
- Try a guided grounding meditation anywhere. This is one of my favorites.
- Something that can be done anywhere, “foot breathing” is a grounding meditation where you sit quietly and focus on “feeling” your feet breathe in and out through the soles in tandem with your breath.
You’ll know that you’re successfully grounded when you can 1) identify the sensations in your body, 2) identify any emotions that are felt, 3) and that these sensations and emotions are manageable and not overwhelming or triggering. Once you have grounded yourself, it becomes possible to engage with ambivalence and identify what you really want out of a given situation.
What Inner Knowing Feels Like
If you imagine your inner state is like a pond, emotional reactivity is like taking a stick and agitating the pond and the sediments, resulting in cloudy water. Grounding ceases the agitation and allows the sediments to settle, making it possible to see clearly through the water. Once this is achieved, it becomes possible to observe and notice what it feels like to experience inner knowing. I stated before that inner knowing is equanimous – that is, there is an experience of being able to detach from and observe one’s inner experience. It is neutral, gentle, and even subtle, which is why it can be easily overshadowed by intense emotions and sensations.
I will give an example of a recent conflicting decision I had to make. This decision was about whether I should go no contact with my mother. On one hand, I wanted the pain and frustration of our relationship to end and just be done with it. On the other, I felt like there was still more I could or should be doing to repair our relationship or to make accommodations for her limitations. I also didn’t want to lose out on my connection to my other family members or face having to talk about my decision with them. I also really valued the idea of being able to strengthen our relationship and become close in lieu of losing my father two years ago. I agonized over this for a few weeks and experienced intense anguish and anxiety over not knowing what the right choice was for me, until I met with my therapist.
When I met with my therapist to discuss the evolving situation with my mother, she asked me some important questions that guided me to place my own experiences and values at the center of my deliberation, rather than focusing on the potential fallout from either choice that could be made. She prompted me to consider things like, what do I actually feel when I am around my mother? What kind of relationships do I want in my life? Does this relationship resemble that? Is my mother giving any indication that she is willing to change so our relationship can become that? When I approached my dilemma with these questions in mind, the answer became really obvious what choice was right for me.
It took some discernment to recognize that when I spend time with my mother, I feel stressed and irritated – this is a type of inner knowing, to be able to sit in contemplation and notice, without getting swept up in the experience, “I do not feel good when I am with a person or in a particular situation.” I reflected and came to understand that I value relationships where I can talk about when I am hurt or upset by something someone did or is doing and have it be acknowledged and affirmed – something I never experience with my mother. Whenever I attempt to speak up about something that is bothering me to my mother, I am stonewalled or blamed for her behavior. She often tells me she is too old to change or that I simply need to accept her for all her faults and learn to not be bothered by it when she disrespects my boundaries. Given these facts, it becomes apparent that in order to be in relationship with my mother I would either have to continue repeating these cyclical conflicts or pretend I am never bothered. It suddenly became obvious that I’d be a lot happier without this relationship in my life in its current state and that there is nothing else I, personally, can do to change or improve the relationship without causing significant stress to myself. The tension of the indecision immediately dissipated from my body when I allowed myself to say “yes” to a possible reality where I have no contact with my mother. It just felt “right.” That is inner knowing.
In Phyllis Krystal’s book Cutting the Ties that Bind Us: Growing Up and Moving On, she shares two useful visualization exercises for making decisions. I have included them below:
I find that the scales visualization particularly speaks to my experience of inner knowing – it always feels like my true desire is obvious when I think about each option and notice how it feels in my body. One option always has a particular “weight” and simultaneous light openness to it that signals it is my authentic desire.
It feels deliciously freeing to be able to embrace and claim one’s inner knowing. With practice, it becomes easier to notice when something doesn’t feel right or match up with who you are, even in everyday casual interactions – allowing you the opportunity to set boundaries and address agreements or misconceptions before they turn into a big problem that needs big solutions. This ability to know how we feel towards something, that is innate to all of us, is necessary to work with to pursue one’s path to wholeness and authentic expression.
Using Ambivalence to Heal
Often it is the case that the source of hesitation towards a decision or experience is rooted in a traumatic memory or experience that needs to be processed and resolved – this is how ambivalence brings us opportunities for healing. Resistance is a powerful indicator of areas within ourselves that need our compassion and attention. Likewise, sometimes eager enthusiasm for something new and different (which is resisting the present course) can be a form of escapism from facing challenges that would otherwise push us to develop new and important interpersonal skills and traits. It can be scary and overwhelming to take advantage of these opportunities for deep inner exploration without adequate internal resources and support. Take care to reach out to your support network or a therapist when you are faced with inner work that overwhelms you.
If therapy or additional support is not available to you for whatever reason, be sure to go slow with yourself and operate within your window of tolerance. There is no shame in taking baby steps when it comes to healing. There are many ways to engage in self-exploration on your own.Consider adopting a journaling practice where you can give yourself a tangible avenue of expression for your internal experiences. Write in stream of consciousness and see what comes up when you ask yourself questions like, “why am I resisting this?,” “am I running away from something?,” “what beliefs are preventing me from making this choice?,” and “what is the source of my beliefs? where did I learn this?” Get curious about yourself and your motivations and you may be surprised to learn something about yourself you didn’t realize before.
Sometimes, the issue at hand really doesn’t have a clearly right or wrong choice to be made – even after engaging with exercises to access your inner knowing. In such cases, it can be worth exploring the option that one has never tried before or has little experience in. Such opportunities are wonderful for finding out what one likes or dislikes and can benefit from being regarded with a fun attitude. Playfulness is how we nourish our inner children. It can help dissipate fears to approach a new path with a curious heart and openness to exploring, even at the risk of not liking where one ends up. Life is not so short that a detour here or there cannot be afforded. These kinds of adventures are effective for dethroning one’s inner critic.
I want to be clear that I am not advocating for anyone to make choices that would put them in harm’s way or cause them significant distress. My goal is to provide information that can assist readers in knowing how to discern between clear inner knowing and fear-based ambivalence or “analysis paralysis.” We all deserve to heed the calling of our soul’s growth towards individuation, unencumbered by outgrown beliefs and fears. Everyone possesses their own unique authority to know and choose what is right for them. Working through mental blocks and processing fears is a powerful way to access your own inner authority – by weeding out the expectations and internalized beliefs of your environment and learning to value your own unique voice and desires. Everyone experiences ambivalence from time to time and I hope that the information I’ve provided here can help others use their ambivalence for self-exploration and growth.