Ambivalence: Ambi (Latin, meaning two) + valenz (German, meaning power). Ambivalence means, "having two powers."
In my coaching practice, I often hear my clients say things like, “I’m in two minds,” or “A part of me thinks I should act, but another part tells me to stop.” They share their experience of having simultaneous, conflicting motives, like the desire for novelty and familiarity. They share mixed emotions, like feeling joy and sadness at the same time. These are all examples of ambivalence.
While it's a common experience, most of my clients tell me they don’t like feeling ambivalent. They find it confusing. They want certainty about their way forward, not mixed feelings. Resolving ambivalence is one of the more common reasons why people hire coaches, but I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a fool’s errand.
Embracing ambivalence is far more effective approach, and opens up all manner of new possibilities for purposeful action. It requires a shift in perspective, from seeing it as a problem to be solved, to a source of crucial information. Ambivalence is an under-appreciated source of insight into making your weightiest decisions, from changing jobs to changing relationships.
Here’s an example (with names changed to protect confidentiality):
Joanne was contemplating ending her relationship with her partner, which had crossed a threshold from familiar and comfortable into dull and boring. She had been wrestling with the decision for some time, without acting. She explained, “I should tell him it’s over, but I don’t want to hurt his feelings.”
I asked Joanne to remove the “but” from the sentence, and re-state it. She looked at me sideways, but complied. “I should tell him it’s over. I don’t want to hurt his feelings.”
I invited her to consider that there was a part of her that wanted to end the relationship (an assertive, self-advocating part), and another part which didn’t want to hurt his feelings (an empathic, caring part). She agreed, then asked, “But how do I choose between them?” Her impulse was to resolve her ambivalence by taking sides, by choosing to honor one part of herself at the expense of the other.
I invited her to think of her role less as judge, but as mediator. Her job wasn’t to make a judgment about which is better, but to understand what both parties in this conflict really wanted.
She told me that her assertive, self-advocating part wanted her to go after what she really wanted, rather than settling for what’s unsatisfying.
Her empathic, caring part wanted her to think about others’ needs before her own, and never make others feel bad.
Now Joanne could see both players involved in her ambivalent feelings. She shared that that she was already feeling clearer, like a knot of tangled thoughts inside her was loosening a bit.
I asked her what options for action would move her towards what she really wanted, while honoring her caring, considerate part too. Previously, she’d thought her options were to stay in her unsatisfying relationship, or end it. Now she started wondering out loud what would happen if she was more assertive of her needs within the relationship, and invited her partner to be more assertive with her too. She told me, “I can’t believe I didn’t consider this before!”
A day later, she called me, saying that she and her partner had their most authentic, vulnerable conversation to date, and decided to try and revitalize their relationship.
Ambivalence isn’t the problem, it’s the source of the solution
Joanne’s ambivalence was an argument between two distinct parts of her personality, each of which expresses valid, important needs and values. Once these were seen, validated and heard, new possibilities emerged.
Embracing ambivalence is not only a way to generate better solutions and decisions, but a gateway into a more nuanced view of one’s own personality, motivations and needs. By welcoming every part of the personality as helpful, it’s a deeply compassionate way of relating to oneself (or more accurately, to one’s selves).