Ambivalence occurs when you have conflicting emotions, thoughts, or actions towards the same object, idea, or person. It’s like having mixed feelings, such as simultaneously feeling love and hate towards someone or something. This term is often used when someone is experiencing a blend of emotions that don’t align well, or when they are unsure or can’t make up their mind about something.

Ambivalence in Psychoanalysis

In psychoanalysis, “ambivalence” has a more specific meaning than just having mixed feelings. Introduced by Bleuler in 1911, it refers to a deep-seated emotional state where opposing impulses, typically love and hate, originate from the same source and are seen as interconnected. Interestingly, in psychoanalysis, a person with ambivalence doesn’t necessarily feel both conflicting emotions clearly. Except in cases like obsessional neurosis, where a person is acutely aware of both sides, usually one of the emotions is repressed. For instance, someone might openly express love for their father while unconsciously repressing feelings of hate, which might only surface during psychoanalytic treatment.

It’s also important to note that psychoanalytic ambivalence is considered a product of neurotic conflict, which is different from the everyday mixed feelings that can arise from a realistic evaluation of something’s flawed, inconsistent, or contradictory nature.

Intellectual Ambivalence

Intellectual ambivalence is when someone struggles or chooses not to settle on a clear answer, stance, or conclusion in their thinking. This hesitation to say “yes” or “no” can stem from a deliberate choice to avoid a firm position for personal reasons, or from a lack of enough logical or experiential evidence to make a firm decision. Often, the role of criticism or critique is to help move from this state of indecision to a clear viewpoint.

The main issue with intellectual ambivalence is its ambiguity, which can be a hindrance in decision-making and leadership. Acting or leading effectively is challenging when thoughts are mired in uncertainty, like “maybe this is right, maybe it’s not.” For effective action or leadership, clear and definitive ideas are essential. However, it’s common for leaders to portray certainty on issues, even if they personally feel ambivalent, because their role demands decisiveness.

Erotic Ambivalence

Erotic ambivalence is the state of feeling both sexual attraction and repulsion towards someone or something. It can also mean being unsure about what exactly attracts or repels you sexually. This kind of ambivalence doesn’t necessarily indicate a neurotic issue; it could be a matter of not being sure, undecided, a personal trait, having varied preferences, or simply feeling uncertain. Interestingly, this kind of ambivalence can itself become a factor in attraction or repulsion. The unpredictability or elusive nature of one’s erotic behaviors, stemming from this ambivalence, can add an element of mystery or intrigue to the dynamics of attraction.1

Examples of Ambivalence

Affective Ambivalence (“Mixed Feelings”)

  • Appreciating a friend’s company but also feeling annoyed because they often arrive late and tend to dominate conversations.
  • Being intrigued by a new, elaborate roller coaster, yet feeling scared about actually lining up to ride it.
  • Experiencing a blend of happiness and sadness when graduating from school.

Cognitive Ambivalence (Being “Of Two Minds”)

  • Believing that the storyline of a novel is engaging, but feeling that the characters are not well-developed.
  • Thinking that a potential apartment to rent is budget-friendly but too small.
  • Considering that adopting a dog would be enjoyable, but also realizing it would consume a lot of your free time.

Affective-Cognitive Ambivalence (Heart vs. Head)

  • Feeling bored while cleaning the kitchen, yet understanding its importance for better functionality.
  • Knowing it’s not financially wise to spend a lot on new clothes, but still feeling the thrill of going shopping.
  • Seeing your cat as a source of chaos and inconvenience, but simultaneously loving and enjoying her company.

Ambivalence in Relationships

In long-term relationships, including romantic ones, it’s common to experience some ambivalence, even if we’re only aware of feeling positively or negatively about our significant others2. As you grow emotionally close to someone, you’ll likely notice that along with their endearing traits and strengths, there are aspects that bother, worry, or upset you. Surprisingly, you might even find some likable qualities in a coworker you thought you hated.

The encouraging aspect is that this “implicit ambivalence” could be beneficial for our relationships3. People who feel a strong, underlying ambivalence towards their partners are often more driven to work on and improve their marriages, with considerable success3.

However, relationships can become stressful when you’re consciously aware of both the good and bad aspects. These ambivalent relationships might be more taxing than relationships that are outright negative4. It’s easier to dismiss or avoid someone you simply dislike, but it’s harder to ignore mixed messages, like a backhanded compliment, from a difficult family member. Furthermore, while supportive friends can help us cope with stress, friendships where feelings are mixed may not offer the same level of support4.

Ambivalence in Motivational Interviewing

Motivational interviewing is a counseling approach focused on helping clients change their behavior by addressing and resolving ambivalence. In this method, counselors work closely with their clients to uncover and discuss reasons for change. The goal is for the client to eventually recognize more or stronger reasons to change rather than to maintain their current behaviors5. Unlike other therapeutic approaches that advocate for therapist neutrality, motivational interviewing involves counselors taking an active stance in favor of change5. This method emphasizes the counselor’s role in guiding clients to see the benefits of change and overcome their conflicting feelings.

Ambivalence To Change

Ambivalence towards change is a natural part of the process, especially in the stages of change model developed by Prochaska & DiClemente. This model identifies ambivalence as a key element in the contemplation stage. During this stage, individuals often weigh the risks and drawbacks against the potential benefits of change. If you’re thinking about making a change but find yourself hesitating, you’re likely in this contemplation stage. For instance, you might recognize the health and focus benefits of eating healthier, yet be deterred by the perceived costs in time and money required to change your diet.

Ambivalence in Pregnancy

Pregnancy brings about significant changes in various aspects of life, including emotional, physical, financial, and other areas. Ambivalence during pregnancy is quite common, regardless of whether the pregnancy was planned or unplanned. It’s not unusual for pregnant individuals or their partners to experience mixed feelings during this period. Research shows that pregnant women often express ambivalence about several aspects related to their pregnancy. This includes their initial intention to become pregnant, their reactions upon discovering the pregnancy, and their plans for managing the pregnancy6.

Such mixed feelings can stem from the profound life alterations that pregnancy entails. Even in cases where the pregnancy is a welcome event, it’s normal to have some reservations or concerns about the upcoming changes and responsibilities. Understanding and acknowledging this ambivalence can be an important step in adapting to the new life stage.

Is Ambivalence an Emotion?

Psychologists classify ambivalence not as an emotion, but as an attitude. An attitude is essentially a tendency to evaluate something in a particular manner – this can be positively, negatively, both, or neither7. Attitudes are comprehensive in nature, encompassing both thoughts and emotions. This means that while ambivalence involves emotional elements, it is broader than just an emotion. It represents a complex mix of both cognitive (thought-based) and affective (emotion-based) responses to a situation, object, or person.

Ambivalent vs Indifferent

The terms “ambivalent” and “indifferent” have distinct meanings depending on the context. “Indifferent” often implies neutrality, as in showing no preference among various options, such as when deciding on dinner plans with friends. However, it can also imply impartiality or indecision. Therefore, indifference can either coexist with ambivalence or be entirely separate from it.

In general, being indifferent means having a lack of concern or interest — essentially a “I couldn’t care less” attitude. On the other hand, ambivalence refers to having strong feelings in multiple, often conflicting, directions — more of a “I care a lot, but in different ways” stance. While indifference denotes a lack of emotional engagement, ambivalence implies a complex engagement with multiple emotions or thoughts.

Ambivalence vs Indecision

Ambivalent thoughts and feelings can certainly lead to difficulty in making decisions, so indecision often arises as a result of ambivalence. While ambivalence might be necessary for indecision, it’s possible to make a decision even when feeling ambivalent. Many people move forward with choices while still feeling ambivalent about the options, sometimes only feeling marginally more sure (like 51%) about their final choice.

Ambivalent vs Uncertainty

Ambivalence involves having both positive and negative views towards something, while uncertainty is characterized by a lack of clarity on what path to take. Although ambivalence can contribute to feelings of uncertainty, they aren’t the same thing. In uncertainty, you might be unsure about your thoughts or feelings. In contrast, ambivalence means you’re aware of your conflicting thoughts and feelings, even if they’re complex. You might still know the next steps even if you’re ambivalent about taking them.

Dealing With Ambivalence

While ambivalence isn’t inherently negative, it can be challenging to see its benefits if it’s preventing you from making crucial decisions or changes. It can cause confusion, stress, or a sense of stagnation. Here are some strategies to manage ambivalence:

  1. Find a therapist who practices motivational interviewing: As previously discussed, this counseling style is effective in helping clients navigate through ambivalence to achieve lasting behavioral change.
  2. Coexist with your ambivalence: If a decision is urgent, you don’t necessarily need to resolve your ambivalence beforehand. Deciding can sometimes help resolve ambivalence, particularly if the decision is hard to reverse. Accepting that some level of conflict is normal in major life decisions can be helpful. Making the best decision you can at the moment is often sufficient.
  3. Clarify your values: Understanding your core values can help structure your decision-making process and work through ambivalence. For instance, choosing to move to a different state for values like courage and independence can help you prioritize the advantages of such a decision.
  4. Stay open: Listening to your ambivalence and understanding its messages can be beneficial. It might guide you toward a compromise or a solution that aligns with your needs and desires. For example, if you’re ambivalent about adopting a second cat, finding ways to enjoy the company of cats without affecting your current pet’s environment could be a solution, like interacting with neighborhood cats or cat-sitting.8

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