top of page

The Ambivalence of Our Time

 “Here I am, between my flock and my treasure, the boy thought. He had to choose between something he had become accustomed to and something he wanted to have.”

-Paulo Coelho, The Alchemist.


Ambivalence, a state of being that is contradictory in nature and associated with having “mixed feelings” has a tendency to show up during periods of transition. You find yourself standing at a crossroad of the safe familiar and the new unknown. For example, your relationship is predictable and harmonious and yet you have an unrelenting urge to explore life outside it’s confines. Perhaps you are faced with the dilemma of wanting professional growth and are ready for a career change but find yourself grappling with the security of your current job and its benefits. The uncertainty that accompanies change has the propensity to stall out ambition and motivation. Thus, we step into a pool of ambivalence, a state of being that is painfully safe and perpetually stuck.


The idea of change comes with a gamete of emotions such as fear, excitement, hope, and sadness. So much of these emotions are tied to the uncertainty of what will result from new circumstances. There is a certain comfort in the familiar, no matter it’s dysfunction. To know a state of depression is to know what to expect, and while counterintuitive, staying in the comfort of predictability can seem more appealing than enduring risk of effort and disappointment. Thus, you continue to keep poor sleep and eating habits, over indulge in poor coping mechanisms, and maintain the status quo of a depressive state that while painful never disappoints.


The problem lies in the truth, which is that you are not avoiding the challenges of loss or disappointment by choosing to do nothing. Quite the opposite, the longer you muddle about in the grey uncertainty the more time and traction you lose. The familiar feels safe, but so does a volcano if you don’t know it’s about to erupt. Emotions and desires have a way of showing up with or without our permission. Instead of facing the desire for change head on, you somehow find yourself engaging in behaviors that will force the issue. Or, there is also the reality that opportunities have a tendency to pass, and once they are gone the “should have” becomes glaringly clear. Insert the emotions of loss, resentment, and regret that were preventing you from taking action to begin with.


The tangled ball of feelings that is ambivalence is often tied to a story about ourselves and our place in the world with judgement being the ultimate antagonist.


[Every week on Tuesday at 3pm Hanna showed up to my office for her session. She often appeared distressed and tearful, saddened by the loneliness of being away from her native country and community. She had a high paying job and had been successful in climbing the corporate ladder. However, despite her professional and financial success Hanna viewed herself as a failure for being unmarried and without children. She would proclaim wanting a relationship, however often dated men that seemed to be a poor match and without a future. She knew in her heart that she did not want to raise a family in her current location, or with someone outside of her native culture. Hanna’s desire for a relationship was in conflict with her desire to be surrounded by familiarity. Her desire for familiarity was in conflict with her fear of failure and judgement, specifically from those in her hometown.  


She explored her values and priorities, and after 18 months Hanna came to the conclusion that she valued family and community over career. This realization should have helped to propel Hanna into action, except she was still stuck in her conflict of perceived judgement. How would she be seen if she left her job and returned home? Months continued in her pit of ambivalence, it seemed that she would never find a sound place in her mind to follow her desires.]


The challenge was not that Hanna could not identify her values, nor was she incapable of navigating the nuances of job change and relocation, the true conflict was that Hanna could not identify herself past the perceptions of others. In other words, she cared more about everyone else’s opinion than her own. The story about who she is “supposed to be” had created road barriers that blocked Hanna from following her desired path.


This sort of cognitive framework that Hanna experienced is typically developed in early childhood when the responsive behavior of a caregiver creates a blueprint for the internal and external world, (Bowlby, J. (1978). Attachment theory and its therapeutic implications). Children raised with an inconsistent caregiver have the tendency to become preoccupied with a fear of rejection and social evaluation. The internal working model that is developed seems to inform the child that love and nurture are not predictable, thus behavior patterns associated with people pleasing and approval seeking are developed. This framework and the respective patterns are likely to follow into adulthood with peer and romantic relationships. The strong desire to be loved and accepted is navigated through the lens of the people they are surrounded by and the internal judge that has taken hostage of the differentiated self.


This underlying psychological framework illuminates the nuances of ambivalence and the emotional challenges that are created when navigating conflicting choices. This can be experienced as a state of torment with “what I want to do and what I should do”, the ladder having more precedence given that the judgements of other’s equates to self-worth. A state that will take intentional thought and rewiring.


[Two years into our work together Hanna showed up to my office at her scheduled time and announced it would be her last session (how to terminate therapy is for another blog). She let me know that she had decided to rent out her house and move back to her home country. Hanna expressed that she was still not completely certain that she was making the right decision, but was also relieved to be moving forward in a direction. We spent the session reflecting on the work she’d done and said our goodbyes.]


Hanna’s decision was not as abrupt as it sounds. She worked for months on exploring her personal values, challenging unhelpful beliefs, learning to assert healthy boundaries, and shed the story of “supposed to”. Her work was not finished as it is a lifelong process, but she had finally gotten to a place where she had a better sense of self and more interest in her own judgements.


The state of ambivalence is a place to reflect about one’s attachment history, personal values, and patterns that are no longer useful. By creating awareness of self and addressing these dynamics space is made available for risk and growth and yes - change.



bottom of page