Ambivalence is a Stage of Change

A client struggling with anxiety and depression told me how sometimes he wants to socialize but finds that he frequently cancels at the last minute. “I get a migraine, and then as soon as I’m there, I want to leave. I feel stuck, wanting to get out, but I’m dependent on a ride.” He’s ambivalent about socializing: he both wants it at the same time he doesn’t.  

I note that he feels conflicted and anxious. Something tells him to go out, and sometimes he feels the need to pull in. He feels frightened, unsure of himself and how to interact. He feels ashamed. Most strikingly, he is aware of all of this. 

As usual, I want to hear more. 

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Ambivalence carries a negative connotation in a world where we like certainty. We become intolerant and wary of letting ourselves have mixed feelings or doubt. We don’t want others’ having any mixed feelings about us. When the world feels scary, we feel safer with knowing

What happens when you don’t know what you want, which direction to go or how to change? Maybe part of you wants a committed relationship, but part of you also enjoys the freedom of singlehood. Or perhaps you want to stop drinking but don’t know how else to soothe the shame underneath. 

Sometimes ambivalence is a form of self-preservation. If I don’t know, I can stay where I am because at least this is familiar. It wouldn’t always be wise for us to jump into a significant commitment or change without knowing what we’re getting ourselves into. We’d not often buy a house without seeing it or marry someone we haven’t met in person. My client stayed home as a way to defend against social rejection. Our ambivalence can be a way to protect ourselves. 

No matter our stage of life, ambivalence is always around. As kids, we might want to make our parents proud, but that conflicts with our desire to carve our unique path. Maybe part of us want to travel the world after school, but another part feels that it’s more reasonable to get a job. 

Tolerating this space inside us that is unsure and uncertain about what to do, opens room for the process to unfold. 

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In the traditional stage of change, ambivalence is like contemplation. Sorting through what we want, need, and how to make it happen. Maybe we are excited about whatever is next. Perhaps looking forward also makes us look back on the past. We can feel both a desire for something new and the comfort of the familiar. We might not know how to embrace the space between two opposing desires. 

We might be frustrated by our own or someone else’s ambivalence. Why won’t they just change?! You might ask. Outside views of someone else conflicted states often leave us puzzled. Several clients talked in sessions of the life they envisioned, once freed of their addiction. They could imagine a fulfilling future: a family, a house, a job, and freedom from dependency. Some had even verbalized their awareness of their tendency to sabotage their recovery. Then they’d disappear from treatment for days at a time. I was left worried and confused. Then I realized that this was all part of their process. Sometimes we have to move forward and backward while we figure out our path. 

On the verge of unfamiliar, unknown, and foreign, it seems natural to return to what has felt safe and familiar. Routines keep us feeling safe, sustaining us. What comforts us keeps us safe, preserved, and yet, nothing gets challenges there. If we decide to always remain in our comfort zone, our self-preservation begins to limit us.  

“In the long run, I want to be able not to use substances to make my anxiety go away, but right now, it’s the only thing that I know will work,” a client told me recently. He was ambivalent about trying to find another way. In the face of change, it’s natural to feel unclear. It’s when we’re unable to become curious that we might become stuck and paralyzed in shame. 

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Fear plays a prominent role in our states of ambivalence. We are more likely to make self-directed positive changes when others meet us with kindness. To explore our ambivalence, we only need a dose of openness and curiosity. There is an uneasy feeling that comes when we make space for both: what we know and what we might want but don’t yet know. 

What does it mean if I make this commitment? 
What does it require of me? 
What will I have to give up?  

Sometimes we stay safe within ourselves. Even when we want to grow, we might also be frightened about what’s on the other side. We might be afraid about the journey to get there. Giving up what we already have and know is a risk.

Ambivalence can become our home. Inaction is itself a choice to remain where we are. Not moving with but against our conflicted states of mind can make us feel stuck. One client walks the line between two different needs: to connect and to self-protect. Another client navigates the ambivalence of giving up drugs to soothe loneliness and grief. How do we trust the road ahead when there are no guarantees?

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The comfort of what’s known feels safe when change feels overwhelming or challenging. Sometimes we need to sit in our uncertainty while we figure out what it is that we want. Transformation, in any shape, whether it’s moving homes, becoming a parent, or entering recovery, is never an easy journey. Maybe ambivalence is the space we stay in while we sort through. 

What happens inside us when we’re frightened of something new, unknown, and uncertain? Can we recognize that even though part of us wants to transform, another part prefers the familiar? We are constantly finding more clarity, feeling our way, broadening our understanding, and making meaning of our lives. There’s a curiosity to the complexity that ambivalence offers: so much unknown and still undiscovered. While there, we can always ask more questions.

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