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The Upside of Ambivalence & How to Deal With It

Divided, We Stand 

Many people struggle with ambivalence: Is the man I’m going out with the right person for me? Should I change this job that provides a good salary but doesn’t challenge me? Was my coworker out of line when she questioned me, or am I too sensitive?

Ambivalence can be paralyzing. Swaying back and forth between two or more points of view is natural, but when it goes on for too long it inhibits our ability to make decisions. The worst case is to get stuck with no way out, and others end up calling the shots.

But ambivalence doesn’t have to be painful. So often we beat ourselves up for being unable to reach a conclusion. And once our inner critic is firmly in charge, all of our energy goes to trying to resolve the inner conflict, and things get even harder.

Slow down. There is something to be said about that in-between state, right before we hone in on a final course of action. It’s the place of free flowing exploration, when the pressure to act is suspended, and we can simply enjoy the possibilities that are available to us. It’s important to acknowledge that we have choices. We are in control of deciding which path to take.

Ambivalence can help us mature. It presents an opportunity for growth and change because it involves coming to terms with the rich complexity of experience that we are privy to. As soon as you are able to imagine the possibilities you have at your fingertips, the process becomes expansive and limitless. Rather than avoiding certain scenarios, your fantasies can carry you to a place of peace and tranquility. And it is just this tranquility that will work to your advantage when the time to make a decision comes. That’s when ambivalence feels expansive, and can be a powerful part of our emotional and intellectual process.

Ambivalence is human. President Obama reflected on this while campaigning for office. “There is a certain ambivalence in my character that I like about myself,” he was quoted in Newsweek. “It’s part of what makes me a good writer. It’s not necessarily useful in a presidential campaign.”

If you can embrace your ambivalence it will work with you. If you chastise yourself for it, everything contracts, and the perception that your choices are limited will prevail. The more we learn to tolerate ambivalence and just leave ourselves alone, the more naturally we will come to decide on a course of action, because it will also make it easier to accept if we make the wrong decision.

If you get stuck in your ambivalence, try to befriend it. Give it a shape and a persona. Maybe it feels like a formless blab, or a menacing ghoul. Try to look at your ambivalence as if it were a friend who has your best interest in mind. Imagine it telling you to take your time to be sure you have considered all options. Be understanding with the part of yourself that hesitates. Of course it is hard to exclude so many seemingly good (or bad) options. Life often moves fast, faster than we want it to. Tip your hat to your ambivalence, because it is trying to spare you from disappointment. When you feel more positive about its role, express your gratitude to the imaginary persona you have created and do some self exploration.

What’s behind the hesitation?

  1. Pleasing others

If you find yourself ambivalent, because you don’t want to disappoint another person, you are not alone. We depend on our social connections and have to navigate their needs versus our own carefully. But if you find yourself chronically in the situation that your own needs go unanswered, you may be out of touch with your own wants and desires. If you’re paralyzed by always thinking of other people first, pause, and refocus on yourself. You have every right to prioritize your own happiness.

  1. Fear of failure

Examine the part of you that is afraid to fail. Ambivalence is good for a while, but at some point we have to jump in and take the risk. It’s important to face the possibility that you might make the wrong decision. You may change your mind. You may regret it. Nobody can save you from making mistakes. But mistakes teach us the best lessons we have to learn about life. And you will always move past your mistakes. Life flows. Nothing ever stays the same. Including when we mess up.

  1. Fear of missing out

This fear often goes back to losses earlier in life. If you at one time felt chronically excluded by others, you will try to avoid feeling left out ever again. It’s important to mourn these losses so you can move past feeling bereft in situations that may have nothing to do with your past, but end up holding you back.


Image: Gary Tanner via Compfight

The Upside of Ambivalence & How to Deal With It

Gerti Schoen, MA, LP

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APA Reference
Schoen, G. (2015). The Upside of Ambivalence & How to Deal With It. Psych Central. Retrieved on November 26, 2020, from


Last updated: 16 Nov 2015
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