Aiming for ambivalence

Pop psychology has told us to practice ‘living in the moment’ for decades. Yet it seems the only time I am ever actually able to live in the moment is when I am angry. That feeling of anger can become so loud and all-consuming that my mind, in its simultaneous quest for consistency, will usually conjure up a dictum: this must be how I have always felt.

In response, I spend days plotting how I can radically alter that anger-inducing situation. For example, if I feel angry at someone, that anger leads me to deduce that the love I had previously felt for them was fallacious. That is, until I express my discontent. Suddenly the cruelty that coated the person in my mind is challenged by the actual caring human standing before me. At that point, I feel consumed – again – by love. So, I start to feel guilty for voicing my frustrations and making that person feel uncomfortable. The lesson these behavioural patterns teach me is clear: do not trust your emotions.

However, I know that this ‘lesson’ is unhelpful, toxic and stressful. I also know that I am not the only person trapped in the illusion of emotional certainty. The idea that we can know ourselves fully and be certain of our feelings, intentions and convictions is alluring, but it is rarely (if ever) the case. Instead, as psychoanalysis teaches us, human beings are riddled with contradictions.

What is psychological ambivalence?
Freud borrowed the psychoanalytic concept of ambivalence from Bleuler’s three-fold definition. Firstly, ambivalence of the will, e.g., when you want to eat and not eat at the same time. Secondly, intellectual ambivalence, which involves adherence to contradictory premises. Lastly, there is affective ambivalence, which means that one can feel both love and hate for the same person. While Bleuler argued that ambivalence was a symptom of mental ill-health, Freud elaborated on his work to argue that itis actually the foundation of psychological life. For Freud, mental health issues occur when we struggle to manage this inherent ambivalence, often because of a convolution of morality with emotionality.

For example, in the story I told above, anger is deemed incompatible with love. So, by keeping these emotional brackets separate, it means that any time I am faced with a conflict, my solution is: either I am a bad person, or they are a bad person. Psychical courtroom dramas like these are common in those of us who struggle with perfectionism or anxiety. Still, it is a lot to take in when you didn’t sleep very well and are just irrationally annoyed with your partner at the breakfast table.

This kind of rigid thinking can soothe the anxiety of not-knowing, which is often rooted in the fear of losing control. Specifically, convoluting morality with emotion tends to be rooted in the idea that because we cannot control our emotions, we are afraid that they can overwhelm us and lead us to act against our wishes or best interests. However, when we find a way to navigate that fear, namely, sitting in the discomfort of ambiguity, it actually helps us feel more in control.

Okay, but what does it mean to aim for ambiguity?
Firstly, to be clear – I am not trying to imply that feeling angry because someone or something hurt you is bad. Not at all. It is a necessity to express anger – in a healthy way. But nothing in life is black and white. The healthiest connections are filled with love, annoyance, irritation, joy, boredom and all emotions in between.

So, the next time you feel unhappy with an aspect of your life (be it a job, relationship, lifestyle choice, country, financial decision and so on), try to accept the idea that you can be both happy and sad at the same time. You can love your work and want to leave. You can also leave your work and wish you stayed. When we aim for ambivalence, it helps us figure out what we actually want. Instead of believing that our most blinding emotions are the ‘true’ ones, we take time to digest and honour each and every one, no matter how incompatible they seem. And if nothing else, when we accept that we feel ambivalent towards others, it means that we are more able to tolerate when other people are frustrated with us.

Finally, it is fitting to end on a paradox: psychoanalysis gave us the notion of psychical ambivalence and yet there are few schools of thought that people feel less ambivalent about. Some love it, some hate it, and there is not much space for the in-between. Whichever team you’re on, if you’re eager to work your own uncertainty bandwidth, try reading this article through the lens of the opposite viewpoint.

Written by Molly Fitz