Making Sense of Ambivalence

Self-ImprovementPsychology

  • Author Dr. Bruce Wilson
  • Published July 15, 2022
  • Word count 663

Making Sense of Ambivalence

Bruce Wilson, PhD

Much of what we do as psychologists is about assisting clients to resolve some ongoing ambivalence. Clients are questioning their circumstances, their lifestyle, their relationships, and even themselves. How can we understand this complex dilemma of ambivalence more fully? Are there justifiable reasons why ambivalence is so readily available to the human experience?

What is ambivalence?

Ambivalence is defined here as the simultaneous and contradictory attitudes or feelings (such as attraction and repulsion) toward an object, person, or action. The very person or activity that I am positively attracted to also, at times, creates attitudes or feelings that suggest I need to avoid them. This approach/avoidance scenario is at the core of most client ambivalence. As a psychologist this sense of confusion and indecisiveness becomes a major part of your work with the client. Assisting clients in the discovery of what they actually want is critical to one’s sense of personal growth and development.

“In these times I don’t, in a manner of speaking, know what I want; perhaps I don’t want what I know and want what I don’t know.”- Marsilio Ficino 1460

Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs

In Abraham Maslow’s 1943 article “A Theory of Human Motivation” he proposed the beginnings of his hierarchy of needs. Over time this model has changed, however, the general premise is that basic needs, psychological needs, and fulfillment needs occur in an ascending order. That is, basic needs occur before psychological and psychological before fulfillment. Recently, this idea has been challenged by many scholars. Today it is believed that these levels overlap and are not necessarily in ascending order. In other words, one can move from a lower-level need to a higher-level need or vice versa, from a higher-level need to a lower-level need. This concept paves the way for ambivalence to germinate. My higher-level need for accomplishment, an esteem need, may give way to my lower-level need of safety, being okay with where I am. Ambivalence then springboards into self-doubt. Is that a good decision? I wonder, and I contemplate, and I am now in my ambivalence.

Thoughts and feelings being at odds with one another can be very similar. Cognitive needs, like going away to study and expanding my knowledge, may clash with my sense of belonging and love needs of staying nearby family and friends. One need may require some sacrifice of another need. Again, this instigates the onset and very essence of ambivalence. I am in contradiction with myself.

“We need to be ambivalent…having mixed feelings, entertaining contradiction, living with fluctuation-is a widened embrace. It’s about the coexistence of things…” -Charles D’ Ambrosio

Positive Ambivalence

Obviously, ambivalence has a down side. The client stuck in their ambivalence will be maintaining the status quo and be resistant to change. But what if there is, like most negative things, a positive potential to ambivalence. Could ambivalence be a window of opportunity for clients to learn more about themselves and thus increase their self-awareness. The realisation that belonging needs supersede one’s physical needs can explain much about client values. This clarification of values is one positive outcome from the struggle to understand one’s ambivalence. Mahatma Gandhi did not ascend Maslow’s hierarchy of needs in any order. His self-actualisation was primary and even his physiological needs were secondary. The same could be said for Dick Gregory, a civil rights activist, who went on several hunger strikes in jail to drive home his beliefs to the outside world.

Metamotivation

Although Maslow coined the term metamotivation, and his model of needs is linear, human behaviour does not appear to be linear. Instead, it appears that metamotivation is a non-linear and consistently inconsistent modus operandi. Humans are not linear they are consistently inconsistent. Ambivalence provides a myriad of examples of the human struggle to resolve ourselves. One primary need might be to take note and learn from those situations we resolve.

Bio

Dr. Bruce Wilson is a psychologist with 25 years of experience. He enjoys sharing his ramblings with friends and colleagues. He is currently in private practice at Mind Health Care in Geelong, Australia. This article is solely his work.

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