These are common questions I get from my clients. Last year I was hired to work with an executive because his superiors felt that he was lacking social skills and confidence, and it was hindering his career, as well as potential in his current role. I met with him, and he hired me to be his coach. When we met, my first impression was that he was very friendly, handsome, and confident in his communication. None of the issues that were raised came out at first. As I talked to him more and more, he shared his awareness of his lack of motivation and desire to interact with people, other than when it is absolutely necessary. He described his behavior as selective interaction combined with conscious avoidance.
As we continued to work together, he agreed with his desire to change, to purposefully interact more, and to stop avoiding opportunities for interaction. We set some very simple action goals, and he failed to step forward to take any action. During our sessions, I worked to uncover the source of his resistance by evaluating these questions in my mind, and in our conversations…
Has he tried, and failed, so therefore he is lacking confidence?
Is he hopeless, feeling like he can never change?
Is he depressed?
Does he not know how to interact? Is he missing the skill?
Does he not care about his career and the negative consequences associated with his lack of interaction?
Does he have an intrapersonal conflict, a negative belief around what it means to interact that is contradictory to who he thinks he is, or who he wants to be?
Is there an interpersonal conflict, someone in his life telling him it is bad to interact?
After a few sessions, I realized that he was actually in a state of ambivalence, a more complex state than typical resistance. He understood the need to change, to be more social and interactive. He wanted to do it, he was just stuck between two poles, one with a feeling of excitement for his career growth, the second a feeling of dread towards moving up and becoming more visible. He had managed to stay under radar for so long, and it was where he felt more comfortable. The new light shining on him to point out his areas for improvement, was debilitating itself, then asking him to act when he was feeling two opposing emotions was impossible. Pointing out the benefits of moving up triggered anxiety and paralyzed him from taking action. Yet, he felt miserable in this state because he knew he needed to do something, and he could not bring himself to do it. He described the feeling of being stuck in purgatory.
As humans, we want to feel one emotion, deal with it, and move forward. This is why the unknown is so difficult for us, because when we don’t know the outcome to our situation, we don’t know which emotion we should feel. When we are in a state of ambivalence, we actually can feel two opposing emotions, simultaneously. For example, it is possible to feel opposite emotions at the same time, such as
Love and hate
Happiness and sadness
Excitement and fear
Ambivalence can also occur when we have opposing beliefs and behaviors. For example, we believe that we are hardworking, and we find ourselves slacking off, not paying attention at work, missing deadlines, yet we can’t stop, so we feel bad.
Another example, if we find ourselves wanting something that is in opposition to who we believe we are, or our internal construct. For example, I am a career driven person and I feel like I want to take this lower stress job so I can spend more time with my kids, can cause internal conflict, or cause us to not take the job, because it is outside of who we believe we are.
When we are in a state of ambivalence, we feel anxious and stuck. We will oscillate between opposing emotions, or poles indefinitely, until we can resolve the conflict inside ourselves. Notice, I did not reference solving an external conflict, rather I referenced an internal one. Ambivalence can be triggered by external circumstances, but the conflict really exists inside ourselves, even if we are experiencing interpersonal conflict, as well.
An example of this, ambivalence in a marriage can feel like, I don’t want to leave, yet I don’t want to be with this person anymore. Many times, we are not even aware that we have these feelings, and they are in opposition. We just feel unhappy. In addition, if we believe ourselves to be a loyal and family oriented person, having these feelings or emotions about our partner is another source of internal conflict. By looking inside and connecting with our feelings, we can begin solve the puzzle of our unhappiness.
A person suffering from ambivalence in a relationship may come across to their partner as checked out, aloof, disconnected. This can trigger a reaction in their partner to move towards or to retreat, depending on their own state or feelings. When a relationship is suffering from chronic ambivalence, a partner may only move closer to the other, when they feel the other pull away. This creates a back and forth, or an external manifestation of internal oscillation. Unless the individual ambivalence is addressed and dealt with individually by both partners, any moments of closeness will be short lived, sort of like sun breaks in Seattle. The partners will continue in this destructive dance.
I have experienced this also in the workplace, where a boss wants to fire a person for poor performance, yet they can’t do it, because they don’t want to lose the person. They are still getting something from the relationship, however bad it is. Instead of looking inside at what they are feeling, and evaluating what they really need in the relationship, they tend to closely monitor the person’s behavior, hoping to gain more clarity for their decision, or to tip the scales so they can actually make a decision. Many times, when the employee starts to perform better, the Boss does not believe it is genuine or lasting, and moves farther away.
How do we resolve these ambivalent states? It takes really looking internally at our feelings, acknowledging each and every feeling, and why we feel it. We must do this in a curious and non-judgmental way. It is my job as a coach to create this safe environment for my clients. It requires evaluating who we are, or our schemas. It requires evaluating if we have created false selves, if we have outdated beliefs that are no longer serving us. It requires getting in touch with our desires, our beliefs, and creating congruency with our behaviors.
In the case of my client, until he looked at why he was so driven away from interacting, he could not move forward to interact. He examined how his past behavior impacted his relationships, both personally and at work. He evaluated his beliefs of how he is, his schemas. In doing this, he was able to reframe his beliefs, and move forward into interacting more. He was able to free himself from ambivalence, he was able to truly feel the desire to interact. By looking inside, he found the keys to escape from his own purgatory.
If you think you are in a state of ambivalence in your life, the first action you must take is to allow this awareness to create the desire to understand it more. It is important to remember, ambivalence is a state, not a trait, meaning, it is what we are experiencing, but it is not who we are. Depending on the severity, you may need support to understand, and to escape.