‘Ambivalence is normal human nature’

On second thought: How ambivalence shapes your life by William R. Miller is published by Guilford Press.

Our former Deputy Editor Annie Brookman-Byrne asks the questions…

How did you come to view ambivalence as a virtue? 

Whether it’s for an individual, an organisation or a nation, it’s wise to weigh the pros and cons of different courses of action, which is essentially what is happening in the experience of ambivalence. A fairly common response to ambivalence is to shut down consideration of alternatives, filtering out information that is inconsistent with a single-minded direction. What I see as a virtue is remaining open to considering possibilities, at least long enough to get a clear picture of their relative merits and make a choice in relation to your larger values.

Why do we tend to think of ambivalence as a bad thing? 

Some people prefer closure, making a decision and moving on even if it may not be the best possible choice. Others like to consider the different options more fully before deciding. The former may call the latter indecisive or procrastinating, while the latter may perceive the former to be impulsive and arbitrary. Some of us are just more comfortable or patient with the experience of ambivalence.

Are there evidence-based ways of working through ambivalence effectively? 

A longstanding approach that was described by Ben Franklin is to take a few days and compile a full list of the pros and cons of different choices. Psychologists Janis and Mann formalised this in a ‘decisional balance’ approach, which I describe in the chapter on Getting the Big Picture. It’s a way to be at peace with a decision you made based on what you knew at the time. Then once you do make a choice there is the challenge of Getting Out of the Woods (that’s another chapter) and not being sidetracked by enduring ambivalence.

Talk us through your metaphor of ambivalence as an inner committee. 

We talk to ourselves when faced with choice or change. It’s a more conscious process for some of us than for others, but in essence we are voicing the pro and con arguments. You can think of these voices as being like members of an inner committee having a debate. Some members may express impassioned arguments in favour, whereas others may be strongly opposed. There may be other members of the committee who are reluctant to make a decision at all, or who suggest a third possibility. You get to decide how much time you give each of these voices to speak.

Is there a moment in your own life where ambivalence led to an important choice? 

So many times. We make countless choices each day, most of them quite minor. In the book I described my reluctance about having children – ultimately we adopted two boys and a girl – and for me a big part of this ambivalence was unconscious. In my 20s I was deciding whether to go into psychology or music. Deciding about a life partner was a momentous choice, and we’ve been married for 49 years now. My simple childhood religious understanding did not work for me as I grew and learned, and I went through an ambivalent agnosticism before developing an adult faith.

What can we do to embrace ambivalence?

Well, first of all, ambivalence is normal human nature. If you feel uncomfortable about it, there are various ways to shut it down like selective attention, but ambivalence is a fact of life. Conscious of it or not, we make choices. Erich Fromm wrote about a desire to escape from that freedom, and that is also a choice you can make. For me it is normal to experience hope and despair simultaneously without needing to choose one or the other. William Blake wrote that we were ‘made for joy and woe, and when this we rightly know, through the world we safely go’.

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