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How to Deal With Ambivalence

Discover what ambivalence is, 3 types of ambivalence, and how to deal with it.



Ambivalence is the tendency to assess something (or someone) both positively and negatively (Jonas et al., 2000). If you’re ambivalent about something, you might harbor mixed feelings about it or have thoughts and feelings that conflict (for example, you might love something but know it’s bad for you; Jonas et al., 2000). Ambivalence differs from neutrality—when you’re neutral toward something, you evaluate it neither positively nor negatively (Jonas et al., 2000).

Here are the types of ambivalence:

  • Affective ambivalence (“mixed feelings”)

    • Liking a friend, but resenting them because they usually show up late and dominate conversations.

    • Feeling curious about a new, elaborate roller coaster, but frightened to get in line to try it out.

    • Feeling bittersweet about graduating from school.

  • Cognitive ambivalence (being “of two minds”)

    • Thinking that the plot of a novel is good, but the character development is lacking.

    • Thinking that an apartment you might rent is affordable but cramped.

    • Thinking that getting a dog might be fun but will take up all your free time.

  • Affective-cognitive ambivalence (heart vs. head)

    • Feeling bored while cleaning the kitchen, but knowing that it will be much more functional once you’re done.

    • Thinking that it’s unwise to spend a lot of money on new clothes, but feeling excited to go shopping anyway.

    • Thinking that your cat is a being of pure chaos whose antics are often inconvenient, but loving her and enjoying her presence.​

How To Deal With Ambivalence

Although ambivalence isn’t all bad, it can be hard to appreciate its benefits if it’s holding you back from making an important decision or a necessary change. It might confuse you, stress you out, or leave you feeling stuck in a rut. Here are several strategies you can try for working through (or with) ambivalence when pro-and-con lists aren’t doing the trick:

  1. Find a therapist who practices motivational interviewing: Motivational interviewing is a counseling approach designed to help clients move through ambivalence to establish lasting behavioral change. If you’re having trouble making a decision or changing habits on your own, the support of a skilled mental health professional might give you an effective boost.

  2. Coexist with your ambivalence: If you need to make a decision and the clock is ticking, you don’t have to resolve your ambivalence to move ahead. (In fact, making a decision might help you resolve your ambivalence, especially if your choice would be difficult to reverse (see Bullens et al., 2013 for a review). Particularly when you’re making a major, complex life decision, you can expect some internal conflict–rarely does any option present zero downsides or no upsides.

  3. “Clarify your values”: Writer Stacy Colino suggests combating ambivalence by clarifying your values (Colino, 10 January 2022). Identifying what matters most to you may help you structure your thinking and work around ambivalence when making decisions.

  4. Stay open: Colino also advocates that you “listen to your ambivalence” (10 January 2022). If you’re pushing away one set of thoughts or feelings, you might instead try to hear them out. How might your ambivalence be trying to help you? Is there a way you can compromise with yourself?

In Sum

When you hold both positive and negative views of someone or something, you’re experiencing ambivalence. Ambivalence can show up as mixed feelings, mixed thoughts, or mismatched thoughts and feelings. Although ambivalence might help us see shades of gray in an issue, find solutions that honor the complexities of our lives, and motivate us to improve close relationships, you might also experience ambivalence as stressful and confusing. Ambivalence can also keep you stuck in the contemplation phase of change.

If ambivalence becomes a problem for you, you can try working with a therapist, clarifying your values, or simply acting despite ambivalence. However you choose to manage ambivalence, please remember that it’s a normal and understandable response to major life events.

References

  • Bullens, L., van Harreveld, F., Förster, J., & van der Pligt, J. (2013). Reversible decisions: The grass isn't merely greener on the other side; it's also very brown over here. Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, 49(6), 1093-1099.

  • Colino, S. (10 January 2022). The emotion that’s standing in the way of your healthy change: Ambivalence. The Washington Post.

  • Jonas, K., Broemer, P., & Diehl, M. (2000). Attitudinal ambivalence. European review of social psychology, 11(1), 35-74.

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