5 Kinds of Ambivalence That May Explain Why You Are Stuck
Being unable to make up your mind can stymie you and cause you to miss out.
Posted Aug 16, 2020
By Berit Brogaard & Dimitria E. Gatzia
It is quite common for people not to be able to make up their minds. One of the most famous literary examples comes from Shakespeare’s play, Hamlet, in which the protagonist Hamlet poses the well-known question “To be or not to be, that is the question,” while contemplating suicide. In the play, Hamlet is expressing discontent about life, as he thinks of the pain and unfairness it involves. At the same time, he fears that death may be worse. It seems that he desires to have it both ways: He wants to both end his life and not end his life.
This is, of course, a case of ambivalence where the stakes are very high. When we are ambivalent, it’s often about more mundane aspects of life. Yet even the more mundane forms of ambivalence can spell disaster. Here are five common types of ambivalence that may sabotage your life.
Ambivalence About What to Do
One form of ambivalence is indecisiveness about what to do. When you are ambivalent about what to do, you have conflicting desires of equal strength.
Imagine that you are dating two people, Parker and Taylor. They both know about each other but would prefer if you would make up your mind and settle down. This is your preference too. Yet you are in two minds about what to do. You are in love with both of them. You absolutely love Parker’s sense of humor, your all-night conversations, and your daylong biking trips and weekend camping trips. But you also absolutely love Taylor’s passion for art history and cooking, your excursions to museums on Sundays, and your Saturday evenings together, cooking Italian dishes and sipping red wine.
You are determined to make a choice but you just can’t make up your mind. So, you make no decision and continue dating them both until they get tired of the arrangement on offer and settle down with people who are less indecisive.
Ambivalence About a Past Decision
A second form of ambivalence concerns choices you have already made—choices that cannot be undone.
Say you broke up with your high school sweetheart because your parents disliked him, but you are now married to someone else. You can’t complain; your spouse is a good person, and you get along just fine. But you and your spouse were never madly in love. So, you keep thinking about your high school sweetheart.
You don’t know what to think or feel about your past decision. You regret it because your high school sweetheart was the love of your life. But you also don't regret it because you are comfortable in your marriage. In this case, you are not ambivalent about what to do but rather about a past choice that cannot be undone.
Ambivalence About a Past Decision Made by Someone Else
A third form of ambivalence is indecisiveness about what you feel about a past decision made by someone else.
Imagine that you and your coworker, who is also a close friend of yours, both hope to get the upcoming promotion at work. When your friend ends up getting the promotion, you are left with conflicting emotions about the outcome. You are happy that she won because she deserves the honor and was hoping to get it. At the same time, you are unhappy that you didn’t get the promotion, because it would have meant a lot to you to get it.
Ambivalence About the Future
Just as you can be ambivalent about a past decision made by someone else, so you can be ambivalent about a future event that is not really within your control.
Imagine that you have a good job in a small town in the U.S. but see a great opportunity for advancing your career. The only downside is that the job that you would be perfect for requires moving to a different country and uprooting your family. Your spouse and children are excited about the possibility of going to another country but you worry that uprooting them may not be such a good idea.
As a result, you are ambivalent about how the future will turn out. You hope to get the job and the opportunity to advance your career. However, at the same time, you hope that you don't get the job because you fear that it may negatively impact your family.
Ambivalence About the Truth
A fifth kind of ambivalence is indecisiveness about what to believe on the basis of the evidence available to you.
Say you are a jury member in a murder case. After having heard both the prosecution’s and the defense’s case, you may still be unable to make up your mind about whether the defendant is guilty.
How Ambivalence Can Bog You Down
These five types of ambivalence can weigh you down and cause you to miss out. If you are ambivalent about what to believe, that can be a major obstacle to your ability to make progress on tasks you are trying to complete. Say you are a juror in a murder trial and that you cannot make up your mind about whether the defendant is guilty. Your ambivalence alone can be the cause of a hung jury and a mistrial.
Similarly, if you are ambivalent about what to do, this can bog you down and prevent you from getting on with your life. Say you are ambivalent about whether to go to college or technical school after you graduate from high school. If you get stuck in your state of ambivalence, you may end up without a job or any vocational training.
In contrast, when it comes to ambivalence about what to think or feel, you are, in theory, better off. If, say, you are ambivalent about how you feel about a new hire in the company where you work but are able to keep your opinions to yourself, this is not going to come back to haunt you. But even if you do your best to hide how you feel about your new coworker, you are probably not going to be able to keep this a secret forever. Eventually, it will eventually rub off on your behavior. When this happens, your ambivalence could well be getting you into some serious trouble.
In short, ambivalence is a potentially dangerous state of mind, which could thwart your goals and potentially get you in trouble.
Brogaard, B. & Gatzia, D. E. (In Press). Being of Two Minds: The Philosophy and Psychology of Ambivalence, Routledge Studies in Contemporary Philosophy, Routledge.