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The Exhausting Pulls of Ambivalence

When one part of your self declares war on another part.

Each of us is full of inconsistencies and inconstancies. Looking back at our own lives, each of us would not see uniformity but diversity and multiplicity. The philosopher Montaigne (1533-1592) notes, “we are entirely made up of bits and pieces, woven together so diversely and shapelessly that each of them pulls its own way at every moment. And there is as much difference between us and ourselves as there is between us and other people.” Many of these inconsistencies and inconstancies are harmless and benign. So what if a classical musician has a fondness for disco? Who cares that a person who never found a subject interesting becomes a keen student of it? There may not be much at stake with some of these inconsistencies, so we allow them to stand.

In those cases where the inconsistencies involve core or vital parts of self-identity, the stakes can become staggeringly high. These cases may become intolerable and a source of great suffering. Imagine that you are a person who dedicates your life to your career. It isn’t just that you practice law, teach, treat people’s health, bake, or care for others’ spiritual needs. You are lawyer, teacher, physician, baker, or minister. Only those commitments and choices that advance your life’s goals and solidify your identity are worth pursuing. All other options and choices are either relegated to the second tier or rejected outright. Marriage? No. Kids? No. But then, either gradually or suddenly, you find yourself not just wanting a partner or kids but starting to take action to make those things possible. You still want all the same things as before even as you recognize that in practice if not principle, they are now incompatible and inconsistent. Even more strongly, they may be contradictory.

You may begin to feel equal pulls toward career and marriage/children. You are truly ambivalent. The word “ambivalent” comes from the Latin, “ambi,” meaning both and “valentia,” meaning strength or vigor. There is nothing wishy-washy about ambivalence. Nor is there anything passive about it. You don’t suffer these pulls passively as if two people were pulling you in opposite directions. Oh no. You pull yourself. You push yourself. You are the pushmi-pullu of Dr. Dolittle. That’s part of the special torment of ambivalence. You do it to yourself and you know it. The ambivalence is conscious.

Much of the treatment in philosophy and psychology conceives ambivalence as a matter of conflicting desires or attitudes. A person feels positively about something and negatively about it at the same time. A person wants one thing while not wanting it at all. Philosophers often talk about first- and second-order desires or beliefs clashing. I may look at the chocolate layer cake and really want a gigantic piece. That’s a first-order desire. My second-order desire might be “I don’t want to want that cake.” But treating ambivalence as purely a mental or affective state obscures the fact that ambivalence is a full-bodied complication in living. Put more directly, ambivalence is trying to act—to live—in contradictory ways simultaneously. In its most extreme form, ambivalence is launching all-out warfare against crucial parts of your self. When parts of your self with which you closely identify are in open warfare with one another, the results can be exhausting and devastating. Ambivalence doubles the chances that you feel like an abject failure. That’s another dimension of its torment.

Here’s another example to highlight the embodied nature of ambivalence: You don’t want to drink anymore. What had started as fun social drinking has become something else. You regularly find yourself having more than you intended and start to resent the fact that others can drink normally. They never have any bad consequences while yours are starting to pile up like cordwood. You may have a first-order desire, “I want to drink,” while the second-order desire is clamoring loudly, “I want not to want to drink.” You just want to be able to drink normally. But here’s the thing: Your wanting to drink may not be a purely psychological state. Your body may be craving alcohol’s effect. Your heart may start beating faster when you pass the liquor store. You may start sweating because you do not trust yourself at that very moment; you have to force yourself not to turn into the parking lot. You make yourself drive home a different way so that you do not pass that liquor store and save yourself from having to make the excruciating decision again. Yet, you do still want to drink. This is torture.

At times, ambivalence is overcome by transformation whereby a person moves fully to one side. She resolves the tension by definitively choosing one part of her identity over another. Many people would argue that the person who commits to sobriety actively chooses a non-drinking self over a drinking self. Another possible way to address ambivalence is to synthesize the two sides into a third option that allows both pulls to be directed at a compromise. Many women who struggle with the pulls of career and family often try to find a compromise. The challenge is that much of the compromise rests on factors that may be beyond her control such as a flexible work schedule, good childcare, and a cooperative spouse who contributes equally to all the domestic labor.

Some people resign themselves to living with ambivalence. For a variety of reasons, they may reach a point of believing the tension can never be lessened or somehow transformed. I think many people who struggle with severe addiction reach this point. There may be times when the tension and its pain are felt acutely and they again try to change their use. Their own resignation may be another reason why they view themselves as failures.

Embracing some ambivalence may be liberating, as counterintuitive as that claim seems. Accept the tension and the limitations that may come from it, and find some freedom. People with long-term recovery, especially when they are attentive to and intentional in their own recovery, might be people who embrace ambivalence. Their present selves may want nothing more than to preserve their recovery but there still remains a sense of identification with the people they were when they were using. That sense of identification with long-ago actual or imagined selves still exerts a pull. There’s freedom in not expecting yourself to be perfectly seamless. It’s liberating to be able to acknowledge and accept your past self. Trying to disown it will only make it a stronger adversary—and raise the stakes—for your present self.


Montaigne, Michel. (2004). The Essays: A Selection. New York: Penguin.

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