Should I stay or should I go? This phrase is relevant to so many situations in life: work that we’re not that happy with at the moment but that pays the bills, a relationship that used to be great and now not so much. In more subtle ways this feeling of ambivalence can apply to how we feel about our children (“I love you, but I really need a break from you right now”), friendships, and even therapy.
Ambivalence is a really tough feeling—always changing, arguments pro and con—and all this can make it difficult to know what to do next. Most often, people go with the side of ambivalence they’re feeling in the moment—i.e. no, I really don’t want to go to work today, my boss is just going to be a jerk anyway so I’ll blow it off; or yes, I love him, so I’ll go on that trip with him even though I think I’m ready to break up with him.
I find ambivalence can be a deep well of information, and actually really helpful in getting some clarity on what someone really feels and why. It’s a good reminder that nothing is black and white—it’s rare that we’re totally clear on something. One of the best—and most helpful—things I find to do with ambivalence is to just be with it for a while. Not force a choice either way. Not discount the important of one side just because it’s more uncomfortable. Instead, really embody each conflicting feeling and get to know it.
It looks like this: give in fully to one side for a while. Say, for instance, you’re not sure about whether to marry someone. There are great parts of the relationship, and, of course, the parts you wish were better. Sit with the parts you’re unhappy about. Really feel how they affect you. Think about the long-term impact, and if that’s workable for you or not. Then give yourself some time with the parts that make your heart soar. Really feel those aspects, and how they would be for you long term.
This process can take some time—days or weeks, even. But once you give each side the chance for a deeply felt inquiry, you just might find the answer is clear.
© Copyright 2010 by Rachel Stein, LCSW, therapist in Northampton, Massachusetts. All Rights Reserved. Permission to publish granted to GoodTherapy.org.
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