This is the first of a two-part series on ambivalence and guilt. Written by a psychologist.
We all suffer from internal conflicts every day; some big, some little. Some conflicts are between ideas, concepts and values, while others are only between feelings. Some are conscious, some unconscious. In all cases, the irresolution of the conflict sponsors indecisiveness. The subjective experience is, “It doesn’t feel good.” It creates a sense of uneasiness. In my trade, it is said, we “compensate” or “defend” against this anxiety; that is, and we try to “deal” with it. Our training and experience determines the style (form and function) of the behaviors that express the conflict, as well as the psychological defenses we employ. These states of affair or subjective experiences of these conflicts are what I call “The Ambivalences.” Ambivalence is very common. It is a subclinical phenomenon; meaning, not a mental illness. I speak of three primary manifestations—procrastination, guilt and forgiveness. We all experience them.
So, I went to Google and typed in, “Ambi.” I found the following:
“…A prefix occurring in loanwords from Latin, meaning “both” (ambiguous) and “around”(ambient); used in the formation of compound words.”
And what is valence?
“…The psychological value of an object, event, person, goal, region, etc. in the life space of an individual…negative and positive for the valence of things avoided and sought after, respectively.”
The term “valence” is actually not very good, because it comes from chemistry, which is a hard science; whereas, psychology is not. In chemistry, valence is said to reflect the tendency, strength and/or capability to bond, as in two elements, chemical or molecules. In psychology, valence reflects the attraction or repulsion of feelings and ideas, which determine behavior. Such attractions and repulsions can be weak or strong, conscious or unconscious.
Put “ambi” and “valence” together to get “ambivalence.” One definition is the following:
“The coexistence within an individual of positive and negative feelings toward the same person, object, or action, simultaneously drawing him or her in opposite directions.”
A more detailed psychology definition of ambivalence includes the following:
“A tendency to ‘flip-flop’ one’s feelings or attitudes about a person, object or idea…. A state in which one is pulled in two mutually exclusive directions or towards two opposite goals. This meaning …shows up most clearly in the research on behavioral reactions to various forms of conflict.”
Ambivalence is when we want or do not want two things at once. As with all ambivalences, guilt can pop up when there are conflicts over values, ideas or feelings. However, guilt usually involves something more personal about us, what we did that was wrong vs. what we “should” or “should not” have done. We are aware of some aspects of these; that is, we may have a conscious experience of the conflicts. Or, the conflicts may be between what we are aware of and what is out of awareness. Many a thought has come and gone, yet still resides in our unconscious minds. Here, we find values, preferences, hidden motivations, likes and dislikes. As Freud said, here exists a whole pantheon of buried impulses; some good, some not. This mess in the back of our minds makes us both want something and at the same time not want something.