Many leaders will recognize this pattern, you have an idea, you fire it out into the world, it misses the mark in some way – perhaps there was little or no response and defeated, you retreat into feeling a failure and wait for the next aim to come along so that maybe this time you can hit the target.
The mind is uneasy with this approach, it feels chaotic and exhausting. It keeps coming up with new things but none of them are ever continued long enough for it to move into a longer term pattern of focused action. It is not so different from the Headless Chicken mode (see this post for more), apart from the fact that it had a clear aim in the first place.
The ambivalent mind is one that is caught in a trap of unknowing.
We often think of ambivalence as having no opinion one way or the other, of not really caring. When we talk about apathy we also think of ambivalence in the same way and although ambivalence can certainly lead to apathy, they are not the same thing.
Ambivalence is when there co-exists both positive and negative feelings towards the same choice, person, object or action. We are simultaneously drawn in two different directions. This makes it very hard for the brain to come to a decision.
Apathy is when we lack interest, enthusiasm or concern, there is indifference and detachment involved. If Apathy is detachment, ambivalence is over attachment.
It makes sense then that when we are ambivalent we need to detach, to come away from the feelings towards a choice for a while and to consciously examine in an objective way, what is going on.
Ambivalence is caused by both uncertainty and the fact that life is never black and white. Life, by its nature is unpredictable and uncertain and we try to make sense of this by attempting to get guarantees for our decisions, to make them final and binding so that we can feel more secure.
We have contracts at work and in business – we make our agreements final and binding so that we can feel certain enough to proceed.
We have marriage contracts, divorce certificates, birth certificates, death certificates. Everything is documented, signed, sealed, certain. We have an innate need for certainty in an uncertain world.
Of course, even the most binding of contracts cannot protect us fully. A marriage can still fall apart, a financial agreement can be breeched, people can go bankrupt, disappear, fake their feelings, fake their identity, steal, lie and cheat. We can wrap things up and neatly and as tightly as we want but it still only minimizes risk, it does not eliminate it.
In some ways, you can see how people would end up trying to break away from the rules and regulations that we have put in place to make our world more certain, it may create a sense of safety but it can also be the cage we try to escape from, the ties that bind and stop us from growing, innovating and discovering the new and different.
“Now, more than ever, we need something enduring to hold close, something that won’t wash away in the furious tides of change”. Walter Cooper
Dealing with ambivalence is about knowing that certainty is not possible but what is certain is that standing still cannot last forever. Even if you stood still forever things would still change. Your skin and body would still age, your muscles would waste away from lack of use, the world around you and beneath your feet would change, the place you were stood could be built upon and redeveloped many times in your life around you. Even if you stand still, you cannot avoid change and it matters very little in the end whether one decision works out or not, the point is to keep moving forwards.
So how do we return to action? To empowered decision making? One of the things we can do is to discover an anchor that keeps a sense of certainty around why we do what we do. The anchor comes in the form of our value system…I have a great exercise that I use to discover your value system and then show you how to use this as a way to maintain behaviours that counter ambivalence.
If you would like to do this exercise with me you can book one of my free 30 min calls here