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Who really cares?

ambivalence1Many people are fairly ambivalent and probably have mixed feelings about it. The world encourages decisiveness and clarity and dismisses people who can see both sides of an argument as fence-sitters.  For example, you can “like” things on Facebook, and sometimes a “dislike” button may be suggested, but there will never be one labelled “like and dislike”.

“There is no respectable way to confess that you believe two opposing propositions,” wrote author and self-confessed ambivalent person Ian Leslie in Slate, “no questionnaire in which you can tick the box; “I agree with both of these conflicting views”… So we avoid the question, or check “I don’t know”. But “don’t know” sounds like indifference or ignorance, whereas ambivalence means possibly having strong feelings that are polarised.

Meanwhile, we champion those with the so-called “courage of their convictions”, even though such people have historically started pretty much all wars. Then again, some wars are justifiable, so… God, who knows what to think?

Consequently, it is un-ambivalently pleasant to see two recent studies that both suggest ambivalence has its upsides. One concluded that having conflicting goals can lead to better decision-making, because the conflict forces us to reflect deeply on our options.

The other, concerned “ambivalent relationships” – frenemies – in the workplace. Having a love-hate dynamic with a colleague might make you better at your job, these researchers argue, since you’re constantly prompted to switch to their perspective to try to understand their actions.

That’s “a useful trigger for seeing the world anew,” psychologist Naomi Rothman told New York magazine – and her work isn’t the first to link ambivalence to creativity.

This isn’t to say that ambivalence is always good. (it is ambivalence after all). It has been linked to stress and high blood pressure, and a chronic form of it can poison romantic relationships. But it also serves as a safeguard against falling into ruts, delivering shots of perspective that may help you see people, places and projects with fresh eyes.

There’s a case for deliberately keeping some ambivalence in your life: staying in touch with frenemies, reading books or visiting places you can’t make up your mind about. A life filled only with people and things you love can be overly smooth, even deadening.

Something else that ambivalent types frequently figure out, are life’s big dilemmas; the ones that trigger most ambivalence; these rarely get solved by acting “decisively” and plumping for one option over others. “The greatest and most important problems of life are all, in a certain sense insoluble,” wrote Carl Jung.

They can’t be solved, only outgrown: “Some higher or wider interest arose on the person’s horizon, and through this widening of his view, the insoluble problem lost its urgency. It now seemed like a storm in the valley seen from a high mountain-top. This does not mean that the thunderstorm is robbed of its reality, but instead of being in it, one is now above it.” You won’t get rid of ambivalence. But you can, perhaps, grow to feel a bit less ambivalent about it.

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