Ambivalence. -Noun

By , April 30, 2010 12:34 am

In my judgment, the word “Ambivalence” is grossly misunderstood.  I often hear it mistakenly used as a fancy synonym of ‘Indifference’.  More painfully, the majority of the times I’ve used the word in important conversations, I’ve been improperly chastised for my indifference.

At the risk of sounding pedantic, I’d like to help clear up this confusion.  These two words are NOT equivalent.  In fact, ambivalence is an antonym of indifference.  Indifference implies a lack of interest or concern.  Ambivalence, on the other hand, implies the simultaneous existence of conflicting interests or concerns.  When I use the term, I use it to highlight the fact that I have very strong feelings both for and against a particular idea or issue.  I use the word when I just can’t fucking make up my mind! 

Here’s the dictionary definition:

am·biv·a·lence  [am-biv-uh-luhns]
- Noun
1. uncertainty or fluctuation, esp. when caused by inability to make a choice or by a simultaneous desire to say or do two opposite or conflicting things.
2. Psychology. 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.

Why do I care about this moderately arcane definition?  I care because over the past year-and-a-half, for the first time in my life, I have lived with the painful awareness of pervasive ambivalence.  I’m quite sure that I’ve experienced ambivalence throughout my life.  I’m confident it’s popped up in just about every aspect of my life since I was a little kid.  For instance, I remember wanting desperately to go to sleep-away camp around the fourth or fifth grades to be with my friends, but at the same time, I remember being deeply fearful of and sad about being away from my parents for so long.  So, while ambivalence is not a new concept for me, my recent experience of it has been fundamentally different.  In previous periods of my life, ambivalence was the exception.  Recently, unfortunately, it’s been the rule. 

I don’t know why my experience is different now versus my past.  Perhaps, ambivalence flows out of maturity and wisdom.  Yah!  That’s a nice thought!  Alternatively (and pessimistically), increasing ambivalence could just mark my entrance into mid-life crisis.  I’ll spare you that discussion for now and will save my observations about ’why’ for a later post.

So let me stop being so obtuse…  for the past couple of years, I’ve absolutely hated my job.  At the same time, I didn’t want to lose my job; I loved the fact that I worked for Microsoft; and I loved and respected the amazing folks with whom I worked.  Ambivalence is by far the best way to characterize how I experienced my job for the last several years.  I also experienced ambivalence in my marriage: while I love my ex-wife very, very much, am grateful for our 14 years of marriage, and hated the very idea of divorce, I also judge that our marriage was irreparable and am grateful that I’m now divorced.  What a mixed bag!  I love my family very much, but I’ve experienced much frustration with them at the same time.  Politics?  Enough said.  My home town?  I love the city of Seattle; I hate Seattle drivers.  I love to ski.  I crave the feeling of freedom, the sensation of speed and the sense of accomplishment that comes from tackling a challenging slope.  At the same time, my fitness this past winter sucked ass – and every time I went up skiing, part of me was filled with dread and contempt.  I judged that I hated skiing because it reminded me of my growing limitations. 

To be clear, there is one part of my life in which I never experience ambivalence: my kids.  I love my kids up to the moon, the stars and the sky.  Yes, they frustrate me at times.  At NO time, though, do I entertain a negative feeling toward them that even remotely compares to the depth of my love for them.  There’s no ambivalence there.

It’s odd… to my ear, the sound of the word ambivalence evokes thoughts of blandness.  For some reason, my mind hears ambivalence as indifference.  The word just sounds clinical - without emotion.  For me, though, it represents quite the contrary.  When I use the word ambivalence, I’m referring to the burning fires of contradiction in my head and in my heart. 

In conclusion, I offer two challenges for the next time you hear the word ambivalence: first, double check whether the person using the word (maybe it’s you) really means ambivalence or indifference; second, if they are using it correctly, I challenge you to exercise a bit more empathy for that person (even if that person is you).  Ambivalence can be a tough place.

6 Responses to “Ambivalence. -Noun”

  1. Lorrin says:

    I totally get it dude. There’s nothing clinical or indifferent about ambivalence – it’s an incapacitating state of gut-wrenching conflict. Just awful – it gets in the way of you being able to commit fully to any one path which, in turn, gets in the way of you doing your best work and kicking ass the way you know you used to when you had conviction one way or another. It gets in the way of you being able to give fully in a relationship, and it stops you from really settling down somewhere so you always feel like a fish out of water. It fosters self loathing and depression and quickly links arms with inertia to create a downward spiral into apathy.

    Hang in there Barry! I hope you find something to fire your imagination and engage your passion; something that jolts you out of your ambivalence and onto a path you can’t help but want to follow whole-heartedly!

  2. Michael Erisman says:

    Barry, this is brilliant and well said. So much of what you said here rings true for me as well. I experienced zero ambivalence towards my children! What wonderful clarity there is in that. I am blessed everyday and remain constantly aware of it and grateful in ways which only grow stronger and never diminish.

    Yet if I were to have predicted the maximum amount of ambivalence I could take from my job, my ex-wife, and the circumstances of the last several years, I would have exceeded my former maximum tolerance by a factor of a hundred! The heartbreak of divorce and betrayal, only magnifies what I experience on the job. I love this company, and love what I do. Truly do. I have an amazingly diverse role and grow every single day. I have never been able to say that about any of the other roles or companies I have been with. At the same time, the culture here is so far more difficult and negative in creating the contrast, that I have long since even given up trying to make sense of it, much less describe it to someone else. I guess you simply have to be here to understand.

    What scares me is not ambivalence, nor the world of extremes I live in, but rather that my tolerance for such disparity seems to be growing, and I wonder if it is not the slow degradation of what I imagined life to be. Have I really traded all the simple pleasures of life, and the feelings of peace and serenity for the unending challenges and the fickle whims of similar overworked and equally imbalanced people?

    I am indeed ambivalent on this. Which is merely a point in time. Sadly I never change anything in my life unless the pain of staying the same outweighs the pain and fear of change, thus ambivalence is temporary, or at least I hope it is.

  3. Bruce Hungate says:

    What a thoughtful post. Thanks, Barry. I’m sure I’ve misused ambivalent many times, but your post set me straight.
    Parsing the word helps: ‘ambi’ – both ways, and ‘valent’ – strong or charged; reminds me of chemistry. There’s a heavy dose of humanity in the word, as you point out.
    I didn’t know about your blog and look forward to reading the rest of your posts.

  4. MarkSpizer says:

    great post as usual!

  5. Jennifer Warrick says:

    Wow Barry- you should be a writer for some publication is all I have to say. You have a wonderful way of expressing yourself!

  6. SJC says:

    Damn I wish I knew what you were dealing with. Happiness will find you and limit that ambivalent tug of war. Good thoughts and good times coming your way.

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