This article examines how ambivalence is connected to the failure of early relationships to recognize and support aspects of ourselves as we develop. I am often struck with how much clients struggle with difficulties around aspects of themselves that they feel so ashamed of and can not contemplate expressing; yet are unable to feel resolved around not expressing. The result is an ambivalent struggle between these two sides. Within the uncertainty of an ambivalent struggle aspects of our self are wanting to emerge. I call this the Unrecognized Self. To varying degrees we are all pressured to alter our self to belong or survive and those aspects that are banished and left in the shadows remain unrecognized. They have been split off from our consciousness and contain the unfulfilled and broken aspects of who we are or want to be.
Ambivalence is a state of ‘between’ that causes us to suffer with anxiety, tension, and paralysis. Early in my life I recall times when the thought of approaching my supervisor at work for help filled me with dread, and not because he was difficult to approach, but because I felt such fear and shame around needing that help and expected to be ridiculed. I was perceived as independent and self sufficient, particularly at work. However, for me this ‘between’ place of needing to approach someone and holding back was agony. At the time I was unaware how much this related to the relational trauma I had experienced.
Ambivalence occurs when there is the coexistence of opposing emotions and desire toward an action or experience that creates uncertainty and doubt. Ambivalence is most often associated with difficulties in making decisions and difficulties developing stable relationships. Often some kind of action is needed where we feel tortured by our indecision and inaction, and feelings of uncertainty and doubt are common. When faced with the coexistence of opposing emotions and desire toward an action or experience we become immobilized by these feelings of uncertainty, as we fluctuate between two or more sides. We experience a need to do something or want something but we are quickly consumed by doubt and uncertainty that prevents us from taking the action. It feels risky and we become pre-occupied with ruminating over the consequences.
An ambivalent struggle is usually present as we grapple with who we are, how we want to live and our connections with others. It is normal to consider options and weigh up alternatives as we figure out our lives. We may have fleeting experiences of uncertainty about what is important to us, or it can be agonizing to feel stuck between continuing to do what is not working or risk something different and the consequences to both paths seem equally daunting causing us to become immobilized. There is a continuum of intensity to the experience of ambivalence. What is common is that something within us is wanting to go forward and another is wanting to pull back. A crossroads between living more fully, truthfully and authentically or conforming and submitting to a life that has been prescribed by others.
Ambivalence reflects a basic split within our psyche and that a part of us, the Unrecognized Self, is struggling to breathe life into our being. Bowlby (1985) categorized the therapist’s role as ‘sanctioning the patient to think thoughts that his/her parents have discouraged or forbidden him/her to think, to experience feelings his/her parents have discouraged or forbidden him/her to experience, and to consider actions his/her parents have forbidden him/her to contemplate’ (p. 198). This experience of being discouraged or forbidden is one of the ways the Unrecognized Self develops and goes into hiding. The Unrecognized Self holds shame and fear around desires, feelings and thoughts that are held at bay until situations in a person’s life trigger the need for the unrecognized to be realized.
For example, a person may have been following a certain career path based on gaining their parents approval. Their own dreams have resided in the Unrecognized Self which can be ignored until they perhaps experience a sense of emptiness or dissatisfaction that signifies a need to follow their own path. When this happens a struggle occurs as the person feels anxiety around the unrecognized becoming visible. The greater the extent of the self that is unrecognized the more often anxiety and uncertainty will be activated. Perhaps what psychology has termed generalized anxiety, refers to an extensive ambivalent stance to life where the Unrecognized Self is trying to emerge.
From research into early relational trauma it is well documented that dissociation is the psychological defense mechanism that creates splits. Van de Hart et al. (2009) have categorized a primary split as between the ‘apparently normal personality’ (ANP) and the ’emotional personality’ (EP). Very simply, the ANP is how the child continues to interact with the world and the EP holds the unresolved traumatic response. As a result of relational trauma the EP carries shame around those emotions, bodily actions and reactions, behaviour and desires that have been dissociated in order to continue a relationship with those they are dependent on.
Relational trauma and affect regulation
This split can, and often does, take shape from birth as the infant forms an attachment to the mother, and other significant adults. The development of a secure or insecure attachment depends on the ability of the mother to be attuned to her infant’s needs and help them to learn to regulate distress. Fonagy et al. (2002) identified three processes the infant is learning through affect regulation and the development of a secure attachment.
1) Expressing feelings brings about positive outcomes and generates positive feelings about self and others.
2) That she can have an impact which develops agency and self-initiative.
3) To differentiate the different affects and their impact which helps to develop the ability to name her feelings.
From this perspective the success or failure of affect regulation provides the infant with an experience of how he impacts the world positively or negatively, and sets a foundation for whether emotions, thoughts and desires are integrated positively into a sense of self. The development of an insecure attachment strategy is the earliest form of relational trauma and results from parents discouragement of both proximity seeking and autonomous exploration. This discouragement forms the basis of ambivalence in regards to connections with others and to taking action in ones life. An infant’s needs and desires are abandoned when the mother’s experience becomes the focus. If this happens repeatedly the infant becomes focused on trying to get the mother’s attention back. The infant and later the adult, forms patterns of relating that are focused on others needs, and therefore outside themselves, in order to belong which results in a conformist way of living.
All three types of insecure attachment strategies are based on an ambivalent state although only one is actually called ambivalent. The strategies that develop in infancy centre around ways of managing distress when connection with the mother fails. Insecure attachment strategies use various methods to deal with distress, from overregulation where the person shuts down, or hyper-regulation where the person is anxious and feeling on edge, and an oscillation between the two (Wallin, 2007). These strategies prevent a person from being connected to their experience which then becomes dissociated as the Unrecognized Self. This will then emerge as one side of an ambivalent struggle as those unconscious and banished parts of the self attempt to find expression.
Taking action in one’s life
The three processes an infant is learning identified by Fonagy et. al., are the foundation for living ones life based on a connection to ones needs and desires. Being the master of one’s destiny versus reacting and conforming to others needs. In other words, ambivalence reflects a stance of being afraid to live one’s own life and really be embodied and present in the world.
From this perspective ambivalence produces a lack of presence and authenticity when a person takes action, and it can also prevent a person from taking action. One way of expressing this is confusion and apathy. A confused reaction can develop to protect oneself from being fully present and risk expressing the Unrecognized Self which has fear and shame attached to it. In addition, it reinforces helplessness around ever getting ones needs met. ‘I don’t know’ does not express a sense of mastery over ones world, nor does it allow us to be known. Chronic confusion therefore, interferes with our connection to others and really creating a life that we want.
Ambivalence is most often associated with difficulties in making decisions and difficulties developing stable relationships. However, ambivalence is in our basic nature and connected to our search for wholeness. At any point of transformation an ambivalent struggle will emerge as the Unrecognized Self comes into awareness. Transformation is not easy as we have to face the fear and shame involved in becoming more fully who we are.
When we are in a state of ambivalence whether that is in relation to: a decision, inability to express feelings or desire, feel confused, procrastination, it is not simply a matter of ‘making up one’s mind’. In understanding ambivalence as a reflection of an Unrecognized Self then ambivalence becomes an opportunity to heal relational trauma and move towards wholeness. People have trouble making decisions because it requires a person to put them self forward and a commitment to being seen by their actions. Decisions are relational in nature because ones actions are always potentially judged by others as well as affect others in ones life. So it would make sense that a person’s relational trauma is connected to difficulties in making decisions and taking action.