In 1985, US president Ronald Reagan outraged Jewish people in Israel and beyond when he visited a German military cemetery containing the graves of 49 members of the Nazi’s Waffen-SS. Reagan’s controversial visit prompted a nuanced reply from Israeli prime minister Shimon Peres.
‘When a friend makes a mistake, the friend remains a friend’, said Peres, ‘and the mistake remains a mistake.’
Peres’ reaction was a wise one. When a friend does something that upsets or angers us, we may be inclined to minimise what happened, to try and pretend they didn’t do anything hurtful. Alternatively, we might lash out or even end the friendship. Saying, “My friend was wrong and hurt me, s/he remains my friend” – many people find this difficult.
Unlike Shimon Peres, many people are uncomfortable with having mixed feelings, with ambivalence. This is often seen in relationships. A person might say, “I really like my partner but he does some things which really annoy me. I wish I didn’t have these contradictory feelings, maybe he’s not right for me”.
In this instance, the person makes the mistake of automatically assuming their mixed “contradictory” feelings indicate a serious problem with the relationship. In reality, all relationships experience conflict; there’s nothing strange about loving someone and simultaneously finding certain things about them annoying or boring.
In his book Emotional Schema Therapy, CBT expert Dr Robert Leahy gives a different example of someone who is uncomfortable with ambivalence.
John is told he is being laid off from his job, after less than one year. John, who had been dissatisfied with the job, notices some of the different thoughts he is having. “I can’t believe I got fired”, “My boss was a narcissist”, “I am better off without this job”.
He then notices he has other thoughts on the matter, such as “I will be out of work and miserable” and “Nothing ever works out for me”. He realises he is feeling angry, anxious, sad, but also confused and relieved.
These mixed emotions upset John. He sees them as contradictory and thinks he should have one primary feeling. “I can’t figure out how I really feel”, he says. He asks himself: am I relieved to be out of work because I’m lazy? Did I want to get fired?
Intolerant of his mixed feelings, he continues to brood and ruminate, trying to find out how he “really feels”. The more he ruminates, the more distressed he becomes.
John’s search for how he “really feels” is a fruitless and counter-productive one. He has an intolerance of mixed emotions, an unhelpful dislike of emotional ambivalence. John has a simplistic view of emotions. He thinks he should only feel one way about things.
The reality is there is nothing strange about having mixed emotions in a case like John’s – you can be anxious and stressed about losing your job whilst also experiencing feelings of relief. This isn’t some mysterious contradiction – it’s perfectly normal.
It’s important to learn to accept having mixed feelings, to learn to tolerate ambivalence. The cons of not doing so? As Robert Leahy notes, people who dislike ambivalence often make the mistake of thinking they cannot make a choice if they have mixed feelings, that they must collect more information. Consequently, they tend to be indecisive and to agonise over decisions.
Intolerance of ambivalence is closely linked to intolerance of uncertainty and emotional perfectionism, both of which are associated with multiple mental health problems. If you’re intolerant of ambivalence, you may torture yourself with “should” statements, such as “I should be completely happy with XYZ”, “I should not have any doubts about my choice”, “I shouldn’t be feeling this way”, and so on.
In contrast, a person who is more accepting of ambivalence is more likely to accept that all choices come with pros and cons and that it’s normal to have mixed feelings about even very positive situations.
You will soon see the benefits if you learn to tolerate ambivalence – less indecision, less rumination, less regret, and a greater ability to appreciate what you have. Above all, you will learn to accept reality as it is – not as it “should” be.
(First published in Southern Star on 16/2/2023)