Should I, shouldn’t I?

ambivalenceAt the end of last week’s blog, I said I’d share more thoughts about the emotional and psychological healing that can come through groups. I’ve had a busy weekend seeing friends and family, a really enjoyable and nourishing one, a weekend that could so easily have provided the fuel and content to talk more about groups and our need to have inter-personal relationships, to have community. But out of that busy-ness and time with others something more relevant came up; I changed my mind about my writing this week. And there could be no more appropriate an introduction to the topic of ambivalence.

After lunch on Sunday, I arrived on my sofa back home. I had the whole afternoon to myself, alone for the first time in 72 hours…”me time”, lovely. Yet, as I drank my coffee a multitude of ‘options’ started to flow through my mind as I pondered the question “what shall I do this afternoon?” On one hand, there was this moment of openness, space; and yet simultaneously there was also a little gremlin…a little voice making me decide. The pull “to be”, and the push “to do”. This is not new to me, and I imagine many of you have experienced a similar push and pull.

One “project” I have on the go is learning to play the drums. But since buying the electronic kit last January, aside from taking an 8 week course of lessons and accumulating perhaps 10 hours of practice time, my contact with the set amounts to dusting it every couple of weeks! When I got back from holiday, I decided “right, I have to give this a go….or I sell the set”. I spent a few hours searching for online courses I could do (time I could have actually been playing the drums) and found a free resource. I downloaded the resources…and then didn’t touch them. I think that was four weeks ago. In the meantime I thought about it…and I dusted my drum set.

So, back to Sunday. One idea I had was to finally spend an hour on my drums, to start this new course. “Yep, I’ll do that later…that will be nice”. I smiled, settled back in to the sofa, picked up my copy of The Week and started reading. I realised how tired I was, my eyes were closing “maybe I need to rest, I’ve a big working week ahead”. The gremlin appeared “ah yes, but you really SHOULD play the drums, or you might as well sell the set”. The push and pull had started. At first, I found myself getting frustrated, not knowing what was “best” for me. But after a while I began to attend to the state of ambivalence itself, and this became a fascinating experience.

Ambivalence:  Noun; the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something or someone.
Synonyms: equivocation, uncertainty, unsureness, doubt, indecision, inconclusiveness, irresolution, irresoluteness, hesitation, hesitancy, fluctuation, vacillation, shilly-shallying, tentativeness

The root of the word ambivalence comes from the Latin ambo (both) and valencia (strength). We talk of “valency” as the power in any action (like the strength of the bond between two elements). On Sunday, there was power behind the pull keeping me on the sofa, and that gremlin’s push upstairs to my drums. The result of an ambivalence is often a static tension. Someone observing me from the outside would not have seen the energetic demand of the push and pull; but I would be feeling the both.


In psychotherapeutic terms, this can be spoken about as a resistance force. Take the metaphor of the cyclist – pedalling furiously, but applyingthe brakes at the same time. There is a lot of internal movement, but the bike is not moving anywhere. In some sense, there is a resistance force keeping the bike static. Resistant ambivalence can be usefully considered with an integrative and multivoiced context. A person who is ambivalent possesses a voice that moves toward change and a voice that struggles against change. The voice of “drums”, the voice of “not the drums”. In gestalt psychotherapy, we often label the voices as “top dog” and “under dog” if there is some kind of conflictual state experienced inwardly. The voice that says “You should” and the voice that says “I can’t” or “I don’t want to”.

But what I think is REALLY interesting is that I could (and probably was) experiencing the pull of the drums upstairs and a push to rest. In other words, the voice that is the tog dog or under dog is not always clear. Which voice has our “best interest” at heart? Maybe going upstairs and playing the drums would have been the most nourishing thing I could offer myself?

By the way, the image on the right is from a t-shirt: one of the all time favourites in my Howies collection!

I mentioned I was reading The Week during this time. In the magazine I came across a summary of a piece originally published in the New York Times by the author Tim Wu. The summary explained Wu’s argument that the reason Americans report having less hobbies is not simply down to busier lives, but the “intensely public, performative age”. In other words “if you’re a jogger, its not enough to cruise around the block, you must be training for a marathon”. I pondered that – and yes, while I have no designs on being the next Phil Collins (Animal from the muppets is probably my actual drumming idol), there is part of my “Top Dog” that throws in the demand that I be better. Again I’m not sure which side of the push and pull this operates – the self-evaluation that I need to be good is experienced as “What’s the point, I might as well not play” mixed up with “I need to be good in order to enjoy it”. Performance and pleasure, extrinsic and intrinsic motivations – all thrown in the washing machine that is ambivalence – maybe “multi-valence” even?

Ambivalence often comes up in the therapy room, especially in clients that have a history of achievement and have molded a self-identity through it. It presents in clients that are thinking of career or job changes; it presents in clients that want to meditate but don’t want to meditate; it presents in clients that want to retain the relationship but want to be single. Layman’s wisdom is to write a list of pros and cons, and this can be helpful. In coaching, we might explore what the decision would feel like in one week’s time, one month’s time, and in 1 years time: in other words, how might the choice (to play drums or not) impact our happiness in the short term, medium term or long term?

As a coach, I do value such exercises that help people clarify the forces behind ambivalence and also a like-energy, procrastination. However, the frame used to see the client’s dilemma has an emphasis towards action. As a psychotherapist, I am equally interested in the resistance force: there is a need to honour the voice that is saying “no”. Recently, a client of mine was exploring new job options. Over a period of weeks Graham’s ideas seemed to gain clarity and then momentum – I felt he knew what he wanted, and was gaining the courage to leave his current post. However, one week he arrived with a complete turn-about, deciding to stay where he was after all. He told me he didn’t know what he wanted, and he felt it best to stay until he was clearer. I supported Graham in this choice, but remained a little curious as to what had happened. Over the following weeks, he oscillated. He was stuck, and kept declaring he didn’t know what he wanted. I observed that he did…but shared what was catching my attention was the force putting on the brakes. The oscillation has stopped because we focused on the braking force and Graham is now learning to stay with the experience of that tension. It seems to be helping him.

Gestalt psychotherapy offers a very effective frame for working with resistant forces such as ambivalence and procrastination. Its ability to tease apart parts of self and multiple voices that want and say different things is incredibly powerful. It also focuses on enhancing awareness, bringing the totality of the experience in to the client’s view: for example, Graham needs to feel the tension of the push and pull rather than thinking he wants only one of those and isn’t allowed by the other. In really contacting the tension, there is chance for change. Gestalt also helps clients like Graham, and would be drummers like myself, with its understanding of polarities. Decisions can feel like there is a “right” and a “wrong” choice; there rarely is. Each will simply have its consequences. We can shift that false dichotomy and move to the “both / and” position.

So, enough of the suspense…I did spend an hour on my drums in the end, and needless to say I did enjoy it. As I walked back downstairs, I wondered if I had made the “right” decision – but a little voice offered: you would have been happy have been happy on the sofa too. I smiled.

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