The Pain Of Emotional Ambivalence

The Pain Of Emotional Ambivalence

For some, emotional ambivalence is so painful, that they don’t like it even in art and opt for fiction that does not require holding contradictory attitudes toward the same fictional character. Sometimes, movie directors purportedly set out to create emotionally complex fiction but do not go all the way.

For instance, the movie American Gangster tells the story of a criminal (Denzel Washington) portrayed so sympathetically that the audience is rooting for him instead of having mixed feelings. Perhaps, this is because director Ridley Scott experienced inner resistance at the idea of true ambivalence or perhaps, he did not trust the audience’s ability to entertain emotional complexities.

Still, for a person with a certain taste, emotional ambivalence in the art can give exquisite aesthetic pleasure, though pleasure mixed with some pain. Hardly anyone enjoys emotional ambivalence in real life, however.

Emotional ambivalence may be difficult to recognize in ourselves. It is an attitude that does not entirely make sense: do we love this person or not? We are not sure. We may reach different conclusions on different occasions.

When other people are ambivalent toward us, we may fail to acknowledge that too. Perhaps, we think that only those who have pure, unadulterated love for us have any love at all. When we detect any hostility, hatred, or envy on the part of the other, we may conclude that expressions of love and friendship are inauthentic and untrue. Or we try to explain away the negativity and persuade ourselves that we are imagining it.

Yet, we know from our own case that there are ambivalent attitudes that involve both love for and hatred of another. If we can have such attitudes toward others, it follows that they can have them toward us (unless we suppose that our own psychology is radically different from that of other people).

Related: Signs of True Love & True Relationships

What should we do about emotional ambivalence and the associated pain?

We may, sometimes, be able to free ourselves of it as when a person ambivalent toward a stepparent as a child comes later in life to see the situation from the parents’ point of view. Now an adult herself, perhaps with her own family, she is aware of the difficulties of being a parent, let alone a stepparent, and comes to sympathize with the people who brought her up. The ambivalence gives way to sympathy, appreciation, and love.

Unfortunately, this is not always possible. But something else, I believe, is: we can learn to accept our own ambivalence, without trying to deny either the positive or the negative feelings. I suspect that one of the main reasons emotional ambivalence can be so painful is that we try and fail to get rid of it.

We attempt to persuade ourselves that we have either only positive or only negative feelings toward someone, but that is simply untrue, and we are proven wrong every time. Things may be easier if, like Walt Whitman, we embraced the idea that we contain multitudes; and that others do, too.

For more essays by Iskra Fileva, check out her column at Psychology Today: 

Written By Iskra Fileva
Originally Appeared On Psychology Today
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