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Ambivalence as social skill for survival




The developmental literature informs us that ambivalence is a milestone most children who are on a more or less normative trajectory should be able to master around the age range of 10-12, or just before they enter junior high. The textbook definition of ambivalence, (at least as far as psychology is concerned) is that of being able to experience more than one emotion or thought process toward the same target situation or stimuli. And then move on.


Therefore, we expect a thirteen-year-old to be able to process and articulate expressions like "I like school because my teacher is really nice, but I don't like it because math class is really hard." Achieving this skill enables adults to go through life knowing that there are many, if not most, situations that will never be perfect. Its how we decide to take a job that we like, but is located in a place we never wanted to live. It is an important part of developing a rubric for solving problems, deciding whether or not we want to stay in a situation, or if a relationship we are in is working. Have the intolerable parts of a given scenario crossed a line that overwhelms whatever is good about it?


It follows, logically then, that another skill should be developed right along side acquired ambivalence, and that is one of being able to recognize that a sort of "spectrum of tolerance" exists in every day life. For if I must walk around in life making decisions that are more or less a balancing act between pros and cons, or evils and less evils, than I must also concede that if everything I don't like is intolerable, this will cause me to walk away from situations that are pretty darn good, but for that one thing.


Likewise, if I color my glasses with rose tint about certain factors involved, I might put myself through tremendous pain and suffering in order to keep that one thing in my life.


This line of reasoning applies to so much of what we see today from politics to food choices that it occurs to me we, as a culture have failed to encourage and develop these sophisticated skills in young adults. Compounding this problem is that I am positive everyone reading this is thinking of someone else who has this problem.


For it appears to be a default setting in human nature to always (or most of the time) respond to a proposition like I am making with defense mechanisms, instead of asking "am I like that?" How quickly do you "unfriend" someone on social media because they said something you don't like, or voted for a politician you can't stand? How many people have you stopped associating with because they said something wrong at Thanksgiving?


Rigid, black and white thinking about everything is a feature of the most difficult personality disorders. And as I go about my day interacting with most people, I find this to be rampant and nearly ubiquitous among them. Intolerance of even the slightest deviation from whatever presuppositions people hold dear is the norm, to the point of contributing to some pretty violent movements.


I am not arguing that you should let your values and the things you hold most dear be run over and trampled on in order to keep the peace with your neighbors. But we live in a such an atomized, disconnected civilization that most people can live those values out without hurting anyone. Its actually, probably, the thing that is keeping us from starting a civil war with each other. On a macro scale, there are probably some things that could be done to return to a more or less homogeneous society, but those things are considered barbaric and totally unacceptable to our modern sensibilities.


What I am arguing is that, as an individual you are generally free to configure your life however you want it, living whatever values you want, and associating with whomever you want without too much effort. Maybe there is a way this society can be organized some day that will provide less opportunity for friction. But much of the friction is self-induced because of our lack of ability to sit comfortably in morally challenging or ambiguous situations and take our clues from the ten-year-olds around us.


Ambivalence serves us well at both the micro and macro levels. In your interpersonal relationships, how many perfect people do you know? You don't know any, so what you do is weigh out their positive and negative traits, and love them -- all of them -- in spite of the things that just drive you crazy. And here's something to ponder about that -- you owe this to them, because they do the same thing to you.


On the macro level, we apply the principle in such a way that allows entire communities to accept each other where they are, and decide whether being right all the time is worth alienating yourself into a group of one.


No matter which sphere you are operating in at any given moment, take a moment to appreciate the whole situation, the whole person, and ask yourself how you can proceed in this imperfect world.




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