Why Uncertainty and Indecisiveness Leaves Us in Limbo

anxiety critical thinking depression positive action Jan 03, 2022

We've all experienced that moment where we find ourselves at a crossroads when it comes to making a choice. Which direction do we go? What pros and cons can we identify? We stand in front of the whiteboard, weighing our options. But, unfortunately, our normal decision-making process doesn't seem to accommodate our situation.

So, why do we remain stuck? Why do we experience so much uncertainty?

We know that it's in our best interest to do something different, but we cannot figure out what it is for the life of us. Things feel discombobulated, and it begins to gnaw at us. This confusion ripples out and affects how we interact with the world around us, including our relationships.

This confused state's internal struggle is the experience of ambivalence, and it is a natural and universal human condition.

The Universal Experience of Ambivalence

Ambivalence is a state of simultaneous, conflicting values, needs, beliefs, or feelings towards a particular scenario, person, or object. It is a natural human trait to experience ambivalence. Whether buying a new car or trying to determine what to wear to a job interview, a certain amount of ambivalence in our everyday lives is healthy.

We experience these moments simply because we are creatures of deliberation, critique, and exploration. Ambivalence is the experience that leads to our need to evaluate the benefits and consequences of a given predicament critically.

We relate to ambivalence in a broad spectrum of experiences, and our ability to discern these experiences varies significantly. Identifying a source of internal conflict is relatively easy for some individuals, and they can articulate the struggles without too much difficulty.

Others may sense that something feels misaligned, yet it can be troublesome and right down confusing connecting with an underlying cause.

Some experiences of ambivalence can be inherently unconscious. We feel like something's misaligned, and we can't work out how to move forward. The effects of ambivalence can vary widely across individuals and situations.

Ambivalence is not indifference

What is important to distinguish is ambivalence is not the same as indifference. Indifference is the lack of sympathy, interest, or concern. Unfortunately, when it comes to forming a decision or making a choice, indifference is frequently mistaken as ambivalence.

Just because someone is struggling to go to the gym doesn't mean that exercise isn't essential to them, and they don't care about their health. Likewise, an individual may struggle to reach a meaningful conclusion, yet this suspension does not indicate indifference or a lack of desire to do something different.

The impact of chronic ambivalence

The challenge with ambivalence is when it becomes chronic. Like being bogged down in cement, chronic ambivalence interferes with our ability to move forward, make decisions and implement change, resulting in feelings of fear, confusion, frustration, and anger.

It is often experienced as a familiar, repeated pattern and cycle of internal (and external) conflict, never realizing a true sense of resolution, or reaching a natural conclusion.

Chronic ambivalence is often a genuine psychological obstacle.

Ambivalence leads to inconsistency in our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors, disrupting the ability to be congruent. Ambivalence, if left unattended, can lead to the experience of incongruence. 

Incongruence is the psychological state of 'cognitive dissonance. Cognitive dissonance is thinking or saying one thing and then behaving entirely inconsistently. Symptoms of prolonged incongruence include physical stress, hypertension, and avoidant behaviors like procrastination.

How ambivalence shows up in our relationships

In the context of relationships, ambivalence may present itself when opposing values, needs, beliefs, or feelings are not openly or honestly shared or negotiated. While the foundation of most relationships consists of contrasting personal differences, discomfort and distress occur when ambivalence and dissonance are avoided or swept under the rug.

Couples often describe a lack of communication or conflict as referencing an underlying cause of ambivalence. Furthermore, discomfort or conflict is exacerbated when there is an impasse or when one partner presents an ultimatum to the other as a response.


Knocking Ambivalence Out of the Park

Overcoming ambivalence within ourselves or our relationships is possible. The challenge, however, that we often face when exploring our sense of ambivalence is the thought that we may have to, at some stage, make a deliberate conscious choice.

Yes, it's all about weighing the options and making a choice. Making a choice can represent a true dilemma for some individuals, as making a choice implies that we then limit ourselves to the option we have selected, thereby renouncing all other possibilities.

Often, the fear of consequence, the unknown or the path least taken, causes chronic ambivalence. We often reprimand ourselves by attempting to construe an ideal choice. Despite our intellectual debates, logical arguments, and practical motives behind our decisions, the fear of making an incorrect decision and harboring regret stops us from making any positive forward movement.

Yet, by not deciding, we remain stationary, never appreciating the potential of change or realizing the possibility of an opportunity.

Focusing on resolving ambivalence requires deliberate and conscious self-exploration. Acknowledging conflicting values, needs, beliefs, or feelings is an ideal starting point. Next is appreciating and accepting that no decision will ever be flawless and that every choice has its challenges and benefits. Finally, identifying what fear we associate with the consequences of both the conflicting arguments and the choice of diving into the option we're considering, walking away, or maintaining the status quo.

Yes, not doing anything is an active choice.


Practical Tactics for Overcoming Ambivalence

Here are some tactics on how to overcome ambivalence. 

Tactic 1 – Create Space to Reflect.

Set some time aside for yourself to explore your dilemma. Journal your ambivalent feelings, thoughts, or fears and the various scenarios in which they occur.

Tactic 2 – No Decision is Perfect.

Remember that no situation is perfect and that all potential scenarios have strengths and weaknesses. Acknowledge and honor your ambivalent feelings. Be compassionate towards yourself.

Tactic 3 – Use Time to Your Advantage.

Take your time to decide. Seek guidance if needed. Remind yourself that no situation is 100% perfect and that all potential scenarios have their strengths and weaknesses.

Tactic 4 – Are You Actually Ready?

Determine your readiness for change. Identify and connect with your traits that support positive, well-defined change.

Tactic 5 – Be Real.

Make a congruent choice with yourself and stand behind your decision. What values are you aligning against your intentions? Are you being honest with yourself?

Tactic 6 – Check in and Monitor.

Assess your progress. Make changes if your choices no longer serve you or if ambivalence ensues.

It is often a matter of determining which values, needs, beliefs, or feelings we prioritize above its counterpart, allowing us to decide. In decision making, regardless of what compass we adopt (think matters of the heart versus the mind), the effects of our ambivalence are diminished when we choose congruently. 

Offer yourself self-compassion by recognizing that your ambivalence serves a valuable and essential purpose. It is a sign that something is most likely out whack. Most importantly, take your time in deciding. Seek counsel if you feel necessary, especially if you experience confusion, ongoing procrastination, or even risky behavior.

If you’ve been wrestling with a decision, or a choice, or you recognize that you’re experiencing a dilemma that you can’t resolve, then maybe it’s time to seek therapeutic help. Contact me to schedule a free 30-minute phone consultation. 



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Simon G. Niblock, MA, LMFT, is a licensed psychotherapist, specializing in men’s mental health and wellness. He provides tailored psychotherapy services and online programs for men and is the author of the Anxiety Workbook for Men, Evidence-based Exercises to Manage Anxiety, Depression, and Worry.


Important Notice: The content in this article is for informational purposes only. It does not replace direct professional mental health, medical treatment, or professional care in any way. Seek the support of a physician or other qualified healthcare provider to diagnose and treat any mental health concern directly. Contact 911 or your local emergency services number if you are experiencing a mental health emergency.



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