“A season is set for everything, a time for every experience under heaven.”
Ecclesiastes Chapter 3, verse 1
For making it past that title, you deserve kudos and a pithy, meaningful posting. Emotional well-being and feeling content greatly hinge on our ability to completely understand what is going on in the space between our ears. Hopefully, these are acquired skills that continue to grow throughout our lives. In adulthood, these skills require identifying and appreciating the profound impact of these three concepts: uncertainty, ambiguity, and ambivalence. This brief piece will serve as an amuse-bouche of these three existential powerhouses.
Uncertainty: Perhaps it is ironic that there is no clear way to define or distinguish between uncertainty and ambiguity. Why, then, should we bother exploring these vagaries? Knowing and appreciating the differences between uncertainty and ambiguity will create a richer, more meaningful life experience. This kind of wisdom might be akin to a simpler time in life by not only owning the coveted 120-count box of crayons (with built-in sharpener) but actually knowing when to use either the red-violet, blush, or violet-red color to create the most exquisite portrait of your life. Also, by having such awareness and skills, you will likely have a greater sense of well-being and, by extension, a greater capacity to be part of more solutions than problems.
Uncertainty operates when there is a lack of information or knowledge about a situation, event, or outcome. It occurs when there is insufficient information or when there is one of several possible unpredictable outcomes. Incomplete information resulting in uncertainty often evokes anxiety, apprehension, and other troubling states, which most of us cannot explain clearly or tolerate.
To quickly avoid feeling uncomfortable from uncertainty, people commonly make snap, but often inaccurate, assumptions to fill in the unknowns and then spring into action. This understandable but naïve “I got this” reflex often creates less-than-stellar results.
Though counterintuitive, it would be more helpful than reflexively jumping to action to simply notice the discomfort of uncertainty and tolerate, for as long as possible, staying with the feelings of apprehension, nonjudgmentally and reflectively, openly admitting to yourself simply the discomfort of the uncertainty.
Although seemingly insignificant, such a small, mindful adjustment will change how you feel and alter your perspective for improved accuracy of the actual situation. By expanding these emotional tolerances, you will be less impulsive. Having a more mindful, fuller perspective will make your choices more deliberate, resulting in feeling better about yourself and your enhanced sense of agency under uncertainty. Those results might align more with a real, genuine “I got this!”
Ambiguity: Ambiguity occurs when there is unclear, vague information that can be understood in different ways. It’s not that there is insufficient information; it’s a lack of clarity from what is already known. As we struggle to make sense of the informational morass, we often employ error-laden thinking shortcuts, i.e., heuristics and forms of cognitive dissonance. Unlike uncertainty, which can be reduced with more facts, more information does not help ambiguity because it is inherently unclear or contradictory. Those of us of a certain age enjoy the famous ambiguous communication, “But I know what I am, and I’m glad I’m a man, and so is Lola,” which has apparently held up well.
To review, uncertainty is when there is a lack of information or predictability, while ambiguity means there is unclear or conflicting information. Both can create psychological discomfort. However, being able to slow down long enough, commonly referred to as being “mindful,” and simply “pay attention” to identify the nature of the problem offers the key step to getting some sense of agency and internal control of a situation.
By making enough head space to identify the external culprit, the amount of internal distress will likely be significantly decreased, thereby making you calmer and more effective in the long run.
Ambivalence: This brings us to my favorite task of adult emotional development: the appreciation of ambivalence. Ambivalence refers to the psychological state of simultaneously experiencing opposite feelings, such as love and hate, towards a specific person, thing, concept, or situation. It is a clear recognition of having mixed emotions.
However, because ambivalence is not often easily perceptible, the secret here is, again, slowing down long enough to honestly acknowledge feeling ambivalent. When you do, you might feel concerned about how much ambivalence pervades your psyche. Let me assure you this is typical. However, when ambivalence goes unrecognized, you may find yourself, as the Rolling Stones wailed, “to-ing and fro-ing hurting (your) guts.”
I recall a time when all sinks had two faucets: one for hot water and one for cold water. The hot and the cold ran independently at the same time. These were great because you could get the temperature just right without too much guesswork. Being in a state of ambivalence lets you see that you’re running hot and cold simultaneously. It is said that humans are the only mammals with such expressive capacities to acknowledge ambivalence, but having been a long-time cat owner, I wonder.
Regardless, being consciously aware of only one running faucet without recognizing that the other is simultaneously also on, will create a great deal of disquiet and unrest. Often, just the recognition of being able to consciously identify and experience the exact opposite feeling at the same time can be a big relief and bring clarity to difficult circumstances.
Sometimes, we will be put into an unclear external ambiguous situation, creating unacknowledged ambivalence. This is an extraordinarily challenging situation that can cause great turmoil. Remember that ambiguity results from external factors and ambivalence concerns internal emotional states. By being able to discern that the external situation is, in fact, ambiguous and by acknowledging one’s internal ambivalence, a great deal of relief can be had. Plus, as a bonus, by identifying the elaborate complexities and elegant nuances of your experience you just might feel like a smarty pants!
Some pointers on managing ambivalence:
- Write out your mixed feelings and the circumstance(s)
- Reassure yourself that no situation is ideal and that all people and/or situations have positive and negative qualities at exist at the same time
- Identify and accept your ambivalence; this is human. Do not jump to action; the more reflection, typically, the better.
If you find yourself paralyzed and engaging in counterproductive behavior or feeling unrelenting despair, consider consulting a mental health professional to assist you in continuing to weave your life’s complex tapestry!
Dr. Jeffrey Singer maintains an active forensic and clinical practice. He is licensed for independent Psychology practice in New Jersey and New York.