I have a very clear and vivid autumnal memory from when I went to Germany to help look after my three year old nephew. To give my uncle a break we went daily to the municipal gardens down the road from their house and he loved to jump in the huge piles of leaves that a gardener had carefully swept up. I loved seeing his joy and delight in playing in this huge pile of leaves but I was also worried about the person who had worked so hard to clear the leaves up. I think this is a good example of experiencing ambivalence. Ambivalence is defined in the dictionary as ‘the state of having mixed feelings or contradictory ideas about something.' I might also describe it as an experience of ‘inner conflict’ or tension. And it is an experience that can make decisions challenging.
‘To be human means living with the tensions that emerge from the very core of our being and existence as humans. These tensions cannot be eliminated.’ D.G. Benner
So what do we do with them? As a counsellor much of my work involves helping people with this dilemma and I do this by allowing space for them to ‘explore the conflict’. What I mean by this is that I give them the time and space to unpack it all. To go through the process of looking at all the different aspects of the issue and the different feelings, beliefs, needs and ideas about life, self and other that this might bring up. As with any decision to have a ‘sort out’ – it can get messy and feel like it is getting worse before it gets better but as the children’s book ‘We’re going on a bear hunt’ says – ‘you can’t get over it, you can’t go round it, you have to go through it.’ The process of exploration often highlights the fact that we all have different aspects of ourselves and these can be in tension. My inner child might for example have very different ideas to my inner parent. My playful self may need different things to my ambitious self. Going back to my autumnal memory I can see that the relaxed and carefree me delighted in a child being allowed freedom to play and have fun in nature. However the responsible parent in me thought children do also need to be taught to respect other’s hard work.
Recognising and exploring different aspects of ourselves and our existence and holding these in mind as we navigate our way through life with all the decisions that need to be made each day doesn’t necessarily provide easy answers. However it does often open up possibilities for compromise and collaboration and a discerning of the way forward. It can bring clarity to what was previously experienced as a nebulous feeling of ‘tension’ that was making us anxious or stressed. So if you are feeling tense or conflicted why not try exploring listening to different parts of yourself. You can get creative and use different coloured pens to represent different aspects of yourself or the dilemma. Or if you want to make it more fun you could try imagining each different aspect as an image, object or animal and see what they have to say.
‘ Being human demands holding the many tensions of our existence that cannot be fully reconciled’ D.G.Benner