What to Do About Ambivalence

If I were asked to pinpoint one dynamic that keeps people from achieving career happiness, it is ambivalence. Because so many people ask me how to resolve this, here are some thoughts about what to do about ambivalence:

First, recognize and name your ambivalence for what it is. Ambivalence is a psychological condition where you feel simultaneous conflicting feelings. For most people, ambivalence is unpleasant, and we prefer clarity and focus over the muddiness of ambivalence. Also, research shows ambivalence is associated with lower career satisfaction.


T. Harv Eker wrote:

“If you have internal barriers, your road to success will be slow and full of pain and struggle. It’s like driving with one foot on the gas and one foot on the brake. Your mind is working against you instead of for you.”

There is a lot of truth in this statement. Psychological ambivalence causes people to freeze, to stop taking action out of fear of making a mistake or causing themselves emotional pain.

On the other hand, the capacity to feel ambivalence and keep moving forward toward goals is also a sign of emotional maturity, because “all or nothing” thinking is a bit like the way toddlers see the world, either perfect or utterly terrible. (We all have a bit of our inner toddler still inside us, and stress can make our inner toddler throw a very long tantrum!)

Here are some common types of ambivalence:

“I want to be an entrepreneur but I don’t want to take any risks.”

“I want to be CEO but I don’t want to deal with corporate politics.”

“I want to be an artist but I don’t want to think about marketing.”

“I want to be in a helping profession but I don’t want to deal with annoying people.”

To resolve ambivalence, rewrite these statements to:

“I want to be an entrepreneur so I am willing to take reasonable risks.”

“I will navigate corporate politics with integrity because this is an essential part of the job description of CEO.”

“My art is worth the effort to learn authentic ways to market.”

“I will get mentoring on how to deal with annoying people so that I can thrive in a helping profession.”

Because we have thousands of thoughts per day, it takes many iterations to change your overall thought patterns and feelings, so you will likely have to tell yourself the new version many times before it starts becoming automatic.

It is fine to feel sad or frustrated about the reality of your current career situation. For instance, you are free to wish that there were a way to have what you want without taking any risks or doing anything you don’t like doing, but since that is not how the world works, give yourself permission to have some feelings about it and then keep moving forward, anyway.

After acknowledging your perfectly valid feelings, start taking action that fits the new narrative. Action of any type is helpful because action creates experiences and data to contribute to making the best decisions.

The formula is: Take action, pay attention to the outcomes and feelings from those actions, re-evaluate, take more action. Repeat.

As long as you are making incremental progress toward your goals, you can achieve BIG changes by degrees. Rarely will a significant change occur from one fell swoop.

Also, learn from people ahead of you in their career journey because it is likely they have felt ambivalence at some point and it can be very helpful to hear how others resolved similar feelings as you have. Comedian Amy Poehler famously credits ambivalence with her career success, but often it is more helpful to talk to less famous people about their success than to take the advice of one superstar standout.

Engage in one-to-one conversations with people you admire, read about others’ career paths, and attend conferences or other meetings where people share their experiences. Choose as role models people who are sufficiently self-aware to describe the feelings they have had throughout their career and who found creative solutions to challenges that arose.

Sometimes ambivalence means you have feelings to resolve but you are still on the right path, and sometimes ambivalence is a sign that you would be happier changing paths completely.

If you like to write, journal about your ambivalence. (This strategy has been the most effective for me, personally).

Instead of paralysis, choose to take action. Instead of getting stuck in feelings or denying they exist, acknowledge them and move through them. Instead of isolation, choose community.

If you have spent years wrestling with ambivalence, consider hiring a counselor or coach with experience helping people work through conflicting feelings.

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