Time Slipping Away? Escape The Ambivalence Trap

Leave behind the struggle of wanting to be somewhere other than where you are at this moment.


A few months ago, I had the vague awareness that ambivalence had crept into my life. When I stopped to look more deeply, it hadn't just crept in. It took over, and my cofidence was shot. The mental tug-of-war was a constant state.

When I worked, I wanted to be with my kids. When I was with my kids, I was crabby from frustrated work desires. When I got out for leisure, I wanted to go back home. During times of intimacy, my mind wandered to my to-do list.


This simultaneous preoccupation with what is wanted and not wanted is ambivalence. Somehow, I had forgotten how to enjoy myself in the moment, and I was miserable. Author and journalist Brigid Schulte describes her own frequent state of ambivalence turned to guilt from leaving her kids which would foster a slow start at for her work. The slow start would lead to a longer work day, which created more guilt.

What gets people mired in this miserable state? Life does.

Life can be hard and demanding. The risks can be great. Ambivalence begins when our highest priorities come into conflict. Choosing which one to do first can pull at the heart and mind. Then layer on the cultural pressures to be ideal employees, devoted partners, and committed parents. It can create a mental battleground that wears us out.


How do we break the cycle? We can accept that ambiguity is a part of life. Within that ambiguity, we can be very clear about priorities and make a passionate commitment to them, suggest psychotherapists David Hartman and Diane Zimberoff.

For me, that commitment was choosing to be where I am—and not off in another place. I don't get another chance to live this moment, so I am going to live it. That is my commitment. When I work, I work. When I am with my kids, I try to be with them. And when I notice ambivalence creeping in, I notice it and then I gently redirect.

In the course of writing this blog, I wanted to get up and do other things no less than five times. I even wrote, "I don't want to do this!!" on the scratch pad next to me and I underlined it five times. Then I took a deep breath. Then another. Then I put my fingers back on the keyboard to write.

I also am on the lookout for my ambiguity crutches. Do I check my email every three minutes? Did I fall into mentally spinning on my to-do list instead of listening to the last person who spoke to me? Did I start to eat so I would feel better? All of these are supports that keep ambivalence in place. Be aware of these crutches, and stop reaching for them. Consider the new crutches you can put in place to keep you committed to your priorities. 


Other ambiguity busters

  • Stop running from difficult emotions. I frequently spin out as an attempt to avoid guilt, frustration, and the simple fact that life can be challenging. Stop running. Your emotions are not monsters that will gobble you up. They are a part of you and they are trying to tell you something good for you. If this seems like an impossible task, consider mindfulness training.
  • Be kind. If you feel disappointment that life is harder than you ever imagined, be easy on yourself. Wrap your arms around the disappointment as if it were a small child who needed comfort. Or comfort yourself the same way you would comfort a dear friend who was having a rough day.  
  • Celebrate. Celebrate the moments you catch yourself being present. I know it will take many weeks to reduce my ambivalence because it is a deeply ingrained habit. Even as I write this paragraph, I wish to bounce out of my chair to do ... I don't know what. But instead, I pause to acknowledge that I am almost done. I celebrate my commitment to my prioirity to do meaningful work. I celebrate that in this moment, I can do my meaningful work, and later on today I can be a great mom.

Anne's book shelf: Overwhelmed: Work, Love and Play When No One Has the Time, by Brigid Schulte, published by Sarah Crichton Books.