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  • Tim Rice

No need to be in two minds about ambivalence

Updated: Sep 12, 2019

A really interesting programme on Radio 4 recently about ambivalence. Maybe it doesn't sound all that riveting but it has all sorts of things to say about life today – and also about therapy.


I love James Joyce. Years ago I spent a bit of time studying that notoriously difficult – but often hilarious – novel Ulysses. What caught my interest initially in this programme was that it began with the meeting between Leopold Bloom, the wandering "hero" of the book, and the loud-mouthed character in the pub, the Citizen. This bigot represents the one-eyed Cyclops who sees only one side of the argument, whereas kindly Mr Bloom is always tentative, pondering both sides of questions and reluctant to come up with a firm view.


In today's social media-driven world it seems as if people are forever seeking out opinions that they can strongly agree with or angrily challenge. In our polarised world, with the centre, moderate, maybe uncommitted ground not getting much of a voice, is it so bad not to have a firm view but to have an understanding of both sides? Say on something as big as how much government should spend on mental health, or something as close to home whether our partner actually supports us.


On that latter issue, therapists are trained to see both sides of questions, or to look at them (systemically) from many different angles, because we shouldn't be confident that we understand exactly what our client has told us. How can we know precisely what is in another's mind? Is the language they've used just right for describing the emotion they feel or the problem they are explaining? We are taught to ask questions, to recognise that certainty is a dangerous thing, that being aware of "not knowing" is actually a good thing, not a bad one. It's possible to love and hate the same thing.


Sometimes you hear someone say "he's the lazy one" or "she's always angry". It may be a convenient shorthand but they feel like fixed opinions that only tell half the truth and don't see the other side of the picture. People and relationships are complicated; we can have contradictory views.


Being ambivalent is an OK place to be and need not signal weakness. I think seeing both sides of a question – or the different, perhaps conflicting, facets of someone's personality – is a strength.



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