Getting Your Ambivalent Butt Off the Fence

Ah, ambivalence.  

That uncomfortable feeling of sitting on a hard fence with one butt cheek parked in "yes" and the other just as firmly planted in "no."

Polly, a lovely writer/teacher/leader and coaching client of mine, recently shared in an email that she was feeling ambivalent about an idea we had discussed about a way to dip her toes into some wider exposure for her creative work.  The action involved was a small thing - infinitesimal really in the grand scheme of things - but when it comes to ambivalence, the scale of the decision doesn't really matter so much....the smallest of unresolved choice points can slow or stop forward progress just as effectively as the big ones.  

As soon as she used the word "ambivalent," I seized the opportunity to try out one of my favorite little pet theories on her.  This theory, I should mention, is based on decades of personal experience with fence-walking on issues large/long (should I stay in graduate school?  8 years) and small/brief (should I use a different font for the header 3 level of my blog?:  1 day...ok maybe a week).  And what I've learned and observed is that the longer you sit on the fence, the more you begin to feel like a lame-ass fence-sitter, and the less you'll trust yourself as a choice-making agent of your own destiny.  And that's no good for creative progress or self-esteem or anything, really.

So, the first part of my theory is this:  

Ambivalence always falls into one of two possible thought patterns. Either you are thinking "This is something I should do, but I don't want to" (type 1) OR you are thinking "I want to do this thing, but I am scared" (type 2).

Step 1 in getting your butt off the fence, then, is to identify which type of ambivalent you are.

Here a couple more examples that might help you get clearer about which pattern you are in:

Type 1 sounds like:  

"I know I should marry Gerhardt, after all his parents the Duke and Duchess of Snork have already checked into the hotel and paid for the herd of white horses to draw our wedding carriage to the gazebo, but I just kinda have the feeling it might be a mistake."  

"I definitely should stay in this job for at least 3 more years, it is the only prudent thing to do, but there's a chance that my hair loss, bleeding gums, and general malaise are somehow connected to how much I abhor spreadsheets, so I'm just not sure."

Type 2 sounds like:  

"I'd love with all my heart to say yes to Margie's invitation to sing at her wedding, but I'm just a titch afraid I might vomit and/or faint in front of everyone."

"It might be really fun to put some of my personal writing on the web, but what if potential employers read it - that might be really bad/embarrassing, right?"

Step 2 is simple:  

if your thinking sounds like Type 1 - DON'T DO IT.  The answer is no. The "I don't want to" always trumps the "should."  Seriously.  The "I don't want to" will not go away, it will not fade over time, it will not be reasoned with or cajoled.  On the contrary, if ignored, It will fester and sabotage and throw childish fits and make your life very very uncomfortable.  You must honor the "I Don't Want To."  Sooner is better than later, because it will eventually win.  This is a voice of your most authentic self - and it is actually giving you a very clear signal.  

On the other hand, if your inner voice is speaking like Type 2, it is time to explore your fear a bit further, find out if there's a way to lower the terror level, then DO IT.  The answer is yes.  Maybe you aren't quite ready yet, but it's time to figure out what it would take to get just ready enough to jump, and then DO IT.

Whatever happened to Polly?

Well I'm glad you asked!  Polly identified herself as having type 2 ambivalence - she had a strong impulse to take the little leap she had committed to, but some specific fears surfaced that she had to clear up before she could find the strong, clear "yes."  So, we talked through some "what ifs," thought together about alternatives that might get her to the same goals, and ultimately she decided to give it a go and see what happened....  

It's too soon to know what the results of her action might be, but I'm willing to bet a whole batch of my daughter's amazing chocolate chip cookies made from the recipe of some British You-Tuber and involving Cadbury chocolate bars and gigantic white chocolate chunks, that the fact of having made an intentional, thoughtful choice and then having taken action on that choice will have a positive impact far greater than any possible repercussions of the decision itself.  Capiche?