Ambivalence and the ambivalent responce in interpersonal relationships
by Ann E. Hale, M.A., TEP
In 1988 I wrote a four-page article “Concretizing Ambivalence” 1 and
these statements were part of the introduction: “Ambivalence occurs
whenever there are opposing views. The ambivalence becomes lessened or
resolved when one position is more clearly preferable. It is when the
opposites are felt with an equal or similar intensity that efforts to
come to a decision are most difficult and may require assistance.
The psychodramatist’s task becomes one of helping to identify that
factor which will add the greater weight to one position over the
other__ to reveal the “deciding factor”; or, to assist the protagonist
in what Kurt Lewin referred to as “a relative calm type of behavior
while the conflict remains unresolved.” 2
Eighteen years later I would add that there is no external push to
resolve ambivalence unless a person is needing to make a clear decision
to engage, choose, or make up one’s mind.
In our relationships with others at the moment of choosing we are
paying attention to factors which ultimately direct our actions, or non
action. We are also giving facial and body cues which are communicated
to others non verbally. Ambivalence is communicated as “blocked
energy”, a halting of decision to act until a specific condition
prompts the release of that energy and freedom to act. It has
been instructive for me to read Gong Shu (2003) as she describes the
creative process.3 “Blocks to creativity undercut the ‘now’
and deflect the individual’s contact or involvement with the full,
immediate present environment. Creativity becomes blocked when
one’s mind is preoccupied, and when one’s attention is directed to the
past, to the future, to memories, to anticipations, or to ideas__to the
constructions of reflective awareness. Ideally reflective
awareness flows spontaneously. It records ongoing presence but does not
interfere with it. When it does interfere, the mind abides somewhere,
and one’s attention is not fully engaged in each fleeting, flowing
At the moment of choice the ambivalent person stops being in the here
and now and brings to the moment “what ifs”, “I should” and “I should
not” and other reflections which delay the emergence of the congruent
and true intention that is knowable by the person. It can be helpful
for a person to get more here and now by stating : “In this moment
something is preventing me from being able to be clearly yes or clearly
no in response to this choice.”
To explore the quandary in action the Diamond of Opposites
(Carlson-Sabelli, Sabelli,1989) 4 makes it possible to go to a
still point which is the zero and look toward yes and look toward no.
As I am unable to get the scanned diamond
to appear in this answer I will give instructions
for making one on your printed document.
Draw a square and place it on one of its tips.
At the bottommost tip place a zero. To the left
place a + plus sign and on the right place a
- minus sign. At the top place a + and -.
sign. Draw a dotted line from the top straight to
the zero point. Write the word "ambivalence" to
one side of the line.
The diamond can be taped onto the floor using masking tape and the
person can walk along the line toward one of the vectors and speak
aloud what is going on that feels positive, and then walk along the
other vector and speak aloud what feels negative. It helps to
identify how strong the pull is and to stand in that place and make
statements and get in touch with the fuller dimension of what is
occurring in the here and now. The person facilitating can
suggest that the person move to other positions along the line and
speak about the conditions which would have to occur to change the
position to even more positive, or less positive, even more negative
and less negative. If the person is responding to “shoulds” and
“should nots” the language of the action can change from feeling an
internal pull to feeling pushed, and name the source of the external
force being applied. The action can stay within the
diamond, or it can move into another enactment or improvisation.
There is also a time to collapse the exploration of opposites and stand
in the point within the diamond where both points intersect in what is
termed “phase space” within the field of the question. If both
pulls are equal the person will find themselves on the line of
ambivalence which stretches from zero to the most intense conflictual.,
a point where bifurcation or splitting can occur. The intensity
of the two pulls may no longer be able to be held within the container
which is the body and dissociation can occur or other dramatic leave
taking. It is important for the facilitators to know the various
places within the phase space and to assist an exploration and
de-escalation via return to one or the other polar opposites and
speaking about what needs to happen in life here and now to decrease
the intensity to a more neutral range, or a range where the person can
move with the negative dominance or the positive dominance. If
experiencing the bifurcation point is the only true position the person
can take then the facilitator must first create a safe place for the
person to arrive upon leaving the field of the exploration.
Another way to explore ambivalence in action is to have the
ambivalence mirrored back to you via an improvisation called “pairs”. 5
This is a structure within the ritual of Playback Theater where two
actors stand one in front of the other. They listen as a brief story or
moment is described where a person is feeling two opposing feelings at
the same time. The actors stay within the same field, as if “two buds
on the same twig” and begin to interact at the same time shifting the
dominance and embracing both into a whole. The person
has recounted many times in performances around the globe that this is
what it is like. There is frequently a shift, a relaxing into the
moment when the ambivalence is mirrored back and there is understanding
from others of how this can be true. The bravery of the
improvisation actors can also call forth bravery in the person to
1 Hale, Ann, (1988) “Concretizing Ambivalence” unpublished . Roanoke, VA, Blue
Ridge Human Relations Training Institute, p.1.
2 Lewin, Kurt, (1935) A Dynamic Theory of Personality, NY, McGraw-Hill, p. 116.
3 Gong Shu,(2003) Yi Shu: the art of living with change, integrating traditional Chinese medicine, Psychodrama, and the creative arts. Taiwan, F.E. Robbins and Sons Press, p. 75-76.
4 Sabelli, Hector (1989) Union of Opposites: A comprehensive theory of natural and human processes.
Lawrenceville: Brunswick. This is also described in "Sociometry
and sociodynamics" by Linnea Carlso-Sabelli, Hector Sabelli and Ann E.
Hale In Psychodrama since Moreno Edited by Paul Holmes, Marcia Karp and Michael Watson. London, Routledge, 1994, p. 150-151.
5 Salas, Jo (1993) Improvising real life: personal story in playback theater. Dubuque, Iowa, Kendall/Hunt Publishing Company.