Any two different organisms have different needs. At times they may function in harmony to get both of their needs met; at times they can't or won't.

The human body is made up of billions of cells. It is possible to think of each cell as an individual organism, and the body as a group of billions of individual, though connected, organisms.

Continuing, the cells of a human body, though they may usually function more or less together, in harmony, this isn't always true. There are times when the needs of one cell (or group of cells or organ or organ systems) conflict with the needs of other cells (or groups of cells or organs or organ systems).

In these cases the body is at odds with itself. One part of the body is in conflict with another part. Probably this is true at all times to some degree or other.

From the inner or psychological side, the experiential side, a person can also be understood as consisting of different parts. The passions a man experiences within himself can push him towards doing something he thinks is stupid and that he feels is wrong. This conflict in the man's psyche probably parallels the physical conflicts in his body (in his sexual organs, his heart, and in his brain), but this is a conjecture.

There can be conflicts between psychological systems (in our example, between the system of sexual needs, the system of rational planning, and the system of evaluating what is and isn't appropriate and right). And there can be conflicts within a single system. A simple example of a conflict within a system would be a person ordering at an Italian restaurant who has a desire for spaghetti and a desire for a pizza and who can't decide. A deeper and more serious problem can arise when a person has strong feelings of warmth, say for a father, and, at the exact same time, strong angry feelings.

I use the word ambivalence for all sorts of psychological conflicts that involve conflicting factors (or opposites). This word (according to the article in Wikipedia), was introduced into psychology in 1911 by the Swiss psychiatrist, Paul Eugen Bleuler (1857-1939). Sigmund Freud reserved the word for conflicts involving love and hate. Carl Jung used the word to apply to images as well as to instincts, and his concept of ambivalence dovetails cleanly with his ideas of complexes and of compensation.

The psychologist Kurt Lewin (1890-1947) spoke of approach-avoidance situations in which a person (or animal) is attracted to something but is also frightened of approaching it or is repelled by it. An example that could be researched and quantified would be a mouse that, for the purposes of an experiment, we have starved and put in a maze at the end of which is both food and a cat. In our use of the word, Lewin is discussing one example or type of ambivalence.

In their practices, psychologists and other therapists see example after example of people who are tortured by ambivalence. This often comes out in an inability to decide. People often are torn between different options: They see both sides and weigh arguments for and against each side, and they still can't decide; finally they find themselves acting one way or the other or, perhaps, they flip a coin or consult a psychic or follow the advice of a friend or teacher. Or an ambivalent person can move in one direction and then hesitate and then move in another direction and then hesitate and so on to the point where he or she is caught in a kind of paralysis.

In these situations, people are aware of both sides of the conflict, and so they can weigh them. The process is painful, but it is out in the open within the person's consciousness. However there are many situations where the person himself (or herself) can't see one whole aspect of the conflict even though it is raging in himself. Example: A 35 year old man worships his father and does not know that it is anger he is feeling when his father yells at him in public and orders him around and calls him stupid. The son blames himself, and says to himself (and to us), "I'll never be able to be like dad! I'm so stupid! I wish I could be like him!" At the same time, the son, who has no knowledge of his own angry states, lectures in public on anger. He has developed a reputation for preaching (and writing) that anger is a bad thing, that people who are angry are causing the problems of the world, and that the solution for these people is to think happy thoughts and be outwardly kind and to improve themselves.

In this case, I follow Freud in understanding the son's anger as unconscious and as projected out onto other people ("those in the world who are causing trouble" who may or may not be angry in reality).

To generalize, it happens that sometimes one side of one of our own inner conflicts is intolerable to us, and then we have a second level of conflict or ambivalence about whether or not to recognize and admit to the conflict on the first level. This is an especially poignant problem for people who value self-knowledge: We want to see who we are, but we can't bare to see who we are — both at the same time.

It is not hard to see that this situation can be dangerous for oneself and others. Because we are unconscious of something, doesn't mean it isn't there and active. This is true if we are walking in a field and there is a snake the existence of which we are unconscious. It is equally true of someone else's anger at us (maybe we are unconscious of their anger, because they are acting friendly), and it is true of our own anger at people.

In the extreme, people who do not want to see some aspect of themselves, can feel themselves possessed by some alien force and can seek external help to get rid of it, to exorcise it. Such a person may find an ointment to apply to a part of the body to get rid of an unpleasant feeling "that comes over me" and "that isn't me!" Or a married woman, unconscious of her sexual desires for men other than her husband (and who would be horrified if she experienced them consciously), may notice that she blushes in certain situations, and she consults her medical doctor for medication for her "blushing disease" as she calls it.

These are examples of ambivalence where one side of a conflict is unconscious (and even repressed), but, as said at the beginning of this article, this is not always the situation. In my use of the word, often, maybe usually, both sides of the ambivalence are conscious, and the conflict is understood and suffered. 

Two external factors that underlie ambivalence and allow for it

The first external factor: the Uncertainty of Life

Until now we have been focusing on ourselves, physically and psychologically: There are different "parts" of us, and these each have different needs, and sometimes they are at war. But there is an external factor at work too: Even if there are unvarying patterns in nature, the human mind is not complex enough to know the future with certainty.

The subjective feeling of uncertainty is agonizing for all of us at times (for example, a person diagnosed with cancer has to decide which treatment has more probability of success), but, for many people suffering from exaggerated ambivalence, this is a new place for the ambivalence to manifest itself. The person may spend years and finally decide they want to get married, but then the problem develops about who to marry. And, as with all practical decisions, it is never possible to tell absolutely what kind of a person someone is.

One part of becoming a mature person is to be able to accept that there are no guarantees in life and that you can always be wrong, no matter how careful you are in deciding. No matter how much time you spend investigating and testing and weighing pros and cons, you still might be wrong. This is unbearable until a person gets bored of focusing on it and finds him or herself focusing on other things and climbing back into life.

The Existentialists focused on the problem of choosing and of free choice, and philosophical discussions of the problem of choice can ease the ambivalence in some people. Denial or repression of the pain of uncertainty, in my experience, makes things worse. Here, as elsewhere, the only way out is by going in.

There is one other point here the importance of which can not, it seems to me, be over-emphasised. Freud thought that a primary reason people deny or repress is guilt. Guilt over sexual feelings, for example, may make a husband repress a sexual attraction towards a woman in his office. But, it seems to me, based on my own introspection, that it is often a feeling of helplessness that leads to the blotting out of a whole region of thoughts and feelings and images. If a person thinks that there is no life after death, there are a whole range of desires and thoughts and fantasies that are not allowed, because they are irrational and pointless. But if you entertain the possibility of a life after death, suddenly a slew of thoughts crowd into consciousness. I may, for example, suddenly allow myself an intense feeling that I would like to spend all eternity with my wife. The emotional charge of this thought is intense, and it is difficult to understand why it never popped into consciousness in the before, but this is because consciousness was constricted by the belief that there was no life after death. The mere thought that life after death might be possible allows a whole range of desires that must have been latent to come into being.

Another example, is a woman who was abused by her father. Her father dies, and she stills dreams of him abusing her. She fends off the feelings and the images which keep her from filling her obligations of daily life, but it feels like a draining battle that will be ongoing for the rest of her life: At best she can hold her own, but she can never win. However, if circumstances conspire to make her feel, if only for a moment, that there is a real chance she can rid herself of the effect of her father's actions, a door opens to a roomful of thoughts and beliefs and fantasies and feelings of a happier and freer life. This is a bouquet from her psyche that she never would have or could have allowed herself in the past, because it would have been experienced as an unrealistic, pointless, and stupid waste of time, a running away from the task at hand.

A second external factor: the Multi-faceted nature of Real Life Situations

A second factor is that every external event has many faces, as it were. We know that forest fires, for all their devastation, may, in the long run, be good for forest growth. Even wars, no matter how much we fear and condemn them, have positive sides. For example, some (but not all) who go to war come back stronger and wiser and more grown up than when they went.

This relativity or multi-faceted nature of real life situations can make it very difficult to decide between two options. For example, should we quit a job we hate but that is paying well and cast ourselves into a freer but less secure life? This type of question can be difficult for anyone, but it is more so for a person suffering from ambivalence.

It is equally true that inner experiences have dual aspects. Take a so-called "religious" experience. On the one hand it can be seen as an experience of the divine world, of a higher world than ours, of a world that can show us moral truths that can help us in this life below. On the other hand, such an experience can lead to a psychotic break from reality with all the pain this entails for self and others. It is possible that the exact same experience can go either way, depending on many factors in and out of the person. This dual aspect of the religious experience can lead to paralyzing doubt in a person who is tempted to seek one but who is aware of the danger.

It is naive to jump into anything without being aware of the dangers. So ambivalence (and obsession and compulsion) are blooms of the waters of reality. They are real and realistic. On the other hand, if we don't just jump in blindly, will we ever act? We are caught between eternal ambivalent deliberation and irrational impulsivity.

Paralyzing doubt and extreme suffering from the awareness of ambiguity are also forms of ambivalence. Let's say a person feels plagued by doubt about what to do in a situation and, in a dream, hears the voice of the Lord, booming out what is the best course of action. No matter how compelling the dream feels at the time, when the dreamer wakes up, he or she can begin to question, with reason (as the Existentialists pointed out): "Was this really the voice of the Lord? Maybe it was the devil disguising himself as the Lord! Even if it was the Lord, how do I know he wasn't just tempting me and testing me?" And so on. No matter how clear something appears, no matter how certain we are of something, the next minute we can fall back into doubt. There is always another side waiting to be considered.

Is ambivalence always a problem?

It may be thought that ambivalence is rare, but it is my view that ambivalence is the usually and normal state of things. We are constantly in inner conflict, and the moments where there is a feeling of harmony within or of unity of purpose are relatively rare (and may be illusory). It is our natural state for the parts of us to be in conflict, even in war (as explored by the ancient Christian saints or by anyone who struggles with his or her animal nature).

Perhaps it comes from the fact that the parts of the body are distinct, with distinct functions. It is like a country made of states which, in turn, are made up of counties. And these counties contain towns, and these towns contain individual citizens. How could there not be conflict?

Ambivalence can even be thought of as being a positive. If it does not go haywire and become unbalanced, it can be thought of as a Checks and Balances System so that the overall organism is not drawn too far in one direction or another. The inner competition serves the adaptation of the organism.

The problem is not ambivalence but paralyzing ambivalence or ambivalence where one pole is unconscious or ambivalence where there is no resolution and the organism is ripped apart.

The solution to any particular experience of ambivalence is not always easy to find. There is, it seems to me, no general answer to tell us how to decide things. There is no method that is the method for all people in all situations. What works for one, fails for another. Even for an individual, what works for a while, fails later. What worked for me yesterday, fails today.

Ambivalence and self-knowledge: the problem

To hold the two poles of a conflict in consciousness is difficult, but, there is reason to believe that, for some people, doing so can lead to solutions that organize the organism on a higher level. Self-knowledge, in the sense of being willing and able to see the different conflicting sides of oneself, even those parts we despise, can, possibly, lead to a kind of deeper and higher understanding, and this can be called genuine wisdom. Wisdom, if there is such a thing that is more than a momentary awareness, is definitely not a fake inner harmony or talk of inner harmony (which talk usually functions to keep one pole of the conflict unconscious as with the 35 year old son mentioned above).

The human being, and perhaps every thing, is ambivalent. Ambivalence implies the existing of two conflicting forces or needs or thoughts or tastes or values or images. And, as said, typically there are many such conflicts going on all the time in all of us. Limitations in our ability to pay attention and be aware of more than a few things at the same time, (see Law of Limited Attention), make it so we can not, by nature, be aware of all but a few of the ambivalences in us at any specific time or over any period of time. Most of what goes on in us (and in the world), is, by nature, unconscious.

However, there is another factor at work here that makes questionable the whole idea of becoming conscious of even one single ambivalence. It seems to be the nature of consciousness that, when we focus on one side of an ambivalence, we can not focus on the other at the same time. If we're feeling love for someone, for example, we can't, by the nature of consciousness, focus, at the same time, on any anger or hatred we have for that person. Similarly, when we are caught in a jealous or angry rage, it is impossible to remember the feelings of trust and love and gentleness we may have felt a moment before. We get caught up in our emotions, in our needs, in our desires, in our wants, and then they color everything in us and outside us.

It is the same with thoughts: If we are caught by some belief, the other side of the argument escapes us. Maybe later, in a moment of peace and reflection, we suddenly see the other side, but, in seeing it, we forget our original belief. We can't be grabbed by both at the same time.

[I arrived at these and the following conclusions, not from external psychological experiments, but by my own introspecting. Others will undoubtedly, for various reasons, come to different conclusions.]

So the problem, from a theoretical point of view, for a person who is trying to learn about himself or herself is, "How can we ever become conscious of even one example of our own ambivalence?" It seems we are always limited in our self-knowledge to one side of ourselves at a time. It seems we can never get a complete picture of even one example of our ambivalence.

It may seem that we can hold both poles of an ambivalence in consciousness at the same time. Going back to the trivial example of being ambivalent about whether to order pizza or spaghetti, it seems we can physically look at both a pizza and a plate of spaghetti at the same time and hold them both in our consciousness together. However, introspection tells me that the instant we feel desire for one, the desire for the other disappears: We can see the two together with our eyes, but we can't want both at the same time.

It is possible to say that when the desire disappears, it is gone, and so there isn't something missing from consciousness, because it isn't there any longer. But, though this might be true in some cases, it often seems that the need or desire disappears only from consciousness and that it remains somewhere inside. It recedes into the depths but remains, ready to reappear on cue. And, as said, it seems to be part of our very nature that one pole has to recede from consciousness for the other to appear.

It seems that thinking is a way consciousness has (we have) for getting around this problem. Thinking, at least logical thinking, often involves considering contradictions, the two terms of a contradiction being the intellectual parallel to the opposites of an ambivalence. Logic professors present us the phrase "A and not A," and we are told that this expresses a contradiction and can not be true. And this may make it seem we can use logical notation to get around the problem we have been discussing. A man may love and hate (assuming this means "not love") his father at the exact same time. Though he can't feel the love and hate at the same time, he can say to himself, when in a rational state of mind, perhaps in the office of a psychologist, "I love and hate my father!" Through thought, he is able to know himself; thinking allows him to hold both poles of the contradiction in focus in his consciousness at the same time.

However, careful introspection shows me that what happens in such situations is that the contradictory poles are not entertained by thought at the exact same moment. There is a delay between thinking "I love him" and "I hate him," even if the delay is of a fraction of a second. The experience of grasping the concept "I love him" is a different state of mind from the experience of grasping the concept "I hate him." And there has to be an experience of grasping or understanding or there is no self-knowledge, because the phrases and concepts would be empty of feeling tone and of real meaning. The understanding, if there is no experience of understanding, would be formal, words only.

Ambivalence and self-knowledge: a possible solution

It is still possible that the human mind is capable of some sort of integration of opposites so that consciousness can grasp them in one event of one moment and not over multiple events over a period of time. If I understand Jung's idea, imagination functions to give knowledge of inner contradictions like the senses function to give knowledge of outer contradictions such as light and dark.

The imagination produces symbols, images, and these symbols, by their nature, can and do contain opposites. It happens all the time that images we find in dreams, for example, seem bizarre to us when we wake. We dream of our father receiving a Nobel Prize while the flesh is falling off his smiling face. Later, on reflection, we recognize, in the image, our worship of him and our hatred and ill-wishes towards him rolled up in this single image. The image is our perception, not of him, but of our ambivalent feelings and emotions towards him. If we break the image apart, we fall into seeing and experiencing only one side or the other, but the image allows us to get some self-knowledge, some true perception of our nature, of the lighter and darker sides.

Ambivalence used to explain two phenomena

I stress that because something is unconscious doesn't mean it isn't there and "alive" and active. If we are angry and unconscious of it, we are still angry, and the anger can, and probably will, express itself somehow, even if we are not aware our behavior is an expression of anger. We might not recognize the expression as anger, but others who feel its effects may be hyper-aware of it. This is true even if we exert every effort to control our behavior and to act impeccably. Our negative feelings sneak out.

If we combine this law of psychology with a second law — that, in all our serious relations, we feel ambivalence — we can understand the following two phenomena.

Example 1:

The first phenomenon is how people can suddenly turn on each other in very violent ways, and in ways that surprise them completely when they look back. We picture people in a group who have managed to live together for years, peacefully and friendly, by controlling their angry impulses. There is often tension between them, but they consider these tensions to be nothing more than "the usual tensions we all have with each other." 

Now we picture a troublemaker who comes along and starts criticizing someone in the group. This attack crystallizes out the negative feelings in the other people, feelings that had always been there but that had been mostly unconscious. Suddenly the feelings burst out, and, in extreme cases (maybe during a period of extreme economic hardship), people who have been living side by side for years, can start butchering each other. "Where did this come from?" is what we ask, but it seems to be the awakening of something that was there all along even if hidden.

This helps explain the guilt of perpetrators after things calm down again. I read that many of the Nazi soldiers who put Lithuanian Jewish men, women, and children in barns and set the barns on fire, wound up committing suicide themselves. One reason might be that the other side of their personalities, the other side of the ambivalence, kicked back in and became conscious again, and this led to feelings of self-revulsion and horror at themselves and their behavior.

If there is an antiseptic for this kind of mass violence, it would seem that consciousness of the negative pole in each of us is a part of it. If we are conscious of our deep angers and hatreds, we won't be as surprised when they are awakened. And, if we recognize what is happening, we have more chance of not getting swept away. The river was never dammed up completely, so it doesn't break out in a completely wild way.

We read about genocide in Africa where people of different tribes suddenly turn against each other. Ongoing ambivalence between the tribes can help us understand.

Example 2:

Second, it happens that people who are one hundred percent committed to this or that ideal or belief, suddenly turn around completely and become committed to the opposite. If this is a sudden transformation from a life of sin to a good and spiritual life, we call this a conversion. An example would be in the life of St. Augustine. But the transformation can go the other way as shown in films such as The Blue Angel in which a rigid high school teacher becomes infatuated with a nightclub dancer and gives up everything to follow her. We also see it in the Hollywood movie, Hurricane, in which a moralizing preacher falls in love with the harlot he is trying to convert. Politically we see this when a person converts from one party to the other or when a revolutionary who fights for human dignity and equality and suddenly gains power, morphs into a dictator.

Jung used the Greek words enantiodromia for such transformations where it seems that something turns into its opposite. What we can say, from the point of view we are now discussing, is that, in these situations, both poles were probably there to start. The person, because of his (or her) inability to tolerate the inner conflict, does everything in his power to repress one side. However, it remains, and when a stimulus comes that is strong enough, it liberates the repressed and unconscious side which bursts out and takes over, and now the other side becomes unconscious. Both sides are there all along, but always one is unconscious.

Again, consciousness and the ability to tolerate the opposites sides of oneself, seems to make the conversion experience less likely, because it is less necessary.

A real life example

A person is having trouble whether or not to have a colonoscopy (a question that has developed for more and more people in the United States where colonoscopies, in the year 2015, have become routine). On the one hand is the fact that colonoscopies are the best bet for detecting curable colon cancers while they are still curable. On the other side is possible physical discomfort, the natural modesty and embarrassment people have, feelings of being violated, possible side-effects, possible inconveniences, etc. The doctor insists it is obvious that the colonoscopy should be done (starting at the age 50 and then every 10 years), and ones family may go along with the doctor. However doctors have their hidden motives, and there are such things as medical fads (what was standard practice ten years ago is no longer standard). Also medical research is subject to many forms of error, and outcomes are biased by financial influences. So, here we have a whole series of factors and data and thoughts and feelings and arguments, and we have to decide. If you suffer from ambivalence, you go back and forth and back and forth.

It may or may not help to realize that nothing is certain, that you have to jump in and decide, that not deciding is also deciding, that either way you go some will approve and some won't, that nothing is perfect in life and that you might as well accept this and get on with life. You might even decide to throw a coin. And you might throw the coin and then, when you see it is committing you to go one direction, you suddenly realize you really don't want to do go that route (and never did, deep down), and you do the opposite. But, even after such an awareness, you may hesitate again and fall back into doubt.

At this point it becomes worthwhile looking into ones deeper feelings. For example, perhaps you had a mother or father who demanded you behave in certain ways, the ways they wanted you to behave, and now that you're an adult, you realize you don't have to listen to anyone and that you can make your own decisions. And yet you come to realize that, deep down, you are still afraid to go against people in authority. You see that you have a pattern: You rebel and do what you want, but then you back off. You start and stop. You go part way and then turn around. And you come to see that this is what is going on here. Besides all the usual and normal and legitimate questions many people have about whether to get a colonoscopy or not, you are in an unconscious battle with your doctor who is insisting you get one. You are, without being aware of it, thrown back into the exact same type of situation you were in with your demanding parent who said they knew what was good for you. You are not really making a rational decision about the colonoscopy but are reacting to someone talking about colonoscopies.

This awareness of the unconscious pattern may free you. For the first time you feel you are free to examine pros and cons instead of being caught in some compulsive to and fro.

So there can be different levels of an ambivalence, and solutions may require deep awareness and not just a philosophical understanding of the nature of decisions.

In this discussion I feel we have only scratched the surface of the topic.