Ambivalence is defined as the experience of conflicting emotions. In some ways, we want to change but in other ways we don’t. It is a fluctuating level of readiness. Most of us have probably experienced ambivalence about keeping the house clean, losing weight, doing more exercise or some other virtuous activity.
In some ways, we would like to be healthier and look good in our clothes, but in other ways, we enjoy eating biscuits and cakes and don’t want to give them up. In some ways, we would like to have a spotless house, but we also prefer to spend our time watching TV, gardening, reading or socialising. In some ways we would like to quit smoking, but in other ways we enjoy the buzz, the social aspect of it or even the sense of “f**k it” self-destruction we experience. People often recognise the harm of their behaviour but are nevertheless attached to it.
Trying to persuade or force people to change is often unproductive. If your partner/parent/friend represents one side of the argument by trying to persuade you to change, then it allows and even encourages you to give voice to the other side. The more someone else argues, “you should change jobs/leave your partner/give up smoking”, the more you are likely to articulate the other side of the argument with “yes but…”.
Since articulating one side of the argument increases your commitment to it (strengthening the neural pathways that correspond to this view), this will reduce your motivation to change. The conflict is thus acted out and the argument is counterproductive.
There are pros and cons to each side of the conflict, which create this see-saw effect. As the weight begins to tip one way, you will tend to focus on (and shift weight to) the opposite side. This is known as the ‘decisional balance’. As long as this see-saw effect continues, you will experience some level of ambivalence, and will not be fully committed to change.
Adding to this issue, we tend to prioritise short-term pleasures over long-term gains. If a lovely bowl of crisps and a pint of beer is sitting right in front of us, our auto-pilot decision-making will tell us to help ourselves and enjoy the tasty, calorific snack, leaving our logical brain muttering somewhere in the background about hangovers and weight-loss.
So, how do you get out of this seesaw situation and build your own motivation to make a change in your life, maybe a change that scares you or will involve giving up short-term pleasures for a long-term gain?
Firstly, you need to acknowledge to yourself all the reasons why you do want to carry on with the negative behaviour or stay in your current comfort zone. By fulling articulating all the reasons you like this behaviour to yourself, you can then free yourself up from “yes, but..” thinking. Once you have named all the reasons not to change, you may find the reasons to make a change popping up quite naturally. Acknowledge that you have a choice – you can change or not change and it is really up to you.
My old yoga teacher strongly encouraged all his students to do a daily yoga practice. For a long time, I used to say, “I can’t, my children are too young, I’m not getting enough sleep, they always interrupt or need attention.” The day that I changed my internal narrative to “I could do a daily yoga practice but I am choosing not to because I am prioritising time with my children and getting a bit more sleep in the mornings,” was the day I stopped arguing with myself and actually started doing the practice.
Once you have got the reasons not to change out of the way and acknowledged that the choice to change is yours to make or not as you see fit, then you can start to think about the benefits of changing. What do you want to be different in your life? Where are you heading now and where do you want to be heading? How are your current actions or behaviour in conflict with your true values?
Whilst external rewards (such as giving yourself a treat when you stick to your plan or getting praise from others) can help to kick start a lifestyle change, the strongest motivation is internal motivation that is driven by your own values and your vision of the person you want to be. Maybe you don’t want to be the kind of grandparent who can’t get down on the floor to play with the grandchildren. You might not want to be a bad role model to your children by smoking in front of them. Maybe you don’t want to be the sort of person who moans about their job but never does anything to change it. Having a clear vision of how the track you are currently on is in conflict with your cherished values can be the very best motivation to change.