Micro-Ambivalence: Freezing Up in the Moment of Truth

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I spend a lot of time thinking about ambivalence: writing about it, helping people who face it and, of course, working through it in my own life. Having two conflicting desires is nothing to be ashamed about.

It’s perfectly natural because, as I’ve discussed before, both parts of your ambivalent self are looking out for your interests in different ways. Usually one part is concerned with your short-term ease and comfort, while the other is more aligned with your long-term best interests.

Ambivalence shows up most obviously in areas of your life where a wide gulf separates opposing motivational poles. Let’s say you’ve wanted to get in shape for a couple of years. However, you’ve grown accustomed to getting extra sleep instead of taking time to exercise, and you’ve fully rationalized your less-than-healthy diet as a means of comforting yourself in your stressful life.

At this point, there is a lot of work to do to start resolving the ambivalence. You would need to take into account what’s best for your long-term well-being and your need to be rested and do nice things for yourself. You would also need to wrestle with apportioning your finite number of waking hours so that they are congruent with your priorities.

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But ambivalence also shows up in those little moments of truth when, even after you feel that you’ve reconciled your conflicting motivations and laid the groundwork for change, and all that’s left is to pull the trigger, you don’t.

Staying with our example, let’s say you’ve already purchased some shorts and gym shoes, bought a gym membership, and cut back on your television viewing to reclaim some hours in your day.

Finally, the day comes when you’ve gotten a good night’s sleep, woken up early, and donned your shorts, and all that remains is the trip to the gym. But you don’t feel like going. The couch looks very comfortable. You’re facing what I call “micro-ambivalence” and if you don't go, then you'll remain frozen in your current situation.

Opportunity knocks one moment at a time

Even the most major life changes can originate from little decisions made in individual moments. In our example, your next step (literally—whether it's toward the couch or the door) determines whether change finally dawns today and turns the narrative arc of your life story in an upward direction. Or, whether you face the same dilemma tomorrow, and possibly over the coming weeks or years, and feel a variety of negative things about yourself in the meantime.

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Micro-ambivalence can take many forms, like biting your tongue and deciding to wait yet again for a better time to say the thing that someone needs to hear. Or rationalizing eating a cupcake on your first day of a new healthy eating plan because the day is stressful, and deciding instead to just start tomorrow.  

People think of hesitation or missteps at these moments of truth in different ways. Some call it a lack of fortitude, willpower, or character—pejorative characterizations that don’t really get at the crux of the matter. Much closer to the mark would be recognizing inertia at work: that things and people just naturally tend to keep moving in the same direction unless a force is exerted otherwise.

But dig down one more level and you come to the real issue: by definition, change and growth require facing something uncertain. Also, it requires doing something that you won’t just do easily and naturally, or else you would've already done it.

It means leaving the security of what’s known and taking action that may involve some, probably temporary, downside. It’s a subtle fear and avoidance of that, whether it's unpleasant physical exertion for a body not accustomed to it, or being deprived of a comfort cupcake.

Surviving the freeze

The metaphor of being frozen by micro-ambivalence is actually pretty apt! It so happens that if you find yourself in icy water (again, literally), you face a similar conundrum when it comes to survival strategies.

Did you know that the last thing you should do in that situation is move? That's because your warm body heats the layer of water around it, which slows the rate of your body’s cooling. If you splash, kick, or generally flail around, you disturb that layer and expose your body to colder water.

So, assuming you’re wearing a life preserver, your best bet is to remain completely still and bob in place. You can live 45 minutes longer that way in 50° water. (Two hours longer if you also curl up into a sort of fetal position.)

The problem is that unless you're deposited on the beach by a friendly whale, just remaining still in the water without also being willing to take appropriate action means you'll likely end up a lifeless buoy.

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In order to improve your chances of writing another chapter in your life, you need to take advantage of all available resources and opportunities.

If you can wave to a rescue helicopter, then move your arms out of the comfort zone and do it. If you’re within swimming distance of shore or another boat, then get moving. If there is a floating door right next to you, then get up on it!

Turning toward the discomfort

What keeps people stuck in place is their reluctance to face just a little more stinging discomfort—whether by trying a new activity, changing a habitual behavior pattern, or just reaching out for support. Sometimes it’s even harder if you’re reeling from a shock to your system that has suddenly mandated change, rather than you seeking it out.

The warmth of the status quo sure sounds more comfortable than more cold uncertainty. But you need to ask yourself it’s comfortable enough to make up for even a day, let alone weeks or years, of wishing that you’d done something different.

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So, look at the big picture, and act right now. If you need encouragement, consider this: when you're at a moment of truth, you’re 99% done already, whether you got there through a process of resolving your ambivalence around a desired change, or if disruptive change came to your life uninvited.

In both cases, you have the three most important factors going for you: you know which action is best for you in the long run (that is, the one that's aligned with your core self), you have the intention to take it, and you're aware of the opportunity to do so.

I wish I could tell you something that would make the actual moment of pulling the trigger easy all the time, but I can’t. It really does come down to a gut check: being willing to be uncomfortable, even if just for the moment it takes to say something, pick up a phone, put down a cupcake, or go to the gym, and then making yourself do it.

Then have you done everything you can, and then you may be surprised at how quickly inertia starts to work in your favor.