Diametrically Opposed.

Harnessing The Power of Emotional Ambivalence.

I’m still haunted. The scene is looping in my mind’s eye. It was my first time seeing the felled trees at beloved Dockside Park, and my viscerally emotional response. I felt sucker punched as I realized the apparent contradiction this posed. You see, these iconic trees were “slaughtered” in the name of progress— part of a project to prevent erosion from the swelling Hudson. I continue to marinate in this concept of Emotional Ambivalence today, three weeks out.

How can these two diametrically opposed ideas actually align? They simply can’t!

Or can they?

Once I recognized that indeed they can, I began to think about other “Tevye moments”. These are moments of paradox, or what the Harvard Business Review calls, “the simultaneous experience of positive and negative emotions about something. It’s what we think of as being ‘torn’.” To paraphrase Tevye in the classic movie/play Fiddler on the Roof (watch the full exchange here):

AVRAM: He’s right and he’s right? How can they both be right?

TEVYE: You know, you’re also right.

To gain greater clarity, consider these current and traditional Tevye moments people may be wrestling with:

Situational Pulls:

  1. Entering the “Next Normal”: Clients are feeling conflicted about RTO (Returning to Office) vs virtual work.
  2. Those at Milestone Moments: Students graduating from college, people changing homes, grown children getting married— such exciting transitions in one’s life, and yet terrifying!
  3. Values Incongruence: These occur as one vacillates between Personal and Normative Values. This includes questions like, “Do I tell them what’s really on my mind, or do I tell them what they want to hear?”

Internally Directed Pulls:

  1. Holding Contradictory Attitudes Toward the Same Person: I bet you’ve heard the classic, “I love him, but I HATE him”. Although I’ve experienced this in a workplace context, this concept has gained great dimension after reading It’s Just Us and The Great Alone.
  2. Internal Paradox: Have you ever felt confidence that screams “I’m a Rock Star!!!” and then with a shift of energy feel like “I want to hide under a rock”? If so, I assure you, you’re not alone.
  3. Personal Perspective: I’ve been feeling devastated, overwhelmed and helpless as climate change, war, and pandemic deaths increase, while at the same time, recognizing my privileged position of safety and health.

These are a half-dozen instances of Emotional Ambivalence, but they’re only scratching the surface. And although these situations may seem quite different, their common denominator, as the name implies, is emotional bipolarity. Think “bittersweet”. It’s hard to hold contrasting truths simultaneously. Until, that is, you recognize the power of Emotional Ambivalence— sometimes for worse, but often for better.

Leveraging this dimension of emotion is a powerful tool. And, when this incongruity is unhealthy, just name it in order to manage the dichotomy of feeling. The bottom line is that this is a reality of life.

The Benefits of Emotional Ambivalence

While the sawdust surrounding those slaughtered trees was still fresh and fragrant, and I continued to consider the concept of Emotional Ambivalence, a fortuitous Hidden Brain episode popped onto my podcast lineup. I’m grateful to Psychologist Naomi Rothman for putting the name “Emotional Ambivalence” to how I was feeling. Rothman’s insights allowed me to reframe this emotional tug of war into a growth opportunity. Take a listen; she shares instances where these mixed feelings served in important ways.

Hearing these examples brought me back to a Dare to Lead episode where Brene Brown interviewed Barack Obama about his book, A Promised Land. They “dive into the power of leaning into uncertainty, and why the rare skill of holding the tension of opposites makes us better leaders, partners, and parents.” I suppose Obama breathes through awkward emotions— the occupational strength of a President, until it’s not!

Many look back and say Obama was too indecisive as President. In high-stakes situations, people often value decisiveness and assertiveness. But in my estimation, thoughtfulness and welcoming diverse perspectives are what allow for sustainable change. On the other hand, I understand how sitting with diverse perspectives can create discomfort, divergence and a resistance toward settling into Emotional Ambivalence.

Two Missions Collide

I am personally DRIVEN to create JEDI workplaces as well as space for Emotional Awareness. Self-Regulation is the Jedi Mind Trick of Corporate America that allows for psychological Safety and productivity. So, I suppose I’m doubly inspired to continue investigating and exploring this topic.

Over the next weeks, I invite you along to gain insights on becoming aware of, creating perspective with, leveraging, and mitigating Emotional Ambivalence. If you don’t receive my Tuesday message in your inbox and would like to, get onto our mailing list. Look to the top of this page and click on the “Join Our Newsletter” icon.


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