Ambivalence: To change or not to change?

Quick question: What is one thing you’ve thought about changing in your life that if you did make that change you would feel overall healthier or better off physically, mentally, emotionally, socially, financially, or spiritually? Maybe there is more than one thing. It could be big or small. You know stepping into that change would yield positive results and yet you haven’t yet committed to doing so. Or perhaps you have taken a few steps forward only to fall back into your regular daily habits.

Why is it we do this? We think about things we want to or know we ought to change because we know there would be benefits to doing so yet we never fully commit to making that change? This phenomenon is called ambivalence. Although we know there would be benefits to making a change there are also benefits of staying the same. We also know there are consequences to staying the same, as well as consequences/costs of making the change.


For example, I mentioned previously that I am a runner. At any given time I am training for an upcoming race. Right now I should be training for my next half marathon. I should be getting regular, shorter, faster runs in during the week followed by longer runs on the weekend. Sometimes I do but sometimes I don’t. Why?

Reasons to train:
•So I can cover the distance when it is time to run the next race
•So I don’t pass out or die on the race course
•So I finish in a reasonable time and maybe score a personal record
•I just feel better physically, mentally, and emotionally when I exercise
•Regular exercise helps with weight control and I have size six skirts in my closet calling my name that I haven’t been able to fit into for a while
•I like to eat and I like margaritas and sangria

Reasons I don’t train:
•It’s HOT and HUMID outside
•I like the comfort of my air-conditioned house
•I would rather watch Netflix and/or see what my friends are up to on Facebook and Instagram
•It’s HOT and HUMID outside
•I’ve done half marathons before without proper training and survived
•Because I’m so fair skinned I have to put on sunscreen and that’s just greasy and gross and did I mention…
•It’s HOT and HUMID outside!!!

I feel two ways about running. I love it and I hate it. When I get out there and do it I love it after I’m finished but thinking about it and preparing for it cause tremendous dread.

I bet you are thinking right now of ways I can remedy my situation that would counter some of the reasons I dislike it such as, “Why don’t you run INSIDE on a treadmill in an air-conditioned gym?” or “Why don’t you get up before sunrise to run.” Or maybe you’re thinking of some motivational tidbit like Nike’s slogan, “Just Do It!” or “No pain no gain.”

Research shows, however, that when we meet someone’s ambivalence with an argument why they should be doing something (making a change) the natural human response is to argue to stay the same (Miller & Rollnick, 2013). If you said to me, “just do it,” I would respond, “Yeah, I know, but…” And it is quite possible I’ve given consideration to running on a treadmill and/or running before sunrise but I have legitimate reasons for not doing those either. Although running outside is therapeutic for me, running on a treadmill does the exact opposite. It really agitates me. As for running before sunrise (or after sundown), I live in midtown Atlanta and prefer to run in daylight hours when I feel a little safer. Again, if you met my ambivalence with one of these arguments I would counter with, “yes, but…” and then outline my ambivalence. And the stronger you push in toward me to make the change, the stronger I’m going to push back to stay the same! Or, the harder you try to pull me in the direction of change the harder I will try to pull back. We’re then engaged in a full on tug-of-war!

So, what then is the best way to approach ambivalence and get someone to consider making a change they know they should make and have probably already thought about doing? This, friends, is my specialty. Stay tuned for more to come…

Miller, W. R., & Rollnick, S. (2013). Motivational interviewing: Helping people change. Guilford press.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *