Archive for November, 2010

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Why sit with ambiguity?

What’s the big deal anyway? Isn’t it just easier to make a choice that feels solid and secure, one that, ideally, dispels all feelings of anxiety?

Sometimes, yes. There are (thankfully!) moments in life that being decisive is healthy and “good”: Regular or Decaf Coffee? Take a walk or call a friend? Choose and you’re done. You feel fine about these kinds of simple choices. Black-and-white thinkers do tend to be quicker at making decisions than highly ambivalent thinkers. So black-and-white thinking does have it’s upside…!

There are, however, numerous moments where the issue at hand is more complex—moments where there is no clear or easy answer… but we yearn for there to be certainty so sometimes we as humans will force an answer in order to reduce our anxiety at having no clear answer. Where ambiguity lurks, it is tempting to cut the ambiguity out all together in order to experience a sense of certainty or even a sense of control. As Dr. Greenberg of Psychology Today points out:

“as human beings we want immediate answers to the questions that compel us to think seriously… the truth is that most of us don’t tolerate ambiguity very well at all. Patience, ambiguity, and not knowing are what we all have to learn to tolerate in the reality of our daily lives. If we accept that for some people, the unpredictability itself is what they are trying to reduce, the phenomenon of people grasping for certainty beyond what the facts can bear can be explained as unpredictability reduction.”

Black-and-white thinking is marked by a tendency to oversimplify one’s argument, often with psychological rigidity and often uncritical obedience to authority. The downside to this kind of thinking is that problems that may merit complex consideration, problems with no one right answer can be pigeon-holed into a false dichotomy of thinking-of-things only in terms of “right or wrong”, “black or white”, “good or evil” (ahem, sounds familiar when we think of religious sermons or political campaign ads, no?).

Black-and-white thinking is also commonly known as splitting. Splitting is a defense mechanism which is successful in reducing anxiety. People or things are split into all-good or all-bad. That’s great and all… but it is not ever the whole picture! Unfortunately, splitting does not allow for acknowledging the good and the bad in a person or thing, there is no room for appreciating the complexity of people or situations and it often negates being able to recognize the variety and abundance of choices often available to us. Let’s take an example:

There is a father who abandons his child when it is born and the mother stays and takes care of the children in his absence. As that child grows up, he may view the father as a “bad” man and his mom as a “good” woman. Even with the choices that were made, the father is not all bad and the mom not all good. It is, as you may notice, quite tempting to view the mother as all good and the father as all bad. We must often remind ourselves of the complexity inherent in many interpersonal and other situations.

Psychologists have found the coping skill of being able to tolerate or sit with ambiguity (known in the field as ambiguity tolerance) as being highly correlated with psychological resilience, more creative problem solving, risk aversion, and a tendency to embrace diversity. It is generally thought to be a more mature way of thinking (splitting being a primitive, immature defense). Those able to tolerate ambiguity have been found to be able to sit with mixed emotions, see more sides of an argument, approach issues in an open and neutral way, and seem better able to empathize with others’ points of view. Sitting with ambiguity can be considered a sign that a person has built up an ability to function and cope in the face of life’s inevitable unpredictabilities. In the end, I remain intrigued with working to cultivate this curious skill.

current music faves: stereomood chillout

current show faves: the big c, bored to death (season 2), house hunters international

breakfast today: mango yogurt, blueberry machine naked juice

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It all began with writing…writing in my old beloved paper journal:

“Perhaps I could blog about how I always come back to wanting to cultivate in myself the ability to NOT see things only in black and white… both in everyday life as well as in the way I approach my art, my listening skills as a therapist, my skills as a… a person.  This idea of not seeing things in black and white I often refer to as ‘sitting with ambiguity’ when speaking with friends or even clients.  Sitting with what is uncertain or ambiguous is something notoriously difficult for most people to do.  It can be incredibly tempting to choose a concrete or obvious option because it makes us feel more comfortable and not because it is the best or right option!  One example might be someone who is unemployed and looking for work keeps looking for a long period of time.  It is tempting for the person looking for work to either be pulled to just find the perfect job or give up hope all together.  If this person were to practice sitting with ambiguity, they would look at the other options “in between” the two extremes:  perhaps keeping up hope when evidence suggests there should be none, perhaps allowing oneself to consider other work than the ‘perfect’ job, perhaps deciding to go back to school instead.”

I am fascinated by this idea and so, I plan on using this blog to explore (and share) just that.  The line in Mary Oliver’s poem Wild Geese speaks to a key-to-life, the growth I believe is possible when sitting with ambiguity is nurtured, when the soft animal is heeded, honored.  The idea of learning to sit with ambiguity ties in with so much in my life:  my art-making and appreciation of art as having no one interpretation, my interest in Buddhism in which sitting with what is uncertain is encouraged, my existential view of the world as one in which there is no one right way, no one absolute truth, and my passion for justice and equality (a passion which often calls for resistance or fighting against the status quo which often views life in very black-and-white terms).

Where “the soft animal of your body” and sitting with ambiguity meet, this is *precisely* what I aim to explore–and cultivate– in this blog and in my life.

Maybe you will join me ; )

current music faves: pixies – come on pilgram (old school nostalgia kick!), edward sharpe and the magnetic zeros, brandi carlile

current show faves: mad men (season 2), boardwalk empire, dog whisperer

breakfast today: blueberry crunch (target brand that’s like cinnamon toast crunch but with a delightful blueberry zing!), coffee with peppermint mocha cream

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