It seems to me that ambiguity has a bad rap in our society. We generally don’t like what is ambiguous. We strive for clarity and focus, for being determined and resolute (somewhere in some classroom those attributes must have been set as standards). An employee, a politician, can be subject to criticism for a lack of clarity or focus (“flip flopping”). For something to be ambiguous, to remain ambiguous for any period of time, can cause a lot of frustration. We want to know what we think about making a major purchase. The pros and cons list is not just a way to reflect ones differing sentiments; it’s a way to get clear (usually choosing the position that constitutes the longer list). I am not suggesting that there is not useful and important to have answers. Knowing if one can afford that new expensive car makes sense.
But all too often people rush into knowing. The need to know and the discomfort of not knowing may fuel this rush into being clear and decided. Not knowing something, not being sure, can cause a too much discomfort and anxiety.
Much of my work with clients in psychotherapy is, paradoxically, about actually knowing less in order to then know more. I often find that clients come in knowing some things that have a powerful influence on their lives. They may know, for example, that others can’t be trusted based on experiences in their past of broken trust. They may know that no one can sufficiently understand and sympathize with them (again based on previous experiences with significant people from their past). But what a person knows in this regard may be more about the past than it is about the present. All too often the present gets confused for the past, and people respond as if the present were that past. People are not to be trusted. No one can truly understand me. In this way, a person may not only expect the present to be like the past, but exercises a lot of influence to create the present in that image of the past.
Historians tell us that it is a mistake to ignore the past and that that past has a way of repeating itself. The historians stand together with the psychotherapists in this regard; much of psychotherapy has to do with understanding the past and how it manifests today. But a great deal of the psychotherapeutic experience also has to do with not anticipating the past and constructing a line separating past from present.
And that is where ambiguity comes in. If someone grew up in a particularly combustible family, then they know that others will fight with you and be critical. They may know that anger can be harmful based on those family feuds. Consequently, they will be on the lookout for that fight or that criticism, and be fearful of someone’s anger or of their own. Similarly, if in one’s family there was generally no expression of feelings, then that person knows that you don’t do that: You don’t express feelings. He or she will tend to struggle to identify feelings and keep them to him or herself.
An important process of psychotherapy is to help recover some sense of not knowing, some ambiguity, so that the person can discover what choices, what beliefs and behaviors, are available. This is particularly true when dealing with issues of criticism. In order to know if one’s partner was being critical and judgmental when he said what he said (taking into account tone as well as words), first there needs to be ambiguity. A space of not knowing. Often in such situations, especially when working with couples, I’ll suggest asking: “Did you mean to put me down?” “Were you being critical?” By asking these questions, there is the chance of clarifying the situation and knowing something new (rather than knowing what is based on assumptions formulated from past experiences). Of course, in that scenario it is possible that the partner will say “Yes, I’m angry at you.” Then there is that situation to deal with. But it’s also possible that the partner’s intention was different than what one experienced and then the situation may be resolved.
An important step in this process is for the person to allow for ambiguity in his or her own mind. In that sense, to help instill it. “I don’t know if she was putting me down when she said…” The problem with this ambiguity, however, might be the person feeling exposed and vulnerable. If the partner is someone critical and judgmental (or thought to be that way), then expressing vulnerability feels like taking a great risk. Being certain can in itself be a defense to taking risk. If one knows that people are not empathic, not caring, then one will not risk being vulnerable and expressing oneself. I have already spoken of the danger inherent in this process: what one expects tends to be what one experiences. One may not take a risk and be vulnerable; but in this way the one’s experience is the past continuing to repeat itself (others are not to be trusted; no one understands).
To maintain a sense of ambiguity, rather than a firm belief, is not an easy state of mind to have. When working with this goal with my clients, we gradually come to see the effectiveness of this position. And in the process, clients better learn to tolerate their feelings. They don’t have to act so fast; they don’t have to be certain so quickly. What may have been a very uncomfortable feeling – not knowing, not being sure – can now become an opportunity to learn more about oneself and about one’s world. In a sense to have a fresh start.
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