Ambivalence

Sometimes people are good

And they do just what they should.

But the very same people who are good sometimes

Are the very same people who are bad sometimes.

It’s funny, but it’s true.

It’s the same, isn’t it, for me…

Isn’t it the same for you?

Mister Rogers (“Sometimes People Are Good,” © 1967, Fred M. Rogers

 

Ambivalence: noun

the state of having two opposing feelings at the same time, or being uncertain about how you feel

Ambivalence. We might use the word to describe how we feel when choosing from a dinner menu, or in a discussion about how the new boss is doing.  Or it is used in the context of uncertainty, a temporary condition that will be resolved once a difficult choice is made--which job to take, whether to get married or not.

 

Parents who discover sibling sexual trauma has occurred in their own family suddenly feel themselves being pulled hard in opposite directions, not only by others but by their own thoughts and emotions.  It is an unfamiliar and lonely emotional space, one that can leave parents disoriented, ashamed, doubting their own sanity.  Concepts that once seemed simple and self-evident suddenly take on more nuance and complexity. 

 

And it’s not only parents who feel ambivalence.  Survivors, those who caused trauma, other siblings and family members, even professionals working with the family may find themselves torn between support and condemnation, disgust and concern, love and loathing.  So many facets of sibling sexual trauma can trigger ambivalence.  Family members love each other and miss each other--but they are triggered by traumatic memories or are unable to control their emotions when they are together.  People who have been victims act out and hurt others.  Family members may appreciate the people who are trying to help them and also resent that they need the help, or feel hurt when they are misunderstood.

 

Ambivalence is usually experienced as vacillating between opposite viewpoints or emotions, sometimes within milliseconds.  It is a bit like an optical illusion.  You can easily see the picture in both ways, but not both at the same time.  You cannot choose one over the other, but at any given moment, you are seeing just one or the other.  

 

People often feel guilty, or condemn themselves for some of their feelings.  But your feelings are all there for a reason.  In time you may be able to peel back the layers of your feelings and find what lies at their core.  Quite possibly this will be deep hurt and pain.  Feeling rage, betrayal or even hatred toward a person doesn't mean you don’t also love them.  The deepness of your feelings show the depth of your connection.  They reveal how much you value what you have lost and the people who have been hurt.

 

Ambivalence happens.  The word exists for a reason.  It is an understandable, normal, unavoidable reaction to the tragedy of sibling sexual trauma. You can love and care about someone and still feel ambivalence toward them.  Even if it is unpleasant and unfamiliar, ambivalence is mentally healthy and a sign of maturity.  

 

It’s OK to feel ambivalence.  Be compassionate with yourself.  Know that strong feelings, like waves, will pass.  That it is likely better to continue experiencing all your ambivalent feelings than to focus on one and deny the other. Accept that your ambivalence is a normal response to a completely abnormal situation. 

“It is very challenging to hold the reality that an individual or organization can do a great deal of good while also causing a great deal of harm.”

Jenny Coleman, director of Stop It Now!, from article on child sexual abuse in institutions of faith  

Additional Resources

There Is Hope After Sibling Sexual Abuse | Younique Foundation

Roberta Satow, PhD, Psychology Today: Do You Have Trouble Dealing with Ambivalent Feelings? 

Eva Schiffer, netmap.wordpress.com: Wisdom is the ability to hold two conflicting truths in your mind at the same time, without budging

Ian Leslie, slate.com: Ambivalence is Awesome

Mel Langston, PhD, Mosac.net: Ambivalence–Mothers of Sexually Abused Children 

Dashka Slater: The 57 Bus: A True Story of Two Teenagers and The Crime that Changed their Lives 

Pauline Boss, PhD: Ambiguous Loss

WhatsYourGrief.com: Ambiguous Grief: Grieving Someone Who is Still Alive

Ian Leslie, Slate.com: Ambivalence: Conflicted feelings cause discomfort and creativity.

APA PsychNet: Can people feel happy and sad at the same time?

MOSAC - Mothers of Sexually Abused Children - Responsibility Continuum

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