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Monday, May 23, 2016

Psychotherapy Blog: The Connection Between Ambivalence and Mixed Messages

In a prior article, You Feel Mistreated, But Are You Giving Mixed Messages?,  I discussed how people sometimes feel mistreated by others when, in reality, they're giving people mixed messages about how they want to be treated.  In this article, I'm focusing on another aspect of mixed messages--saying one thing, but behaving in the opposite way.

The Connection Between Ambivalence and Mixed Messages

Usually, people who give mixed messages aren't aware that they're doing it.  It's often an unconscious process.

The following short vignettes are examples of how an individual can give mixed messages to someone else where the behavior contradicts what is being verbally communicated.

Scenario 1:
Kim is in a committed relationship with John.  When she meets the new colleague, Bill, she recognizes immediately that they have a strong attraction for one another.  When he asks her out for lunch, she sees no harm in being friendly.

The Connection Between Unconscious Ambivalence and Mixed Messages

During the next few weeks, they have lunch a few more times and he tells her what is already obvious to her--that there is a strong attraction between them and he would like to date her.  At that point, she tells him that she is in a committed relationship with John and she can't date him.  At first, Bill is surprised and disappointed, but then he says he understands and backs off.

After a week of not hearing from Bill, Kim wonders if Bill's feelings are hurt and feels she needs to call him to talk to him about this.  When she talks to her friends about this, they question her motives and try to discourage her from calling him, unless it's about business.  But Kim feels she has to clear up "any misunderstandings" so she calls him and asks him to have lunch.

During their lunch, Bill assures her that she doesn't need to be concerned.  He understands and he's not hurt or angry.  In response, Kim tells him that she thinks she was probably too hasty and maybe they can be friends.  So, she continues to get together with him and their attraction grows.

Despite what Kim told him, after a while, Bill thinks that there might still be a chance for a romantic relationship or, at least, a sexual relationship, so he invites Kim to go away with him for the weekend.  Surprised and angry, Kim tells Bill that she can't understand why he would ask her to go away with him since he knows that she's in a relationship.  Bill responds that he thinks she's playing with him, and Kim gets incensed and walks away.

The next day, when she tells her therapist, for the first time, about her lunches with Bill, her therapist points out that Kim seems to be ambivalent about what she wants from Bill and her words and actions don't match, so she is giving Bill mixed messages.

As they continue to explore it further, Kim realizes that, on a certain level, she does want to date Bill, but she doesn't want to cheat on John.  Due to her ambivalence, she tells Bill that she's not available, but the part of her that wants to date him finds ways to keep seeing him.  After she realizes this, she takes responsibility for her actions, apologizes to Bill, and maintains appropriate boundaries with him.

Scenario 2:
Don has been sober and in recovery for 10 years.  Aside from attending therapy, he goes to A.A. meetings and has regular contact with his sponsor.

Don meets Mary at a party and asks her out.  Both of them realize that there's a strong chemistry between them and they enjoy each other's company.

After a few dates, Don realizes that Mary has a serious drinking problem. After he talks to his psychotherapist and sponsor about it, he recognizes that continuing to date Mary would be unhealthy for him because she drinks heavily and he is putting himself at risk for a relapse.

When he sees Mary again, he tells her that his sobriety is very important to him and being around  her when she drinks so much could jeopardize his recovery.  Mary tells him that she understands.  She says  she is willing not to drink around him.  Initially, Don agrees to this, but he soon realizes that even if Mary doesn't drink around him, she still exhibits other addictive behavior, which is unhealthy for him to be around.

The Connection Between Ambivalence and Mixed Messages

A year later, Don is still dating Mary and telling her the same thing--that he shouldn't be dating her because of her addictive behavior.  Mary never argues with him about this.  She continues to be understanding about it and tells him that if he feels he can't see her anymore, he should let her know.  Even though Don tells her that he "shouldn't" see her, he still continues to ask her to go out with him, so he continues to act out his ambivalence.

As he and his therapist explore his relationship with Mary, Don realizes that Mary reminds him of his alcoholic mother.  Don was the "hero" in his family and he would often be the one to bring his mother staggering home from the bar.  After many years of pleading with his mother to stop drinking, she finally gets into an outpatient program and begins to lead a sober life, and she credits Don for "saving my life" (see my article: How to Stop Being the "Rescuer" in Your Family of Origin).

As he continues to explore these issues in therapy, Don realizes that he has a strong desire to "save" Mary too.  Logically, he knows that Mary doesn't want to stop drinking and he can't "save" her.  But his wish, which had been unconscious before it came to light in therapy, is so strong that he finds it very difficult to let go of the relationship.  It's only after he finds himself thinking that maybe he could have one or two drinks and he remembers that, in the past, this resulted in a major relapse, that he develops the motivation to end the relationship.

Underlying Issues in Both Scenarios
In both of these scenarios that are powerful unconscious wishes that create ambivalence and result in mixed messages.

In Scenario 1, Kim feels very attracted to Bill and if she wasn't already in a committed relationship, she would date him.  Even though she wants to remain faithful to her boyfriend, she deludes herself into thinking that she has to see Bill again to make sure she hasn't hurt his feelings by rejecting him.  Then, even after he tells her that he isn't hurt, she deludes herself further and rationalizes that she can spend time regularly with Bill but not call it dating.  This combination of factors results in mixed messages to Bill, who thinks that he has a chance and decides to take it.  Not seeing how she gave mixed messages, Kim becomes insulted and angry with Bill when he suggests that they spend a weekend together.  But after she and her therapist discuss it, she recognizes that she was acting on her own unconscious ambivalence and realizes that she has to take responsibility.

In Scenario 2, Don has already invested 10 years in his recovery, which is important to him.  After he begins to see Mary, who has a serious drinking problem, he recognizes, logically, that this is an unhealthy relationship for him and he is jeopardizing his recovery.  Even though he expresses this to Mary, he feels so drawn to her that he continues to see her.  A year into the relationship, he is continuing to tell Mary that her alcoholic and addictive behavior isn't healthy for him to be around, but his words and behavior don't match because he continues to see her.  After he discusses this with his therapist, he realizes that he is reenacting his "hero" role from his family of origin and Mary reminds him of his mother.  Since Don and his mother both think that his mother eventually stopped drinking because Don "saved" her, on an unconscious level, Don also thinks that he can save Mary too.  Logically, he knows that Mary doesn't want to stop drinking and he really can't "save" her, but his need to do so is keeping him in this codependent relationship.  It's only when he realizes how close he is too relapsing, as a result of being around Mary, that he finds the motivation to end the relationship.

In both scenarios there are powerful unconscious issues that both individuals are unaware of at first.  These unconscious issues are powerful drivers in both situations.

If Kim and Don were to continue in their respective therapies, their therapists would likely help them to work on these underlying issues.  Otherwise, both Don and Kim would probably continue to find themselves in similar situations with other people.

In my experience as a psychotherapist, experiential therapy, like EMDR, Somatic Experiencing and clinical hypnosis are ideal forms of therapy that help clients to overcome these unconscious issues.

It's not enough to just understand the unconscious issues on an intellectual basis.  There needs to be a transformative experience that leads to a breakthrough (see my article: Experiential Therapy Helps to Achieve Emotional Breakthroughs).

Getting Help in Therapy
Unconscious ambivalence and the resultant mixed messages are common.

If you find yourself in situations where you're expressing your ambivalence by giving mixed messages, which creates confusion, you could benefit from working with a skilled mental health professional who has experience helping clients with these issues.

By getting help and working through the underlying unconscious issues, you could lead a more fulfilling and authentic life.

About Me
I am a licensed NYC psychotherapist, hypnotherapist, EMDR and Somatic Experiencing therapist who works with individual adults and couples.

I have helped many clients to overcome the underlying issues that creates ambivalence and mixed messages.

To find out more about me, visit my website:  Josephine Ferraro, LCSW - NYC Psychotherapist.

















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