06/04/2014 10:29 am ET Updated Aug 04, 2014

Why Befriending Your Ambivalence Can Help You Change

It can be tempting to view ambivalence as the enemy of positive change. Today you feel certain about making a change and tomorrow you're having second thoughts. It's especially frightening to hear ambivalence in others. Today your husband agrees he will start following the doctor's diet recommendations, but tomorrow makes liberal use of the salt shaker yet again.

It might sound surprising then to hear that ambivalence can actually be the key to supporting your own change or someone else's. You decide to stop snacking during the day at work, but at some point on the first day, you start to feel peckish with little nagging thoughts: "I could just start the plan tomorrow." "This job sucks." "I deserve these little treats," etc. You could choose to view these thoughts as "caving" or undermining your resolve. Or you could embrace these thoughts and feelings as a natural occurrence of ambivalence, completely expected in most change processes.

By "embrace" I mean taking each nagging thought seriously and examine it for what it has to teach you. Perhaps the goal should be revised: maybe not snacking isn't realistic and your hunger pangs should actually be responded to with a healthier snack rather than giving up snacks altogether. Or perhaps when taking the peckishness seriously and really assessing it, you realize you are thirsty more than hungry and by attending to the thirst, your success rate in not snacking will be improved. Embracing the ambivalence and investigating the contours of it, you are likely to discover something important. Maybe what initially seems like changing your mind is really boredom and by taking that seriously you can plan differently -- do a little stretching to get your blood flow and mind energized or act preventatively by starting more interesting tasks before the time of day that you tend to start feeling bored.

When ambivalence is viewed as a collapse in resolve, you can set yourself up to have a collapsing windfall internally and behaviorally: feeling sad or demoralized; bingeing on snacks; having hopeless or self-denigrating thoughts about yourself. These negative behaviors and experiences often activate emotion-sensitive parts of the brain and higher order capacities (planning, delaying gratification, using logic) literally get less neuronal energy.

However, when ambivalence is viewed as a natural part of the change process, one to learn from and investigate with curiosity rather than exasperation, this windfall is mostly avoided and the parts of your brain that do best with planning and execution stay more accessible. Recall the saying about being so mad you "see red"? The same concept applies to demoralized, hopeless feelings, which make it difficult to think clearly and plan effectively for next steps.

Even if you "slip" behaviorally in resolve (eat those cookies in the middle of the work day), an attitude of investigation and curiosity will increase your odds of success in the future. One strategy that can be helpful is to simply track what is happening. Many studies have shown this to be helpful in behavioral change. For instance, in weight loss, doing a daily "food diary" all by itself tends to correlate with people taking in fewer calories. You can use an app, your phone, a calendar, or simply a piece of paper, but track daily the behavior you are targeting to see what is happening, when, and why. Assessing when you get peckish during the day, for instance, can help you problem solve with more information -- not just about one particular day, but based on a pattern you might discover when able to view things from a birds-eye view. Tracking is a terrific awareness-building skill and the more awareness you have of the vicissitudes of your motivations, the more conscious your decisions become, adding to a feeling of control and rationale.

Do not mistake being curious about your ambivalence with being permissive and lackadaisical. People often fear that anything short of being "hard" on yourself and taking a "just say no" approach equates with being weak. This will often backfire. That equation is a myth born out of black and white thinking. Ambivalence is a teacher, providing us information and pointing the way toward constructive action. The other thing missed in that equation is that tracking and taking your ambivalent thoughts seriously is not the easy way out. It takes a lot of energy -- not time, necessarily, but energy and attention.

So, befriend your moments of ambivalence, take them seriously, give them your attention, and learn what they might have to offer.

Dr. Nicole Kosanke is the director of family services at the Center for Motivation and Change, where she specializes in working with family members of people abusing substances and in the assessment process for families and individuals with substance abuse issues. Dr. Kosanke has been working in the research and clinical practice of substance abuse treatment for many years and is a a co-author of Beyond Addiction: How Science and Kindness Help People Change, a compassionate and science-based family guide for navigating the addiction treatment world, understanding motivation, and training in the use of CRAFT (Community Reinforcement and Family Training) skills. These practical skills include self-care, positive reinforcement, positive communication, and staying connected in a constructive, positive way to help your loved one.

You can follow Dr. Kosanke on Twitter (@KosankePhD) and you can follow the Center for Motivation and Change on Twitter (@_TheCMC) or on Facebook.

Find more skills for helping a loved one with substance abuse issues at The 20 Minute Guide.