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Changing When It’s Difficult to Change

positive change is simple but it's not easy

❝Ambivalence is our constant companion.❞ -William Miller

Imagine you have been out of work for several years. Perhaps you were taking care of kids or parents. You may have retired early or taken a sabbatical. Now you find yourself in a place where you are wondering if you want to go back into the workforce. On one hand, you are kind of bored at home, could use some extra money, and have been missing social connection. On the other hand, you remember what it was like to work. You don't want to have a boss breathing down your neck and don't much care for office politics. You have one decision to make that has both significant positives and negatives.

Next, imagine you went looking for a job and, after several interviews ended up with two amazing job offers. You would be happy at either organization, and neither of these choices has any downside. The only downside you notice is that you might have some potential future regret if you choose one because you can't choose the other. You want both of these opportunities but have to choose one. You have two choices, both of which are equally attractive.

Now imagine that after choosing one of those choices, you had worked at the firm for a few years when another company purchased your company. They offered you a promotion if you move across the country, and a similar role if you stay where you are. There are significant positives and negatives to accepting the promotion and moving across the country. There are also significant positives and negatives to keeping your current role. You have two choices, both of which have significant positives and negatives.

Further, imagine that after accepting the promotion on the other side of the country, you've been tasked with doing something unethical; It's something that you are very uncomfortable with. You've also been told that failure to do this job will result in your termination. You're now stuck between a rock and a hard place because to keep your job, you have to do something unethical, and refusing to do something unethical means you will lose the job you traveled cross-country to obtain. You have two choices, both of which have no upside and only downside.

The common thread through all of these scenarios is the presence of ambivalence.

changing is hard because of ambivalence


Making a change in our lives is particularly difficult because of ambivalence. William Miller, who developed Motivational Interviewing, defined ambivalence as simultaneously wanting something and not wanting something at the same time. It can be uncomfortable holding both thoughts and desires simultaneously, but, as we'll see, being ambivalent can be helpful. An example of ambivalence can be wanting to start a new diet. If I both want to start a new diet and at the same time don't want to change what I'm eating now, then I am ambivalent.

Ambivalence is not the same as indifference. Indifference means you don't care one way or the other. For example, I may not care whether I have tacos or spaghetti for dinner – making me indifferent.

Ambivalence is also not the same as ignorance. Ignorance means not knowing or not having enough information. If I didn't know that a particular diet would be good for me, I wouldn't be ambivalent about starting the diet. I would be ignorant about the diet.

Ambivalence is when you both know and care about one or more choices, and you notice both the pros and cons of all the choices at the same time.

There are four types of ambivalence (in the job story above). The first is what we can think of as the best kind of ambivalence. This is when you have a choice between two or more alternatives that are equally appealing. Sometimes called approach/approach ambivalence, and is like being a kid in a candy store. Perhaps you have won a game and have a choice between two prizes. How do you choose? Even though it's the happiest form of ambivalence, it's still challenging to make a choice.

The second form of ambivalence is sometimes called avoid/avoid ambivalence. This is when you have to choose between two options you don't want. You can think of this as having to choose between the lesser of two evils. This type of ambivalence often shows up in stories; the most horrifying and famous example is Sophie's Choice.

The third form of ambivalence, approach/avoid ambivalence, is when you're considering a choice that has both good and bad aspects. This could be something as small as wanting to go out with your friends tonight because you enjoy their company, but you also have to get up early tomorrow and don't have the money. Or, it could be as big as wanting to quit smoking or drinking. You might think that giving up cigarettes would be good for you, but the more you think about it, the more you realize that being a non-smoker would mean a different set of friends and different routines that you're not ready for. It often seems that the more you're drawn to the pros, the more you notice the cons. Yet, the more you're drawn to the cons, the more the pros appear.

The last form of ambivalence, called double approach/avoid ambivalence, is the most difficult. With this, there are two or more choices, and all the choices have significant positive and negative aspects that you have to consider. This could be choosing a college major, choosing a city you want to live in, picking a life partner, or buying a house.

4 types of ambivalence, approach-approach, avoid-avoid, approach/avoid, double approach/avoid

This questionnaire is an instrument that taps into ten valued domains of living. It assesses the perceived importance of each of these ten life domains and the degree to which you are living in accordance with this perceived importance.


One of the main ways ambivalence shows up is when we try to make a change in our life. Making a change is not like flipping a switch. People don't just wake up one day and say, "Today, I'm going to start eating less," or, "Starting now, I'm going to start an exercise program." When it comes to making change, information isn't enough. Information is necessary, of course, unless we are ready to change, all the information in the world is useless to us.

Rather than being a one-and-done situation, the change process works in stages. It can be helpful to learn about the stages because it can be helpful to learn that even if you haven't made a change yet, you might still be able to see progress. It's also helpful to see the very stages so you can identify where you are and see where you are heading if there's a change you want to make. The stages are precontemplation, contemplation, preparation, action, maintenance, and integration.

Precontemplation: In the precontemplation phase, you're unaware that a change can be made. You are completely unaware that there are any benefits of doing anything different from how you are operating.

Contemplation: In the contemplation phase, you have at least heard that there are benefits to making some kind of change, and you're not ready to do it yet, don't think it's important to do, or don't have confidence in your ability to do it.

Preparation: In the preparation phase, you are getting ready to change. You're starting to research how you might be able to do it. You recognize that it's important and are ready to see what it might look like for you to change.

Action: In the action stage, you are fired up and ready to go. You have started to take steps toward the change that you want to make. This is the stage where information and learning about strategies are helpful. Therefore, if you're not in the action stage of change, your objective is not to change but rather to get to the action stage.

Maintenance: In the maintenance stage, you are trying to make the change last. You're implementing new habits and activities. It's important to know that it is common to fall back to the other stages of change in the maintenance stage. We might call this relapse, and if you relapse and think that you failed, you're less likely to get back up on the horse. If you recognize that relapse is part of the process, it will allow you to keep moving forward.

Integration: At this stage, you have changed and have very little chance of reverting to your old ways.

stages of change

If you are wondering where you are in the stages of change, you can look no further than the words you use when you talk to others or your inner voice. These are very significant clues as to where you are in the stages of change. In precontemplation, you don't even know there is something to do. Thus, if you have heard of something for the first time, you're in the precontemplation stage.

You can recognize yourself as being in the contemplation stage of change if you hear language around preparing for change. This could include language pointing to your desire to change. You might enjoy what life would look like if… You want to do that… You would like to be… Alternatively, you might look for language related to your ability or need to change. You may say that you can… You might be able to… It might be possible to… Perhaps you can't afford to… You might have to…. You really must consider…

Language around your desire, ability, and need to change is a clue to where you are. Once you start to find more and more reasons for change and the scales are tipping closer and closer toward change, you are likely progressing from contemplation into preparation.

When statements like "might" and "probably" turn to statements like "definitely," then the scales start to tip even more. Once you are not pondering it anymore and are willing to try different things or plan on doing things, then you are progressing through preparation and getting into action.

change talk and the stages of change


Though ambivalence can sometimes feel uncomfortable, it can be helpful if we embrace it. When you are in precontemplation about a particular topic, you're not even considering any action or change because you haven't heard about it. It's not something that's on your radar. If I suggest some kind of recommendation to you and you're in the precontemplation stage, you're likely to be confused or wonder why I am bringing this up because you never thought about this change.

Once you enter contemplation, though, you start to feel ambivalent. You're now starting to think about both pros and cons of change. As you continue considering both the pros and cons of change, the balance will start to tip towards change as you move into the preparation stage. Finally, at the action stage, you take action, and you're no longer ambivalent because you have started taking steps.

Thus, much like the rest of life, change is not easy, but once you change, you tend to be happy that you did. You're happy that you went through the journey that you did. In other words, there is no growth in the comfort zone, and ambivalence pushes you out of your comfort zone towards growth.

ambivalence and the stages of change


However ambivalence shows up, it's difficult and uncomfortable, especially when the decision needed to make is relatively soon. To work through a tough decision, it can be helpful to create a classic pros/cons list. When you make your list, pay special attention to how your personal values show up with each possible action or decision you can make. What are your most important values? How have you prioritized them? What is your core value that drives the rest of your values?

Your values help you prioritize your life, including the decisions you have to make. Sometimes life will confront you with difficult decisions. That's the human condition. Connecting to your values helps you to prioritize your choices in life.

connect your life and your values

Change is difficult and often more complicated when we're ambivalent. Learning to embrace ambivalence and prioritizing our choices through the lens of our values helps us to live more intentionally and meaningfully.

You get one life; live intentionally.


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Related Meaningful Money Reading
References and Influences

Hanh, Thich Nhat: You Are Here

Manson, Mark: Everything is Fucked

Miller, William: On Second Thought

Miller, William & Stephen Rollnick: Motivational Interviewing

Note: Above is a list of references that I intentionally looked at while writing this post. It is not meant to be a definitive list of everything that influenced by thinking and writing. It's very likely that I left something out. If you notice something that you think I left out, please let me know; I will be happy to update the list.



About the Author

Derek Hagen, CFA, CFP, FBS, CFT-I, CIPM is a speaker, writer, and coach specializing in financial psychology, meaning and valued living, resilience, and mindfulness.


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