Tuesday, January 24, 2012

Ambiguity Tolerance

Ambiguity tolerance is the ability to perceive ambiguity in information and behavior in a neutral and open way.

Ambiguity tolerance is an important issue in personality development and education. In psychology and in management, levels of tolerance of ambiguity are correlated with creativity, risk aversion, psychological resilience, lifestyle, orientation towards diversity (cross-cultural communication, intercultural competence), and leadership style.

Wilkinson's Modes of Leadership is largely based on ambiguity tolerance. Mode one leaders have the least tolerance to ambiguity with mode four leaders enjoying and preferring to work in ambiguous situations. In part this is due to what Wilkinson calls 'emotional resilience'.

The converse, ambiguity intolerance, which was introduced in The Authoritarian Personality in 1950, was defined in 1975 as a “tendency to perceive or interpret information marked by vague, incomplete, fragmented, multiple, probable, unstructured, uncertain, inconsistent, contrary, contradictory, or unclear meanings as actual or potential sources of psychological discomfort or threat.”

Be that as it may.

I am currently in weekly psychotherapy with a psychiatry resident.  I believe that an issue of ambiguity tolerance has arisen in my work with the psychiatrist.

I had a session with the psychiatrist on January 23, 2012.  In two different contexts the psychiatrist raised the issue of my contradictory feelings about objects and seemed to me, at least, to assume I had feelings associated with my inconsistent evaluations.  I do not know whether I am tolerant or intolerant of ambiguity.  I like to believe that I am ambiguity tolerant.  I wonder whether my therapist assumes I am ambiguity intolerant and, further, that ambiguity arouses strong negative feelings in me.  Or, perhaps, my therapist is himself ambiguity intolerant, and my narratives -- rife as they are with ambiguity, contradiction, and part-truths -- arouse negative feelings in him.  (According to Barron, creative people state only part-truths.)

I was talking about a psychiatrist I used to see, Stanley R. Palombo, M.D.  I described Dr. Palombo as a super-smart guy.  I described him as "scary smart."  I said I admired his intellect.  But I also had negative things to say about Dr. Palombo.  I said that from time to time Dr. Palombo would try to persuade me to actualize my academic and professional credentials and embark on the practice of law.  I said I viewed Dr. Palombo's comments as simplistic and a sign that he was feeling frustrated by my lack of progress in therapy.

My psychiatrist pointed out my contradictory feelings about Dr. Palombo.  But why?  I have contradictory feelings about many (if not most) things.  My inconsistencies, part truths and ambivalent feelings don't trouble me.

In another context during the session I talked about the McClendon Center, where I see a therapist who prescribes psychotropic medications.  I said I had feelings of futility and meaninglessness about my interaction with the various doctors I had seen at the McClendon Center.  I said I felt like a "professional patient" who was being processed or warehoused: someone who was passed on from doctor to doctor.  I said I felt that my relations with the doctors at the McClendon Center were dehumanizing. 

At the consult on January 23 my psychiatrist pointed out that I had previously said that I was happy with the medication that had been prescribed for me at McClendon: paxil.  My psychiatrist noted that I had said that Paxil moderated my insomnia and that I felt more relaxed on the drug.   Thus, the psychiatrist pointed out a seeming inconsistency regarding my feelings about McClendon.  My unstated emotional reaction at that moment was "so what?"  Yes, I value the services that McClendon provides.  Those services are indispensable for me.  I also believe that there are problems with the McClendon Center's handling of me.  The initial assessment was, in my view, inadequate.  I believe that no doctor has taken a step back from his bureaucratic handling of me and asked himself: "What does it mean that this patient has been seeing psychiatrists on and off for 35 years, and never seems to get anywhere in life?"  It's as if I were a patient on an assembly line of patients.  In each case the McClendon psychiatrist will simply glance at the chart, reference the previous doctor's treatment, and continue with the same treatment without ever looking beyond the chart and making a de novo assessment of the patient's therapeutic needs.

Yes, my feelings about McClendon are ambiguous and ambivalent.  But it's not my feelings of  ambivalence or ambiguity that bother me.   What bothers me are the objective limitations of the Clinic: not my ambivalent feelings about the clinic. 

Maybe there's something intrionsically Jewish about my affective world.  I am reminded of the following scene from Woody Allen's movie Annie Hall.

Such are my feelings about life in general: I have mixed and contradictory feelings about most things.

In any event, I took an ambiguity tolerance test on the internet and I scored 81, whatever that means.

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