Having Mixed Feelings? Why That Might Be A Good Thing, From A Psychologist
You can love and hate a person. You can feel excited and fearful about what you're going to do next. You can hate the suffering from your regular body training regimen and yet feel satisfied.
Welcome to the world of mixed emotions. Plenty of my clients come to me disliking their feelings—but they're even more distressed by their mixed feelings because they can leave us feeling conflicted, confused, and uncomfortable.
Mixed emotions are, by their very nature, vague and ambiguous. Especially when they involve very different emotions that vary in intensity over time. And if nothing is clear-cut, then people believe they can't trust themselves and don't know what to do next.
Here's why mixed feelings happen, plus how to understand them in order to move forward.
Why do we have mixed feelings?
Humans are fundamentally complex creatures, and life only adds to that complexity. Even in more collectivist societies where people have prescribed socially acceptable milestones to hit, there are multiple shades of how we experience and what we feel about those milestones.
At the simplest, mixed feelings are two feelings coexisting with each other, like love and hate. Then, there are feelings that arise as a result of our feelings, aka "meta-emotions."
We can feel sad that someone died, for instance, and yet relieved they're no longer suffering. The burden of worrying and caregiving is gone, and we might judge ourselves for that, thinking we aren't good people or didn't love them enough. Or, we might feel ashamed about our anger because it's a "negative" emotion.
Mostly, you'll have two coexisting feelings, more meta-emotions along with them, and even more nuances and layers that vary depending on what's going on.
If you're stressed out at work too, then that might make you feel incapable of handling things, which ups anxiety. Or if you aren't feeling well in your body, you can feel helpless and despair. What's more, these different layers are not obvious, and they feel like an amorphous mass that clouds our head and body.
And because it's all so confusing, we're largely unclear on how to move forward with the right decision.
Why mixed feelings aren't a bad thing (and are actually a sign of emotional maturity)
If we can see having mixed feelings as emotional complexity, then that's where the magic happens—because the ability to handle and grow from complexity actually indicates emotional maturity.
Mixed feelings temper each other; instead of being volatile emotional roller coasters of pure emotions, mixed feelings make us even-keeled. In fact, low emotional complexity is a risk factor for1 developing various mental health challenges. Drawing from studies on aging, authors Epel and Blackburn write in The Telomere Effect that mixed emotional states help us avoid dramatic ups and downs and exercise more control over how we feel.
Having mixed feelings means we can see situations from other perspectives, opening new avenues of possibilities. For instance, losing one's job could be an opportunity to create a more fulfilling direction or examine one's priorities and spend more time with the family. A 2016 study of 16 cultures by the University of Waterloo, for instance, found that people living in self-oriented cultures (e.g., U.S., UK, Canada) were less emotionally complex than those living in other-oriented cultures (e.g., Asia and Russia), which emphasizes duty and familial bonds.
In that same vein, having mixed feelings means you can see from the vantage points of the different parts of you. Different psychological theories describe a person as made up of various parts, from wanting instant gratification to keeping ourselves in check; the suppressed parts that carry the shame and hurt of the past, and those that avoid pain.
Our life experiences mean there are parts of us that have been traumatized, deprived, or abandoned. Then, the different cultural expectations, roles, and ideas we are exposed to shape our different parts. Having mixed feelings, then, tells us the various parts of ourselves have their own needs and wants, and our decisions are a blend of taking care of those parts.
Moreover, you can't simply have only positive feelings about something positive. Maybe the outcome of your career move is overall positive, but that doesn't mean that the process will be completely positive. You will feel a host of different things—challenged, doubt, reward, joy, anxiety, etc.—you may even feel inspired by a win but fearful of what lies ahead.
The overall journey, which you can see as the Hero's Journey, can be one of many changing mixed emotions rather than emotional smooth-sailing.
The ability to work with mixed feelings helps us to learn and grow. By bravely facing what's going on inside and around us, we understand what leads to the present moment, what this is teaching us, and how we can architect our future.
The ability to make sense of confusing, disparate events in life can help us grow from traumatic events instead of suffering indefinitely from worsening traumatic symptoms. This is because we work to create a coherent narrative to put what happened in context, and stories release oxytocin to help us get closure.
Alongside working with our nervous system, especially with deep breathing and receiving support from safe individuals, we also metaphorically refile the incoherent traumatic memories from our amygdala, neatly into our hypothalamus.
Therefore, as you practice welcoming emotional complexity, people typically experience more positive emotions than negative ones as they age. Epel and Blackburn say this translates to more enriching daily experiences, and people live longer years with a good quality of life.
In her book, Adult Children of Emotionally Immature Parents, Lindsay Gibson, Psy.D., agrees that "the world ripens into something richer and deeper." Instead of having a single, intense, one-dimensional emotional reaction, she says, "they can experience several different feelings that reflect the nuances of the situation.”
What to do if you hate your feelings
Many Type A personalities hate feelings, feelings, feelings. In fact, it's the one thing that repels them from therapy because most of us think it's only about feelings. And as a psychologist, I stand with them.
Being obsessed about feelings—and overanalyzing them—leads to paralysis. Feelings can be used to justify why we do (or don't do) certain things. Emotions happen as a result of something internal or external to us, and when we ruminate excessively on them, they become stuck. And we become stuck and stop functioning.
We all know the person who said their "feelings" made them do something bad or stupid. But the thing is, they were likely suppressing how they felt by denying it or applying way too much logic. Feelings are like gases: You can compress more and more within a given space before they eventually explode with an outburst.
Essentially, something that leads you to regret, see yourself as less worthy, and have more messes to clean up. So to clarify, that's not what feelings made you do but rather pent-up feelings that you neglected.
Feelings get a bad rep, but if you want to develop emotional intelligence (EQ), you have to understand and befriend emotions because EQ isn't just about reading and responding to others—it's about reading and responding to ourselves.
Feelings are essentially data that tell us a lot of things. For instance, we evolved anger to tell us that something is unjust and needs to be changed. Depression tells us to withdraw and conserve our resources to regroup. Anxiety, to step back from an uncertain situation to plan better. Happiness, to repeat an action again.
More importantly, the ability to acknowledge how we are feeling doesn't make us handicapped by our emotions. Instead, it gives us the power and control to decide what we will do next.
How to understand your mixed emotions
How to connect with your feelings
To begin with, you might benefit from connecting with your feelings in a helpful way, meaning to use them as data. The truth is, we function best when our heads and hearts play a symphony with each other instead of suppressing either one and letting the other dominate.
Some questions you might ask yourself could be:
- What's the main emotion that visits me?
Everyone has an emotion that they feel most predominantly. It's not a bad thing—nothing to judge yourself about. Rather, be aware of it instead of being caught by surprise, and even plan for it, especially during stressful periods.
- In what ways are you disconnected from your feelings?
When the dorsal vagus nerve is activated, we go into a freeze state and feel numb. Otherwise, neurodiverse people are likelier to have alexithymia, a difficulty in recognizing, expressing, and processing one's emotions. It is useful to figure out when your feelings and you have little or no relationship with each other.
Next up, we learn to develop basic emotional vocabulary. Maybe you can't name your emotions yet, but that is OK. Some cultures are well documented to feel their emotions in their body too, what we call "somatizing." Whatever it is, we start somewhere.
- Simply name your feelings as "good," "bad," or "OK."
- Give them a score in terms of intensity, where 0 is nothing and 10 is full-on.
- Where do you experience these in your body? If you were to give this feeling a color, what would that be?
- What activates these emotions? (i.e., it could be a recurring situation, feeling full after a certain kind of meal, or time or day)
- Draw a stick figure and color these feelings in together with the data.
As you develop fluency in naming your emotions and read about what the basic ones are (anger, sadness, guilt, fear, joy), you can then match them.
Following this, you can start getting into the nuances of your feelings, for instance with this emotions wheel, where you develop a more sophisticated emotional vocabulary.
How to process your feelings
Feelings aren't always comfortable, even supposedly positive feelings of happiness and pleasure. Sometimes we wonder what we did to deserve them, wonder when they'll disappear, or sabotage ourselves by doing things that make things worse.
Check in with yourself, what are your main thoughts and feelings about your feelings? In particular, notice how you may judge them and what you do after.
And here's an easier way to deal with any feeling:
- First acknowledge what you're feeling—name it, where it is, and how intense it is—like a fact. This helps you regain control.
- Ground yourself—when we are in our heads, we make unwise decisions. Slowly shuffle your feet on the floor or curl your toes to get back into your body.
- Take three deep breaths, making sure that when you inhale, your belly inflates like a balloon. And when you exhale, your belly deflates. Exhale for as long as you can, emptying your body of air. This step helps your higher brain to get back online.
How to master your mixed feelings
Know that your mixed feelings are not that amorphous
Gift yourself a little time out, as you sit and figure out the different parts of that cocktail—the ingredients and the proportions. Do it factually, like you are reading a medical report.
Ask yourself what activates this set of mixed feelings
Is it a particularly difficult situation you are going through—like a stressful job period or family illness—or is this something recurring like a health issue. Matching it helps you regain more control, so you plan for giving yourself more space and grace.
When the feelings arise, meet them with curiosity and kindness
Feelings provide you with data about what's going on inside and around you. Follow the instructions in "How to process your feelings" (above). Then ask yourself what makes each constituent feeling stronger or weaker. For instance, when we see the future as a catastrophe or as Game Over, our anxiety will shoot up. But if we can look objectively at our own resources, we feel more hopeful.
Examine which feelings you are friendlier to and which you are more hostile to
Figure out why you're rejecting certain feelings. It could be as simple as "because people say that anger is bad," or more complex, such as, "I watched my mother rage and break things, and I am afraid I will turn into her."
Ask yourself what issue or challenge in your life is being signaled by these mixed feelings
Figure out which parts of yourself are being activated by the environment. For instance, the company of very noisy people can be overwhelming and make everything feel harder to deal with, or a carbohydrate-laden meal can make you feel sluggish and hopeless. Separate yourself from the situation and go for a short walk.
You can also ask yourself which emotions are raw replays from the past. Here, deep breathing will help you to teach the timekeeper in your brain that "then is now."
Finally, figure out which aspects of this situation are solvable. As you break down the issue, you will figure out the path in, to start solving, from which you can create a plan. Sometimes, this can start with seeking support from someone you trust.
Make sure you take care of your body first
Always ask yourself: Are you hungry, thirsty, or have you remembered to use the bathroom? Blood glucose spikes can change the way we see things, and my neurodiverse clients often forget to use the bathroom, so holding it in can cause a lot of bodily tension. Then check in if you are feeling well enough—a headache can throw you off, and during the last few days before a woman's periods, sometimes our brains tell us things we should not believe.
Put yourself in different perspectives, especially if you know more than one language
A curious thing I've noticed is that my clients who think in Eastern languages tend to ride their mixed emotions better, and when I think in Chinese, the same thing happens for me.
A part of this may come down to the philosophical notion of the dialectic, where both extremes of a concept are entertained and resolved by taking on parts of each other. So, instead of simply being 100% black or 100% white, it may end up becoming 65% gray.
If you can play around with combining different aspects of your black-and-white feelings or thoughts, this may help. Otherwise, if you can think in a language that facilitates that.
One of the most surprising things was telling my feelings, "I'll take care of you, I'm in charge now," when I realized they had simply evolved to protect me and sometimes went a bit too far in doing that. I'd always feared that naming how I felt would make me weak or completely inundated by them. How would I function otherwise?
And then I realized—it actually made me stronger and better able to function. In the same way, the easiest way through is to take care of our mixed feelings by letting our head and heart work together.
Perpetua Neo, DClinPsy, is a psychologist and executive coach currently living in Singapore. She received her doctorate in clinical psychology from University College London and her master's in philosophy from University of Cambridge. Her first book This Is What Matters was published by Simon & Schuster in May 2022, which guides you to transform crisis to strength, or design an #EverydayAmazing life.
She has been featured in Elle, Forbes, and Business Insider and has previously worked with Olympians, business professionals, and individuals seeking to master their psychological capital. She works globally in English and Mandarin-Chinese via Skype and Facetime, blending cutting-edge neuroscience, psychology, and ancient wisdom.