Are you a little mixed up right now?
As lockdown continues to ease, many of us are returning to our working and social lives. We are getting a chance to see friends, family members and work colleagues for the first time in months. And a new year beckons – creating the usual mix of excitement and optimism.
However, this year some of the positive feelings that come with a new year may well be battling it out with more negative feelings such as anxiety and worry about the current crisis we are living through. These mixed emotions may be causing us some confusion and we might be asking ourselves: what should I actually be feeling?
Accepting opposite feelings
Many of us believe we should have only one feeling about a particular situation. We should either be happy or sad, excited or angry. But unfortunately, it seems things just aren’t as simple as that at present. If nothing else, events over the last year have proved that mixed feelings are something we will all have to get used to in time.
The array of emotions we may be feeling at present is as diverse as an artist’s palette. Should we be joyful at the prospect of seeing friends and colleagues? Anxious at the thought of all of this being taken away from us again? Grateful at the return to some kind of normal life? Sad at the loss of our old way of life? Admiration for those around us whose heroic efforts have kept everything going? Anger at those – politicians included – who have made mistakes? The list goes on. And on.
A degree of inner conflict
In mixed emotions, a person can feel completely opposite feelings at the same time. We have all experienced this. Take for example you get a chance to re-visit the school where you spent a large part of your childhood. You might experience a sudden rush of joy and delight at being re-acquainted with the sights and sounds of your youth, but this might be tempered with sadness that this is all in the past and even a certain amount of anxiety at the common thought: where have the years gone?
It is not so difficult to see how even in a basic example such as this, contradictory feelings can cause a degree of inner conflict, which in turn can produce a great deal of stress. However, accepting conflicting feelings is very important to our mental wellbeing. The ability to experience negative emotion alongside positive emotion can enable us to find something positive in stressful situations and in a situation like the current crisis, it could be the difference between remaining well and becoming ill.
The emotion colour wheel
American psychologist Robert Plutchik postulated that there are eight primary emotions: anger, fear, sadness, disgust, surprise, anticipation, acceptance, and joy; and that all other emotions are combinations of these feelings. Rather like secondary colours such as purple and green can be made by mixing primary colours – red, blue, and yellow – in the same way by mixing two or more primary emotions at different intensities, it is possible to create hundreds or even thousands of secondary emotions. For example, the blending of anger and disgust can produce resentment. Whereas joy and acceptance can produce the mixed emotions of love.
So, if we could step back from our current situation for a second, we might find that things aren’t as complicated as we may at first think. It may just be that our black-or-white thinking is getting in the way. Instead if we try to live in the grey areas; or by extending the colour wheel analogy, in the mixed coloured area – where one emotion blends into another – we might find the space to see how everything is finely balanced, and how we may be able to feel happy and sad, and anxious and excited all at the same time.
Holding it all together
Two questions arise from all of this. Is it possible that one brain – one mind – can hold all these competing feelings together at once? The answer to this is yes – our brains and minds have evolved over time since our early ancestors roamed the planet to do exactly this. Our survival depended on it. If one thing defines us as human more than anything else, it is that we are complex emotional beings. Whether we like it or not, we are hard-wired to experience mixed emotions everywhere and all the time.
Secondly, in mixed emotions, which feeling wins out? Which emotion actually gets to influence our behaviour? The answer is the strongest feeling usually gets the priority. However, we can influence this by recognising in ourselves that even if our stronger emotion is a negative one, behind this there may be weaker emotions that are more positive which we can bring to the fore and make more prominent.