how to deal with mixed emotions

Have you ever experienced contrasting emotions or ‘mixed feelings’ toward something or someone? Have you ever had a hard time making a decision because you had felt both positive and negative emotions toward the decision? Maybe you felt trapped, stuck, torn by two opposing forces?

If your answer is yes, what you have experienced is called ambivalence. It surely isn’t pleasant, but it’s an inevitable part of the human experience. It’s not uncommon for people to think things like:

“I have a great job opportunity, but I love my current job. It feels like, whatever I decide – to stay at my current job or to accept this new one – I’d regret it”.

“I love my husband, but I get attracted to other people. What is happening? Do I really love him?” 

“My children bring me so much joy, but they often make me crazy. I want to spend time with them, but I also want them to leave me alone.”

There is nothing weird about these kinds of thoughts. People are complex beings, and with that comes the complexity of their thinking and emotions. Although we would like to have a perfectly clear picture of what we want and how we feel at all times, because of this complexity, it is not always possible.

Ambivalence is a state of internal conflict, experiencing both positive and negative thoughts and feelings about the same person or issue at the same time.

how to deal with mixed feelings

We all experience mixed feelings from time to time; it’s an inseparable part of human life. But it’s also an uncomfortable state, the one we often don’t know what to do with. Our minds like to be certain – that’s what helps us feel safe – and ambivalence brings just the opposite of that. Having seemingly contradicting feelings toward something can make us anxious and torn between options.

So, how do you get rid of ambivalence quickly and effectively?

A short answer is: you don’t and you shouldn’t. Instead, you learn to deal with it.

Ambivalence Is Not a Problem – Intolerance for Ambivalence Is

We, humans, are complex beings who walk around trying to put each other into neat little boxes – good/bad, right/wrong, mean/kind, etc. We are prone to black and white kind of thinking, trying to categorize people and experiences. This is normal to a certain extent – we are trying to quickly make sense of what is happening around us and predict what to expect. Simplifying life like this can be useful – in today’s fast-paced, over-stimulating world, our ability to filter, reduce, and simplify can help us properly function. However, if we are not careful or aware of this kind of thinking, it can carry an emotional cost.

The problem arises when we don’t know how to deal with mixed feelings. We say to ourselves: “These two things can’t go together, so which one will I choose? Which of these realities is “truer”? Which one wins, and which one will I deny and minimize?”

torn between options

Extreme intolerance for ambivalence is called “splitting”. It refers to an inability to hold opposing thoughts, feelings, and views of other people and oneself. People who use “splitting” see the world in absolute terms, without any room for shades of gray. For them, depending on the situation, people are seen as “perfect” or “total failures”, something “always” or “never” goes right, etc. They seem to not be able to integrate the idea that, what we often consider as “good” or “bad” traits, can exist in the same object. This, as you can imagine, can cause problems in relationships. It makes keeping long-term, stable, healthy relationships almost impossible, and the ability to optimally regulate own emotions and moods incredibly difficult.

The problem, then, is not ambivalence itself, but our intolerance for ambivalence.

Having Mixed Feelings Is Completely Natural

What’s true is that we can hold multiple emotions and opinions at once, even the ones that look contradictory on the surface. They can exist together without canceling each other out. Emotions are states that come and go; they are not permanent. Having both positive and negative feelings towards a person and/or a situation is completely natural.

You can…

  • love your children dearly AND still feel overwhelmed or angry with them.
  • feel like you want to spend more time with your partner AND need some time alone.
  • love someone AND know it’s not healthy to keep them in your life.
  • compassionately understand what led someone to do the things they did AND still hold them accountable for their behaviour.
  • believe in yourself AND still be afraid of failure.
  • grieve AND still hold space for joy.

Being able to see and accept that people, circumstances, and situations, as a whole, contain both “good” and “bad”, is one of the defining features of mental health.

contradicting emotions

Embracing Ambivalence

Having tolerance for our mixed emotions is beneficial for several reasons.

First, when we accept that we can have multiple, seemingly opposite emotions at the same time, we don’t invest so much energy in suppressing some emotions or trying to explain which of these are true and which are not. Instead, we can re-focus this energy toward accepting our experience, understanding ourselves, and making better decisions about complex life issues.

Second, when we accept our experience instead of trying to repress or run away from it, we can have a deeper understanding of ourselves and make better decisions about complex life issues. A straightforwardly positive or negative attitude toward something has a clear message: approach or avoid. With mixed feelings, we have the opportunity to review our goals and values and reflect on our beliefs. One study showed that mixed emotions are a sign of emotional depth, not indecision. It shows the ability to see things from multiple perspectives, which is often a reflection of emotional intelligence.

Third, intolerance to ambivalence is a relationship killer. One of the key elements of mature, healthy relationships is accepting the other person as a whole. We don’t have to like all aspects of someone’s personality to love them; in fact, it’s quite impossible. Mature love means being able to see different traits of another, to acknowledge that we feel positive and negative emotions toward these traits, and still love, appreciate, and choose this person. If we are not able to integrate both “good” and “bad” traits of another person into a whole, we may have an idealistic picture of what relationships should look like. This can create unrealistically high expectations, lead to “on” and “off” relationship dynamics, and put both individuals through emotional and behavioural roller coasters.

when you have mixed feelings

One Simple Tip For Dealing With Mixed Feelings

One way to do start building tolerance for ambivalence is to acknowledge that two seemingly opposing thoughts or emotions can exist in our mind at the same time. They don’t have to cancel each other out – make some room for both of them and, like a curious scientist, try to observe them without judgment.

What you can also do, then, is make a simple shift in language – replace BUT with AND. When we use BUT, we are implying that the two things between which the word BUT stands cancel each other out. However, when we use AND, we make room for all emotions.

For example, consider the difference between these two sentences:

“I love my husband but he makes me so angry sometimes”

“I love my husband and he makes me so angry sometimes”

Notice how the first has a worried, unresolved connotation. The air around the second one is, on the other hand, altogether different. One doesn’t negate the other; you get angry at your partner sometimes which doesn’t mean you don’t love him dearly. With “and” language, the tension stemming from the “but” language starts to dissipate. There are no angsty questions lurking, there are no dilemmas to resolve or apologies or justifications to be made.

Additionally, being clear with yourself about your values, about who you are, what you find important, and what you want to cherish in life can also help you resolve the state of ambivalence, or at least guide your decisions when mixed feelings are present.

Embracing ambivalence can open a whole new spectrum in your interactions with others and in understanding and accepting your own experience. Fulfillment and disappointment, love and anger, pain and pleasure, there is room for all of them. Instead of instantly labeling, we can get curious instead – about ourselves and others. With this idea in mind, with openness for all emotions, we can explore and better understand what is happening, inside and outside of us.

The world is not an either/or place; our lives are full of shades of gray.

 

Sources:

Burton, N. (2012). Self-Deception II: Splitting. Psychology Today.

Schimmack, U. (2001). Pleasure, displeasure, and mixed feelings: Are semantic opposites mutually exclusive?. Cognition & Emotion15(1), 81-97.

Schneider, I. K., Novin, S., van Harreveld, F., & Genschow, O. (2021). Benefits of being ambivalent: The relationship between trait ambivalence and attribution biases. British Journal of Social Psychology60(2), 570-586.

Zimmerman, E. (2016). Is Ambivalence Healthy? Researchers Have Mixed Feelings. Stanford Business.