Nothing Drains You Like Mixed Emotions
Feeling conflicted can be even more distressing than feeling bad. Here’s how to manage it.
“How to Build a Life” is a column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness. Click here to listen to his podcast series on all things happiness, How to Build a Happy Life.
“Ōdī et amō,” the Roman poet Catullus wrote of his lover Lesbia about 2,000 years ago. “I hate and I love. Why I do this, perhaps you ask. I know not, but I feel it happening and I am tortured.”
Maybe you can relate. If you’ve ever had mixed feelings about someone you love, you know the intense discomfort that results. If your feelings were purely positive, of course, the relationship would be bliss. Even purely negative feelings would be better, because the course of action would be clear: Say goodbye. But mixed feelings leave you confused about the right thing to do.
Romance isn’t the only part of life in which mixed feelings can cause pain. Maybe your ambivalence is instead directed toward your employer, and you can’t decide whether to stay and work to make things better, or go someplace else. Or maybe some of your memories are painfully mixed and hard to interpret. Perhaps your childhood was both good and bad, not fitting into a neat frame, and thus feels impossible to explain to others or even yourself.
Mixed emotions drain your emotional batteries, like a phone connecting to multiple networks simultaneously. They are one of the most complex psychological phenomena we are capable of, and bring us a great deal of distress. You might think that purely negative emotions are the most unpleasant ones; in truth, a cocktail of negative and positive can be worse.
The idea of being able to experience truly “mixed” feelings is quite new. Well into the 20th century, many psychologists believed that positive and negative emotions existed on a continuum. If you felt “less bad” as time passed after a loss or trauma, that simply meant you felt “more good.” Researchers didn’t think you could feel good and bad at the same time. Even today, people often talk about happiness and unhappiness in this way—as if the presence of one means the absence of the other.
In the 1960s, new psychological research began to collect evidence that positive and negative emotions were in fact separable, and as further research observed, could be felt simultaneously, and also in rapid succession. Neuroscience added support for this hypothesis when scholars found that positive and negative emotions largely correspond to activity in different hemispheres of the brain (for many people, negative emotions align with activity on the right, positive on the left).
Today, many emotion researchers believe that mixed emotions happen to just about everyone. Sometimes you feel positively about your romantic relationship in the morning, and negatively in the afternoon, for no clear reason. Or in one moment, you feel good about the overall partnership (I’m glad we’re together!) but bad about certain aspects (she isn’t very affectionate, and that worries me).
You might assume that your net happiness at a given time would be something like your positive emotion minus your negative emotion; if good > bad, then you are “net happy.” But as Catullus suggests, it’s not so simple: Mixed emotions can impose a psychological toll that’s greater than the result of that equation, because they are confusing and conflictive. You might say that the bad and good are at war internally, exhausting you emotionally.
Last year, a researcher found just this when he measured the effects of positive, negative, and mixed emotions on well-being: Positive emotions pushed well-being up, and negative emotions pushed it down; meanwhile, the independent measure of mixed emotions also pushed well-being down, and by more than negative emotions alone. In other words, hating your relationship or your job is emotionally easier than being ambivalent about it.
One seemingly obvious solution to the problem of mixed emotions is to try to eradicate them through more binary thinking. For example, you could attempt to eliminate shades of gray in your romance by simply deciding that it is “good” or “bad,” and then acting accordingly. My wife—a Spaniard—has told me that she thinks a lot of Americans do this: Everything has to be either wonderful or awful. Psychologists call this “dichotomous thinking,” and studies show that it is neither helpful nor healthy; on the contrary, it is associated with a number of personality disorders.
Rather than trying to think more dichotomously, lean into the zone of mixed emotions, which psychologists call “dialectical thinking.” This is the attitude that opposite emotions are normal and compatible. Some cultures are better than others at dialectical thinking—and my wife is right that Americans tend to be especially weak at it. For example, one 2021 experiment on American and Chinese students asked them to read statements that elicited happy memories and sad emotions at the same time, such as “I have been dreading this moment, but it has finally arrived. A chapter in my life is ending, and the future is still uncertain. I’ll miss the neighborhood and the friends I’ve made. I really do not want to leave. It’s a sad and nostalgic time.” The Americans experienced almost 50 percent more discomfort when reading this than their Chinese counterparts, possibly because they did not recognize or focus on the fact that missing one’s neighborhood and friends implies that one has happy memories of them.
To become more dialectical in your thinking, start by consciously acknowledging your conflicting feelings, as opposed to letting them battle away in your subconscious. If you’re conflicted about your relationship, try writing down its positive and negative aspects. Consider how you might manage the aspects you dislike, or perhaps accept them if you can’t change them. But decide—if the benefits outweigh the costs—that nothing is unnatural or wrong about having positive and negative feelings about someone you love. I have applied this technique in many areas of my life; it provides real relief and raises my happiness.
Once you are more comfortable with your mixed emotions, start to explore the richness that ambivalence can bring to your understanding of your life. Researchers in 2017 showed that people can find a deeper sense of purpose when contemplating both their happy and sad emotions about a particular occurrence, such as graduating from college. Seeing the true complexity of our relationships and experiences takes us beyond the superficial “great” or “horrible” descriptions that obfuscate more than elucidate our lives.
Note here an apparent contradiction: Mixed emotions may bring unhappiness, but they can also bring meaning to life. On reflection, you will notice that there is no inconsistency. Meaning is not only positive; on the contrary, a truly meaningful life is one filled with all types of experiences and emotions, including those we find disagreeable. This is why some psychotherapy seeks to not only lower emotional pain, but also find deep purpose in it. In a fully examined life, your mixed and negative emotions don’t go to waste.
Catullus’s dilemma has haunted and inspired us for centuries. In 1989, the Rolling Stones offered a particularly direct reckoning in their song “Mixed Emotions,” which proved to be their last Billboard top-10 hit to date. “This coming and going is driving me nuts,” sang the modern-day Catullus, Mick Jagger. “This to-ing and fro-ing is hurting my guts.”
Life is easier when the path forward is clear, of course, but it rarely is. We are built to experience highs and lows, and almost everything truly meaningful has both. Sometimes, that hurts your guts. But that’s the point. Don’t try to make life uncomplicated, or love it any less because it’s messy. Rather, resolve to be fully awake and alive inside that mess.