We’ve all been there. You’re in the middle of a screaming fight (OK, some of you are probably not screamers, so maybe a glowering fight) with the exact person that just 24 hours earlier you were feeling so incredibly in love with. Or you are furious with your 15 year-old for breaking curfew YET AGAIN when just last week you were sharing a touching moment with them where they thanked you for being such a great parent. And now you want to kill that same child. Not literally, but…
Yes, it happens. We can hate the ones we love. So what’s going on here?
Psychologists call this a “complex feeling”. It is literally a feeling that is a combination of other feelings. Just like “dusty rose” is a combination of pink and grey, many of the feelings we have during the day are actually combinations of other feelings. There are several schools of thought in my field that believe that there are only six truly distinct emotions: happy, surprised, afraid, disgusted, angry, and sad. Paul Eckman suggested that there are six basic emotions that are universal throughout human cultures: fear, disgust, anger, surprise, happiness, and sadness.Newer research is actually asserting that there are only four! Regardless of how many “distinct” emotions we have, in my experience the ones that really confuse us and cause most of our trouble are the “complex” or “blended” feelings. I feel great about liking my co-worker but then one day when she breaks my favorite coffee mug after I have asked her not to use it. I now have the weird experience of liking her overall, but at that moment being perturbed with her. What’s even worse is what if she broke the coffee mug in the process of grabbing me the last piece of that amazing chocolate cake from the kitchen because she knew I was under deadline and missed the birthday celebration? And she knows how much I love cake! Ugh!! Now I feel really confused. Let’s add in maybe that I envy my co-worker’s amazingly fit figure and she never seems to even want cake. But she brings me cake. I do love cake. And I want cake. But I feel slightly guilty eating it in her presence because her size 6 jeans make me feel insecure. So we now have “happy” (yay! she brought me cake!), “surprised” (“wow, thanks for the cake, I though it was all gone!”), angry (“you broke my mug! I asked you not to use it!”) and sad (“that was my favorite mug!”). I also apparently feel envy, which those smarty-pants researchers did not include on their list, but I would assert seems to be a very real feeling for many of us!
Why make the fuss about complex feelings? So what. We feel lots of feelings at the same time. Well, in my experience, lots of people find complex feelings unsettling. In fact, being able to tolerate complex feelings is a real developmental achievement according to mental health practitioners. Humans like to keep things simple. It frees up processing space in our brains. Really. We like to sort things into categories– good/bad, smart/dumb, safe/dangerous, Republican/Democrat… This unfortunate evolutionary tactic to reduce load on our brains so that we can function more efficiently can make it hard to acknowledge or manage complex feelings. It’s like being in a tug of war with your cortex– one part of you knows that this person is important to you and that you like or even love them, but the other part of you is trying to “keep it simple stupid” and focus only on one feeling in that moment.
I have learned as a therapist that even just pointing this out is helpful to folks. Again the way humans evolved we are not geared to even notice this much less know what to do with it. So this is one of those situations in which even noticing the problem really helps. The next thing that has proven useful to me as a therapist is literally to tell the person to “make space for” each of the feelings. Don’t judge them or try to get rid of one of them. Just notice them (mindfulness skills here!) and accept that they are co-existing in your brain right now. Allow both of them to be there. Don’t beat yourself up for having some or all of them. Don’t expect yourself to be internally consistent. Humans are inherently internally inconsistent, trust me.
The last step in dealing with complex feelings is assessing whether or not the person you are feeling them towards is a safe person to talk to about all of this. If that person generally can take feedback well and does not blow up then I recommend just telling them “hey, right now I feel mad at you but I also love you” or “right now I don’t want to be around you but that’s weird because I also have missed seeing you”. (sidebar– if the person does not seem like they are safe to talk to and it’s someone that is important to you– a spouse, a child, a friend– you probably want to consider doing some therapy with that person to improve the communication between you!)
Mixed feelings are only problematic if you try to ignore them or judge yourself for having them. If you just let them sit there like the weird little creature that they are (OK, maybe weird BIG creatures if you are a big feeler like me!) and be like “oh, hey, yeah I see you there. It’s weird that my love for my spouse is sitting right next to my desire to throttle him right now. Yep. Weird. But OK.” then they will tend to subside. If you can accept the incongruence and explore it and hopefully talk about it the discord usually resolves all on it’s own. Until it comes back. Which it will. Then it’s wash, rinse, repeat. Welcome to humanity.
If you struggle with accepting feelings in general, or maybe just some specific feelings like hate or envy or whatnot, take a look at my blog on Acceptance and the resources there. And as mentioned above, Mindfulness also has great skills to help with tolerating things that make you uncomfortable. The more you can tolerate and accept what’s going on inside you the more energy you will have to fight battles on the outside of you, like getting your taxes done or cleaning out the garage. Or maybe planning that fabulous vacation.
Wishing you health and happiness even when you feel conflicted,