The ability to feel multiple, conflicting emotions at once is an advanced, but not unattainable, skill. And it can be essential for healing, for wholeness, for experiencing life as it is - in all its complexity. I will explore this notion of mixed feelings and how it relates to those of us who can get stuck in people-pleasing patterns.
It's Fall in Toronto, a time that can feel particularly bittersweet, full of conflicting realities. On the one hand, it is a time of abundance. As a hobbyist flower gardener, fall is a time of bounty for me. I have big bouquets of home-grown beauties gracing my tables. Even the plants that I started from seed are finally blooming. Plant stems reach toward the sky, the perfect height for cutting. My joy and excitement rise in parallel.
At the same time, the seasonal clock is very much ticking. I am all too aware that within a few weeks, even my strongest fall bloomers will start to fade. Trees are beginning to lose their leaves. While I enjoy the beauty and whimsy of this process, it is, in fact a loss. A loss of the green canopy, a loss of the active growing season. Annuals are beginning to die; perennials will soon go dormant.
And so, I feel sad. A sadness that is in some ways hard to hold onto, because it is connected with "anticipatory loss" - loss that is inevitable, but has not yet fully occurred. Like the loss of a loved one who is diagnosed with a terminal illness, prior to their actual demise. How can I grieve summer when I still see so much green?
And, more to the point of this post: how can I simultaneously hold in mind and heart these two conflicting realities: of abundance and loss? Joy and sadness? Is it even possible?
I think it is. But it is hard!
Parenting a newborn is another bittersweet experience that comes to mind, full of moments that were so diametrically mixed for me.
I am lying in bed, nursing my newborn to sleep. My body aches, wounded from the strains of pregnancy, childbirth, early parenting. Not to mention the burn of my cracked, pinched nipples. I notice a flare of resentment toward the helpless little being that has caused this pain. I feel helpless myself! I grit my teeth and will myself to bare it just a while longer; you are strong, I say to myself half-heartedly, you can do this.
Just moments later, I find myself gazing lovingly at my child. My heart swells, I am head over heels. Bonding hormones surge through me. I could live a lifetime in this place, with this warm, soft, sweet-smelling little body latched on to mine. In singer-songwriter Jack Johnson's words: it's "Just so easy when the whole world fits inside of your arms."
If only I weren't in so much pain, I say, I could actually really enjoy this. My pain is totally ruining this for me! Part of me refuses to accept the contradictions of my experience, wanting a more simple one, ideally all joy, all love; I am even willing to accept a narrative of all pain.
But I remind myself over and over - Aviva, this is bittersweet. It's supposed to be bittersweet. My hurt, my frustration, my discomfort, can co-exist with my love, my bliss. I don't have to edit out either, I can let it be what it is: a very mixed experience!
In my therapy practice, in which I specialize in people-pleasing, I am often working with mixed emotions. An extremely common mix is love and anger.
People-pleasers tend to be extremely empathic by nature. They feel the feelings of others in their lives so strongly that they can take over, block and silence their other feelings - like anger and resentment, and their own feelings of hurt.
Take the difficult situation of having been mistreated by a significant other - a parent, a romantic partner partner, a good friend. The people-pleasing tendency is to understand, empathize, see the others' pain and vulnerability. And, to stop there.
"I could never tell my mom how much she hurt me. It would crush her. She would feel so terrible, she would collapse."
There is the sense that one's own feelings - hurt and anger at mistreatment - are themselves hurtful. This can result in a surge of guilt. The people-pleasing tendency then is to self-silence, to edit out one's own truth, in an attempt to protect the other. One is then left with only empathy for the others' experience, without any room for one's own.
It's incredibly complex to maintain both feelings of love and anger - even hate - toward another person. In some sense, this ability is the end goal of therapy, a marker of a successful outcome.
As the brilliant image below metaphorically depicts, therapy, especially at its outset, is often a process of untangling knotted emotions, and getting to know and experience each feeling on its own. We often start out with mixed experience, but it is a hazy, distressing mix, one that leaves us feeling overwhelmed and confused. Here, we require the clarity that comes from sampling each feeling on its own.
The best way that I know of to allow ourselves to feel our mixed feelings - in a way that is clarifying, and not overwhelming - is to first allow ourselves to land fully on each individual feeling. Order doesn't matter. In my therapy practice, I find that it can be most accessible for "people-pleasers" to start first with the other-protective feelings: the love, empathy, even the guilt that is so embedded within people-pleasing.
And then, once this love is expressed, it can be easier to allow the anger, the outrage, in the service of self-protection: holding the other accountable for their actions (even if just internally), standing up for oneself. And then, separately, feeling the sadness and pain that stems from having been hurt.
Trying to experience the great mix of feelings before really appreciating each individual feeling is kind of like trying to experience the colour purple before developing the capacity to recognize blue and red on their own.
Eventually, we learn. We become familiar enough with the contours of our emotions that we can mix the anger, the sadness, the love, and come up with a beautiful mixed experience, one that is not muddled but clarified; something new is born.
The ability to experience both love and anger toward a significant other that has caused harm is an emotional superpower. It can feel like a brand new experience, something like soft, dignified pride, or tough, boundaried love.
Expressing this new mix of love and anger might sounds something like this:
"Mom/partner/friend: I love you so much. I know you are having a hard time, and I care very much. AND - x behaviour of yours is really hurting me. Please stop."
Kristen Kneff, a Buddhist-informed psychologist and self-compassion expert, has a lovely exercise she calls "Protective Self-Compassion Break." It was developed for situations in which someone has violated our boundaries in some way, and self-protection is needed. The goal is to help folks feel our self-protective feelings, including anger. This can be particularly helpful for "people-pleasers," who, again, have a tendency to silence their own anger in an attempt to protect others.
In the practice, Dr. Kneff invites us to imagine a *mild to moderately upsetting* situation in which our boundaries have been crossed. She invites us to first fully feel our anger. "You're giving yourself full permission to feel the force of... your truth, your anger."
And then, once this anger is felt, she reminds us of the truth that "people-pleasers" know all too well: "the person causing the harm is still human." She invites the empathy, the compassion, back in. Not to block the anger, but to mix with it; "See if you can let these fierce and tender energies mingle in your body."
It can be so hard for "people-pleasers" to give ourselves full permission to feel the full force of our anger. Our empathy, our guilt, can block us.
And then, once we finally learn how to experience and express our anger, it can be tempting to try to push away our empathy. To finally unleash our anger and have it be pure and sharp, unattenuated.
It can be extremely challenging, but potentially healing, to eventually also allow our empathy back in, not as erasure, but as another layer, to the complex experience that is living this life.
So, an invitation to start experimenting with experiencing mixed emotions. Maybe don't start out with the most distressing or complex experience or relationship; start small - like your feelings as you sip your coffee in the morning. Or how you feel when someone cancels plans last minute: maybe you are understanding, but also irritated!
Start off disentangeling the tangeled mass of your experience, so that you can separate out each individual feeling. It may help to talk to someone - a friend, a therapist, or to write it all out. See if you can do justice to each part of your experience on its own. Name each individual feeling; sense how it feels in your body. This in itself is a huge accomplishment!
And then, for bonus points: see if you can let your separate feelings mingle back together, like Dr. Kneff describes. So that you can glimpse a sense of wholeness, of the personal power that comes from experiencing more of your full truth.