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Nathanael Garrett Novosel, February 26 2020

Why You Experience Mixed Emotions

Many people wonder how they can feel mixed emotions such as happiness and sadness at the same time and what that means for them.  In this post, we'll talk about whether it's possible to feel many emotions at once, how your emotions work, what they're telling you, and how you can respond based on their feedback.

You can feel multiple, possibly-conflicting emotions at the same time in three ways:

To understand the above, it’s important to understand what emotions are.  Emotions are indicators of your current state and direction toward growth.  They are not a perfect continuum (e.g., how much better is jealousy than embarrassment?), but they are generally on a scale from fear/hopelessness/depression to joy/love/elation.  If you are growing and focused on that, you are happy.  If something is harming you or your growth is inhibited in some way, you are sad.

The equation to determine why you feel how you feel is Emotions = Desire + Belief + Experience.  Let’s look at some examples:

If that’s so, then how can you, say, be happy and sad at the same time when they are opposite emotions?  A few ways:

If you are experiencing mixed emotions, they are caused by one of the above scenarios.

So, how do you react to these mixed emotions?  The first thing you can do is diagnose the cause that you would want to change.  For example, if you're sad that you just experienced a career-ending sports injury, it's probably caused by the belief that athletics was a key part of your life and your desire to be a great athlete.  You could give up your belief that your athletics define you, which could work, but you could instead/also build desire for coaching, journalism, or other jobs in the field of sports.  In either case, you are identifying potential shifts in your desires and beliefs in response to the experience to improve your emotions.  Note that you can also maintain your desire and belief and focus on the experience of recovering from the injury, overcoming the beliefs of the naysayers that the injury is career-ending.

Once you identify that root cause and explore which changes you can make, you'll have to actually make the change.  This is where repetitive affirmations, persuasive self-talk, and/or arguing against old beliefs/desires/experiences will help you make the change.  It sounds difficult (and it is), but a belief is just something that you've thought or seen so much that you accept as true (whether or not it actually is).  Both facts (e.g., "I have always done things this way") and opinions (e.g., "I'm not able to want anything else other than what I lost") can change with enough work on them.

For example, if you are sad about something, you can use the opportunity to either find reasons to be happy (i.e., refocus your attention away from the bad to the good in a situation) or use the sad event to trigger a happy event (i.e., think of the challenge as an opportunity for a solution).  Tell yourself that you can be happy again if you've experienced loss (it's true—you are not lying to yourself), tell yourself that you can find a way to solve the problem you're facing (you can), and tell yourself that you will change your experiences in the future for better outcomes (you can).  These kinds of thoughts will help you shift your desires, beliefs, and future experiences to improve your emotional state.  Sometimes you can change your emotions quickly, but other times it takes a while.  The only thing you need to do to help it go faster is to accept/be okay with however long it takes.  If you get impatient, it'll cause more negative emotions and, ironically, slow your progress.

If you can identify the mixed emotions and the underlying desires, beliefs, and experiences causing them and then decide which parts need to change to improve your emotional state, you can master your reaction to them.  For more detail around how emotions act as life’s feedback mechanism, see the Emotions Chapter of The Meaning of Life: A guide to finding your life’s purpose.

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Nathanael Garrett Novosel

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