Evolution of the Self

On the paradoxes of personality

Can You Feel Two Emotions at Once?

Indecision, vacillation, procrastination—they’re all driven by bipolar emotions.

Have you ever felt happy and sad at the same time? Or experienced an emotion as bittersweet? Or had feelings so mixed that you were compelled to vacillate between two courses of action—or reaction? Or maybe torn between two (or more) emotions? If you can relate to any of these possibilities, this piece should help you better understand how having contrasting feelings can manifest as uncertainty, confusion, or ambivalence.

Being somehow “trapped” in a conflicting emotional state might seem rather strange. After all, rationally considered, how can you love and hate somebody at the same time? Or at once be attracted to, and repulsed by, one and the same event? Yet, however paradoxical, such experiences are universal. For at one time or another, we’ve all found ourselves in a push/pull situation. Or one that, in its multi-dimensionality, simultaneously left us with the ambiguous impulse to approach an object—yet, at the same time, avoid it.

In fact, what’s typically described as procrastination mostly relates to such mixed feelings, or emotional ambivalence. How could you possibly act decisively, or even act at all, if you’re of two minds—or rather, feelings—about something? Unquestionably, the roots of procrastination are embedded in this vexing emotional bipolarity. Not infrequently your undertaking something new may stall out, or be put on hold, because you’re “split down the middle” in how you feel about proceeding with it. You may be eager and excited to start a venture, while at the same time harboring fears about not being able to complete it successfully. And this nagging anxiety will give you pause. For something deep inside you forces you to put on the brakes. In such instances, you’re willing—at least in part—to make yourself vulnerable and take certain risks because of the potential pleasures and rewards your pursuit offers. But these positives may be perfectly counterbalanced by a strong, unshakeable need to protect yourself from possible rejection, failure, or loss.

Heads and tails may be opposites but they’re still two sides of the same coin. And humans, like metallic currency, are also composed of sides (though a lot more than two!), which may not be complementary but nonetheless coexist. Ironically, the tension between these parts creates a stasis (or standoff) altogether dissimilar from any kind of harmonious equilibrium.

Is not the stymying experience of confusion largely about being “taken over” by opposing feelings? (And here I’m not referring to anything attitudinal or intellectual, but emotional.) If you’re confused about a person or event, it’s only to be expected that you’ll cycle between two (or more) emotions. Or be “caught” between such emotions in a manner that leads you to feel them simultaneously.

Of course, at any given moment one feeling may well predominate over the other(s). And this psychological phenomenon is roughly analogous to the purely optical one of eying an optical illusion. In this uncanny (and sometimes spooky) visual experience, the instant one form or object vanishes from view (or goes from figure to ground) the other (going from ground to figure) appears. Yet neither of these perceived forms can be in focus—or dominant—at the same time. Although both have equal valence, it’s only in alternating fashion. They exist equally but only in “rotating sequence” with one another.

Let me provide some real-life examples of the emotional bipolarity I’m seeking to clarify. By my doing so, you may get a better idea of how one emotion can “vie” with another for ascendance, as well as how such relative, fluctuating dominance can shift in a nanosecond. And it’s not really a matter of two different emotions being accessible at any given moment. Rather, it’s a situation in which both feelings constitute your emotional reality but can’t be felt, or experienced, to the same degree simultaneously.

Consider the woeful situation of loving someone who can’t—or won’t—love you back: the age-old dilemma of unrequited love [see my post on this topic]. What’s the “double” (perhaps “triple”) emotion here? The almost indescribable emotion of falling in love, or being in love, has to be seen as one of the most positive, exhilarating emotional states imaginable. It’s been characterized in terms of delight, joy, enchantment—even rapture or bliss. Yet also being aware that such adoration isn’t reciprocated can induce an equally powerful negative emotional state—also difficult to describe in its lamentable intensity. Words that have been employed to depict such vast frustration or disappointment range from sorrow, regret, grief and misery, to heartwrenching agony, anguish, and despair.

These two “sets” of opposing emotions, taken together, can be seen as depicting an experience perhaps best portrayed as (to use a term I introduced at the outset) bittersweet. And, psycho-logically, how could these contrasting emotions not be experienced at the same time—or at least in extremely close proximity? Moreover, it’s also possible that in their pitiable frustration the lover might also experience a third emotion toward the love object—namely, anger. For in their love-altered state of consciousness, it might seem almost cruel to them that the beloved would not somehow share, or be positively influenced by, all the immeasurably adoring love sent their way?

Another example (which goes in a quite different direction) might relate to seeing an individual you deeply dislike—because you’ve observed him bullying younger, smaller, defenseless children—being bullied himself. On the one hand, you may experience a certain gratification at witnessing this bully get what he so richly deserves. Yet, if you have strong, adverse feelings toward bullying in general, you may be repulsed by two or three adolescents older than he savagely ridiculing and beating up on him.

Now he’s the victim—overpowered, helpless, and maybe even crying out in pain. So you find yourself actually feeling compassion for him. Your mixed feelings come not from the situation itself but your views of justice and fair play. In the first instance, you saw the bully as perpetrator; now you can’t help but perceive him as perpetrated against. Earlier you identified emotionally with his younger victims; now, curiously, you find yourself identifying with him. Such emotional ambivalence may have been totally unanticipated, yet it’s completely authentic. Your bipolar feelings make perfect sense, inasmuch as they’re fully in line with your most heartfelt beliefs.

To offer one final example, imagine that you’ve just learned that your alcoholic, abusive, and even despised, father has just passed away. You’ve been alienated from him for many years—the final straw being his “borrowing” your credit card when he temporarily stayed with you as an adult and, unauthorized, running up a debt that took you many months to pay off. So hearing the news of his demise leads you to experience considerable satisfaction and relief, knowing that this cold, manipulative, deceiving sociopath of a father is now out of your life for good.

Yet, to your surprise, you discover that along with your positive feelings of final “emancipation” from him you’re also afflicted with enormous—almost overwhelming—feelings of grief. And these unexpectedly powerful, and totally unwilled, emotions really have nothing to do with his passing but with the irrevocable death of deeply buried hopes and dreams, now unexpectedly resurfacing, that you harbored since childhood for a secure, loving bond with him. You recognize that your unanticipated, almost inconsolable, feelings intimately connect to the never-received approval and acceptance you’d always craved from him—but had to deny because otherwise its absence would have been too painful to bear. Once again, the tension between seemingly incompatible yet co-existent emotions can be understood on the basis of mixed feelings that, given the psychological dynamic giving rise to them, are totally logical

. . . So yes, undoubtedly—though only rarely with the same intensity—you can feel two different things at the same time.

NOTE 1: You can actually recognize physically that you’re experiencing two or more emotions spontaneously toward a person or situation when you experience quite different sensations in your body when thinking, or reacting, to them. But this is a subject that I believe deserves a post to itself. I’ll therefore discuss the bodily sensations linked to discrepant emotions in my next post, entitled "Can Your Body Express Multiple Emotions Spontaneously?”

NOTE 2: If you’d like to check out other posts I’ve written for Psychology Today, please click here. And if you found this post in any way useful—and believe others you know might as well—please consider forwarding them its link.

© 2014 Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D. All Rights Reserved.

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Leon F. Seltzer, Ph.D., who holds doctorates in English and Psychology, is a clinical psychologist and author of Paradoxical Strategies in Psychotherapy.

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