Can You Feel Two Emotions at Once?

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

Posted Jun 11, 2014

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.

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.

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.

. . . 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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