What Does It Mean to Have Mixed Feelings?

The experience of mixed emotions recognizes conflicting aspects of being human.

Posted Mar 25, 2016

Emotions can be classified into primary and complex. There are at least eight primary or basic emotions – interest, joy, distress, anger, fear, anxiety, surprise, and disgust – associated with a single facial expression. Primary emotions are universal and innate.

A smile is recognized in all cultures as a signal of happiness and social welcome, while weeping is understood to be a signal of sadness. The complex emotions include jealousy, guilt, shame, sympathy, pride, gratitude, and contempt. Complex emotions have cognitive content. For example, the emotion of envy is triggered by the thought of the possessions of others. Shame is a painful emotion responding to a sense of failure to attain some ideal state.

In mixed emotions, a person can feel sad and happy at the same time. These feelings tend to be contradictory. For example, in the movie “Life is Beautiful” a father seeks to keep his child’s spirits up while they are in a concentration camp. Research showed that viewers experienced mixed feelings of happiness and sadness.

The sadness that follows a mother’s death is often combined with guilt over a past failure to be sufficiently affectionate to the parent when she was alive. Nostalgia consists of the mixture of pleasure coming from the memory of something lived, and the pain caused by that event being permanently gone. Students graduating from college tend to feel both happy and sad.

Historically, philosophers have assumed that mixed emotions are derived from primary emotions. Psychologist Robert Plutchik explains this idea by drawing an analogy between the perception of color and emotions. The primary pigment colors are red, blue, and yellow. The secondary colors are purple, orange, and green, which are obtained by mixing two primary colors. Combining these few colors at different intensities produces millions of colors. Neither colors nor emotions are clear-cut categories with sharp boundaries. By mixing two or more emotions (e.g., happiness, sadness, fear, or disgust) at different intensity levels, it is possible to create hundreds of terms representing the language of emotions.

For example, the mixture of joy and acceptance produces the mixed emotions of love. The blending of disgust and anger produces the mixed emotional state of contempt or hatred. Fear and anger give rise to jealousy. Jealousy stems from our suspicious that a third person might displace us in a relationship with someone we love. The combination of fear and anger also produce the feeling of urgency for closure, such as the preference for early action after September 11, 2001.

Which emotions will influence behavior? The strongest emotion gets action priority. For example, consider the mixed emotions in divorce. Husbands’ reactions are often dominated by anger. A therapeutic goal in these situations is to help them recognize that some of their negative emotions may come from sadness, hurt feelings, and fear.

Some people believe they should have only one feeling toward someone: like or dislike. But very few people are so simple as to have only positive or negative feelings. Accepting conflicting feelings is very important because it indicates that you are using more information. For example, when you focus on your partner’s wisdom, you love her dearly, but when you think about the embarrassment she brings, you hate her. With this kind of attitude, the profound positive and negative evaluations are directed at different aspects of the person. Changes in our attention or thinking lead to changes in emotional attitudes. Mixed emotions reflect how mature and intelligent we are and recognize conflicting aspects of being human.

Mixed emotions can often be an important strategy in coping with negative life events such as dealing with loss. Indeed, research suggests that there's a link between mixed emotions and physical health. The ability to experience negative emotion alongside positive emotion enables individuals to find something positive in stressful situations. For example, when experiencing the loss of a loved one, allowing positive memories to be experienced alongside sadness could potentially lead to a healthier form of grieving. In other words, “taking good with the bad” may be a key to better coping and resilience.

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