Mixed emotions are complex feelings and thoughts that we’re not always aware of, which are often in conflict, but can be complementary. For instance, imagine that you are just about to leave your house or flat for the last time, to move home. The chances are that you experience a sense of loss and sadness for all the memories you are leaving behind, but also positive anticipation and excitement for new beginnings.
When we stop and really explore how we feel, we’ll often find that there’s more than one active emotion. Sometimes there’s a dominant primary emotion with another as secondary, or like in the example above, two or more that have a similar intensity. We tend to experience more mixed emotions as we get older. As we age, research suggests that we experience fewer negative and more positive emotions and that our emotions are more complex.
The psychologist Robert Plutchik developed a theory around a wheel of emotions which uses primary colours for basic emotions like joy, anger, and fear. These mix together like colours to produce compound emotions; anticipation and trust produce hope; anticipation and fear produce anxiety; acceptance and joy produce love.
From an evolutionary perspective, emotions appear to have emerged before humans developed language or conceptual thought. The three primary purposes of emotions are that they:
- Provide information: Emotions inform us that something needs attention in our subjective experience.
- Motivate: Emotions drive us to act.
- Enable social interaction: Emotions show others how we feel, as well as helping us to understand the feelings of others, through speech, body language, facial expressions and behaviour.
As emotions are fundamental to experiencing meaning and happiness, it’s ironic that most of us were never directly taught about emotions at school; it’s only relatively recently that ideas like emotional intelligence and emotional literacy have entered the mainstream.
Our emotional brain is wired to react in the same way to an event triggered by the outside world, as one triggered by a thought. For instance, entertaining anxious thoughts before a job interview can increase the otherwise normal levels of anxiety. So, by observing our thoughts, as thoughts, we can improve our emotional resilience and stability.
Becoming aware of emotions and learning how to work with them is a core part of mindfulness practice. Here are some useful things to be aware of:
- Emotions can be seen as the mammalian part of our brain trying to be useful. So, being aware of and acknowledging emotions as they arise allows the emotional brain to do its job, so the emotion can then dissolve in its own time.
- Emotions are like waves in the ocean; they arise, play out and dissolve back to where they came from. Although we identify with them, they are not who we are.
- The energy from unacknowledged emotions can become frozen and stranded in our body, contributing to physical sensations like tightness and tension and influencing how we feel.
- Deliberating over the thoughts linked to emotions keeps them active for much longer than if they are left to dissolve naturally.
- Emotions are not facts; we construct emotions in response to how we perceive events and overlay emotions onto reality, which colours and changes how we relate to the world.
Emotions are a useful channel that complements thinking for making sense of the world and are a powerful inner resource. Developing the emotional literacy to understand mixed emotions helps us understand ourselves as well as others. For instance, we may value a friend but may not agree with some of their political views. Being aware of these conflicting feelings allows us to shift from a limiting view, to a more sophisticated, mature and open way of appreciating the different aspects of each other. This leads to better relationships with ourselves, other people, and the world around us.
Find somewhere undisturbed and sit in a comfortable, dignified and upright posture, where you can remain alert and aware.
There are two guided practices for this session. You can close your eyes, or lower your gaze while the meditations play.
- Play the settling practice, then read through the session content, which you can print off if that helps
- Then play the second audio to explore any emotions that are around for you, while being open, kind, and accepting with whatever arises
Suggested weekly practice
- Taking a moment to acknowledge and explore mixed emotions as they arise in your life. For instance, maybe something is coming to an end that brings new beginnings?
- Using curiosity and beginner’s mind to explore emotions and noticing where they resonate in your body. For instance, anxiety in the chest and belly and anger around your jaw.
- Being more aware of emotions as they arise, acknowledging whatever the emotion is telling you, then letting go of holding onto the feeling in your body as you allow it to dissolve in its own time.
Share on Follow on