Occasionally, I am asked by a client what my definition of mental health is. I typically respond with something like, "the ability to tolerate and feel your mixed feelings towards situations and people that matter to you". Indeed, this definition basically sums up a common principle of the psychotherapy I study and practice. Why do I choose to focus on this ability to tolerate mixed feelings as the pinnacle of mental health? Simply put, because we have mixed feelings towards anyone or anything that matters to us. And if we can't tolerate these feelings, we are more likely to engage in behaviors (addiction, overeating, extreme thinking, etc) to try to get rid of one or more of them.
These mixed feelings are everywhere for us. They show up in relation to our jobs, our opportunities, and most importantly to our spouses, parents, friends, and our children. Why do we have these mixed feelings? Because although these things and people matter to us, no situation or person is perfect. So it follows that we inevitably experience sadness, anger, disappointment, and fear along with our positive emotions towards these people and situations. And in my opinion, this is the best we can hope for.
Does this sound pessimistic? Maybe, but I would make a vote for it being both practical and realistic. Life is messy. My opinion: anyone who tells you otherwise should be approached with some amount of suspicion. Do their own lives hold up to that? Even if they did, it would have to be a pretty limited, "unpeopled" life. They'd have to walk a very, very narrow path to not have anything disappointing show up in it.
Experiencing these mixed emotions, in our body, about people and things is no easy feat. It makes us anxious and tense. Literally. In fact, this anxiety/tension is present because in general, at least several of the feelings are conflicting. We must learn to tolerate this anxiety long enough to figure out what these feelings are telling us. Then we can use the information in these feelings to respond appropriately in our lives and relationships. So this whole process helps us move forward and take action, versus react or avoid. BUT here’s an additional rub: we actually aren't born with the ability to feel mixed feelings in a healthy way. We are born, however, with the capacity to learn to do it. Specifically, we begin to develop the possibility of feeling mixed feelings when we are around 3 years old. At that age, it takes a lot of work on behalf of the adults in our lives, and a certain amount of luck for things to go well in order to make this developmental leap. If the adults in our lives had problems tolerating their own mixed feelings, we cannot learn it from them. And if something overwhelming happens that causes us to disconnect from our emotions and bodies, again the learning cannot happen. Yet the skill is such an important one that affects everything. I would argue that it is vital for health. It allows us to attach (in a healthy way) to the people in our lives, and to navigate the inevitable complexities that are to come our way. If we learn to feel our mixed feelings, and tolerate the tension they bring, we can navigate the world's complexities and live a vital life.
The sad fact is that the majority of us actually missed this developmental leap. If something goes sideways during this period, which happens often, life is going to get much harder. Why? Because holding mixed feelings actually allows us to develop a stable sense of identity. If we can't do this, and instead have to bounce between opposing feelings about others, we have a harder time knowing what we want, what we like, and what is good for us. We get stuck in a cycle of bouncing between extreme emotions, or numbing ourselves out to get away from the whole drama of it all. And when these patterns start, it makes progress across all areas of life harder for us. And our relationships suffer. When we can't have a stable sense of ourselves through feeling our mixed feelings, we can't have a stable view of others either. When our relationships are impaired, we lose one of the biggest sources of resilience we can have: secure attachments.
So what do I mean by feeling these mixed emotions? I mean literally feeling them in your body. That’s why emotions are called feelings! All emotions have what are called “somatic markers”, meaning one of the ways we know we are feeling them is that they are felt in the body. As I mentioned earlier, there is another initial step. That step is to learn to tolerate the tension and anxiety that comes along with these feelings. I would argue that any effective psychotherapy will help you learn to do these two things. Once you’ve reclaimed this developmental ability, our compulsive thoughts and behaviors and corresponding psychological suffering will decrease. We can begin to use the information inherent in these feelings to help us move forward in ways that matter in our life. Life becomes richer and more colorful.
Take a second and ask yourself: Are the problems you are having in your life related to difficulty feeling your mixed feelings about something or someone? If so, would a commitment to learning to feel them be a move into health? Here's to learning to show up for yourself, and all the conflicting feelings that doing so will uncover! Here's to a life more fully felt!
Thoughts on Mental Health, Psychotherapy, and Life