Conflicting Feelings And Thoughts Are OK

“It seems like an amazing opportunity, but is it the right opportunity?” “How can I say I love them when I also get so annoyed with them at times?” “Am I happy? Sometimes, but not all the time. Maybe I’m not really happy!”

When it comes to other people, we seem to think that they have it all together and that they are sure of themselves, secure in their choices, and know what the right thing is to do. “How wonderful it must be,” we think. “If only I knew what to do, knew exactly what I was feeling, or wasn’t so confused my life would be better.”

People with Obsessive Compulsive Disorder (OCD) or other anxiety disorders can hold themselves to the unrealistic standard that they should know exactly what they are feeling, that they should be feeling one thing or not feeling another thing, and should be fully feeling the right thing. This standard is a tremendous obstacle in the way of living life. It keeps someone frozen at the starting line with fear of making a misstep or the wrong choice.

One path splitting off into two different paths with a woman on a yellow bike considering which option to take.
Often, two options can both look good, and knowing whether one is better is unknowable until we start down one path to see.

Feeling Emotion Is Complicated

Rarely are things cut and dry as “good” or “right.” We can feel mixed emotions about everything we do, and this reality is not always a sign that we are about to make the wrong choice or already on our way to ruin. Instead, it can be the awareness that everything has a benefit and cost; a pro and a con.

In the course of making a decision, the brain runs through innumerable calculations and considerations. Along the way, your brain may make you aware of several possible options and you may feel a range of emotions for and against them.

Suddenly, anxiety raises it’s cracked, wort covered hand and says, “Ambivalence is wrong! It’s one or the other. Don’t do anything until it is settled!”

Rumination, emotional checking, and reassurance are the most common ways this ambivalence is resolved, or so you think. The resolution process can look like:

  • Repeatedly going over the facts
  • Scrutinizing the pros and cons
  • Reviewing one’s feelings of one choice over the other
  • Asking friends about their opinion
  • Praying for revelation or guidance
  • Mentally reviewing memories to test past feelings
  • Imagining future results of a decision and searching for “rightness” of feelings

Let’s Review Some Of These Mixed Emotions In More Detail

It’s Not Right To Feel Conflicted

Having the ability to acknowledge and allow for gradations of feelings and thoughts about something is not just OK, it can be viewed as a virtue. Some call it “nuance.” Rather than throwing something in the “good” or “bad” bucket, or “safe” or “dangerous” bucket, we can see that something can have parts that are liked and disliked, supported and scrutinized. I see this in Relationship OCD with a partner struggling with calling their partner attractive yet acknowledging aspects of their partner that are less desirable. I also see it in people questioning their career choices. They find some aspects deeply meaningful and enjoyable, while finding others tiresome or off-putting.

Woman sitting in front a laptop computer while looking and feeling contemplative over what she is reading.
Overthinking, excessive research, and repetitive evaluation helps only if you decide, but often leads to continued consideration.

Needing To Be Certain Of “Rightness” Before Making A Choice

Some get stuck on the lack of feeling in a given situation and believe they need to wait to have the right kind of feeling, or a certain amount of a feeling, in order to make a decision and move forward. This mysterious percentage of positive feeling is in conflict with a sense of neutrality rather than negativity. Someone struggling with this may admit that a decision makes “sense,” is in line with their values, or is consistent with decisions they’ve made in the past, but have difficulty committing to a choice given the low ratio of positive feelings. 

Need To Get Rid Of Any Ambivalence Before Moving on

At times, people get fixated on the belief that they need to resolve any ambivalence or internal conflict before moving forward. Mixed emotions about a decision can be very common because we recognize the good, desired, or benefit in multiple options. Conversely, we can find unwanted elements to even the most desirable choices! For example, wanting to attend a social event to connect with friends and enjoy a potentially fun evening while also anticipating unwanted small talk with some people or enduring the hassle of getting across town.

Needing To Feel Fully Committed From The Outset

The “all or nothing” urge insists that you must be fully, 100% on board with whatever you have in mind or it is a bad decision. The urge is often a self-protective impulse against making a potentially bad decision. However, we have no way of knowing for sure the outcome’s quality or our feelings about it at a later point in time. For example, avoiding applying for a job unless you are 100% certain you want that exact job when you are uncertain about what direction your career will take, or when you find yourself interested in several types of careers.  The resulting indecision leads to hopelessness and stagnation.

Exposure To Making Choices And Making Mistakes

Nothing is perfect. No one is perfect. No relationship is perfect. I could go on, but if we can accept these truisms then we can start lowering the compulsive, ruminative shield we have up protecting us. And by protecting us, I mean keeping us in the endless loop of comparison, evaluation, and fear.

Overcoming this mental block often comes down to the willingness to face two potential things; being someone who has made a mistake, and suffering the consequences of that decision. Being “someone who makes mistakes” comes with it a stigma and implication about one’s thought processes, character, and quality that often induces shame. Additionally, the potential consequences are as endless as our imagination, but custom built for your worst-case scenario.  

Emotion characters from Disney's Inside Out along with the "core emotions" shows as mixed feelings.
The culmination of Disney’s Inside Out shows protagonist’s “core emotions” as a swirl of different, and sometimes conflicting, emotional coloration.

Accepting uncertainty about the future and the consequences of our choices builds trust in ourselves that we can make choices and that we can deal with the fallout from them if and when they come. When you make space for the natural uncertainty over the unpredictable outcome and allow yourself to experience your honest full range of emotional experiences you find that you actually do not need emotional homogeneity or the empty promise of artificial certainty. Instead, you find that you have strength and resiliency to deal with what comes. You have the permission to be human and see nuance in yourself, other people, and the world around you.

Written by Kevin Foss, MFT

You are not alone if you struggle with mixed emotions and find yourself fighting to resolve the conflict with no end. If you find that your efforts to feel a sense of “rightness” is overwhelming you and no longer adding to your quality of life, you may want to consider speaking with a therapist. CalOCD offers online teletherapy and in-person therapy for OCD and other OC related disorders. Feel free to contact us here, or by calling us at 714-423-3779

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