While researching the science of human emotion, I came across Brene Brown’s latest work: ATLAS OF THE HEART, where she examines and categorizes our many recognized human emotions. I was struck by her description of “bittersweet”, a complicated emotion felt commonly during life’s major transitions, like graduations, retirements, etc.. Bittersweet is described as the mixed positive and sadness associated with losing a phase of life, combined with the excitement of moving on to something new..
It turns out that this experience of mixed emotions can be experienced by children as young as 10 or 11 who can describe the tension of experiencing these apparently conflicting emotions simultaneously. In adults this phenomenon can produce anxiety over the perceived need to “choose” one emotional aspect over another.
We are often faced with emotional dualities in life, where experiences can evoke emotions we feel the need to categorize as right/wrong, good/bad, black/white.
Needing to choose one or the other creates tensions to choose one, thereby rejecting the “opposite” characterization. The temptation often is to oversimplify: if something feels wrong, it cannot feel right, if it feels bad, there cannot be anything good about it.
The fact is, we are healthier and more sophisticated emotionally if we can recognize that both sides of an emotional experience can exist in our consciousness simultaneously. Here is an analogy: Good lawyers know that they are at their best when they can argue both sides of a legal issue equally effectively. Perhaps the same can be said for perceived contradictory emotions.
An example from our life: Our Ukrainian refugee family is about to move out into their own apartment. We have grown incredibly close with them and indeed we have become one big international family. So, of course, it is bittersweet that they are leaving; positive that we will be able to once again restore our home to some sense of order, negative that suddenly our home will be uncomfortably silent and oddly ordered. Both emotions can exist simultaneously, and we need not choose one over the other just to alleviate our anxiety over the apparent contradiction.
In all our life experiences, let us enjoy and appreciate the great tapestry of emotions they create. My hope for you is that this vast array of human emotions gives you cause to celebrate rather than experience anxiety to choose the emotion that seems the most appropriate at the time.
In my meditation instruction, rather than clearing their minds of thoughts, I ask participants to relax and let their thoughts flow over them, not focusing on a single one, but reveling in the whole of their consciousness being greater then the sum of their individual thoughts. Perhaps we should approach our panoply of emotions in similar fashion. Let our many emotions comfortably flow through our consciousness. Let us recognize the gift we possess as humans to experience events, relationships and even traumas with a constellation of our own unique emotions, and lovingly accept them all.
Dr. John Monaco