It’s not uncommon to have mixed feelings or thoughts. I’ve written about this dynamic related to eating and body image in Starting Monday and in The Food and Feelings Workbook. How can we not have them? I lie in bed many mornings thinking about how I both do and don’t want to arise and begin the day. I feel ambivalent about almost every vacation or event that breaks up my routine—I look forward to something new and different, while feeling I’d just as soon pass the time enjoying my usual schedule.
If mixed feelings are the norm, why do we get so upset about them? Why do we view them as negative and fight so hard to avoid them? We find ourselves averse to conflicting feelings or thoughts for two reasons. First, we may assume that there’s something wrong with us for not being unilaterally and single-minded about what we feel or think. If you were raised in a household that brooked little dissent and everyone had strong, unbending opinions, you may believe that ambivalence is wrong or weak.
Second, it can be quite uncomfortable to be pulled in two directions at once. For instance, one of my clients had a deuce of a time acknowledging that she wanted to feel better in and about her body, and was also angry about the thought of giving up eating everything she liked in the quantities she desired. She fought her conflicting feelings for a while, and I encouraged her to struggle with them until her self-care desires won over the impulses she was used to acting on. Obviously, the stronger you feel in either or both directions, the more difficult it is to tolerate and manage opposing feelings.
The good news is that you can tolerate mixed feelings and that they are often healthy to have, particularly when you’ve been involved in self-harming thoughts and behaviors for a long time. Ambivalence is not a sign of weakness, but of growth; competing thoughts do not mean that you’re mentally unhealthy, but that you’re growing healthier precisely because you’re entertaining and strengthening better ways of taking care of yourself.
We naturally find the known comforting and can become very smug and complacent when our thoughts and feelings never or rarely change. We may wish we could adhere to what we’ve always thought and avoid thinking about new ways of being or doing. However, not changing your reaction to your desires or to life events often keeps you stuck. Mentally healthy people may not always enjoy testing out new ideas or actions, but they welcome the challenge because they know it means growth, change, or healing. When you have mixed feelings—even about food—embrace and explore them. They may be trying to nudge you forward to where your wisest self wants you to be.