(By Sharon Snooks)
Do you ever find yourself saying, “Part of me is feeling this way, and a part of me is feeling that way; I just don’t know which way to feel?” What if you held both feelings at the same time?
The idea of holding two different emotions, especially ones that are opposite, in an experience or circumstance can seem confusing to us or even inappropriate. We may think we have to feel one or the other. Yet it’s helpful to understand that we can feel two opposite emotions at the same time.
I still remember the first time this concept was presented to me a few years ago while walking with a colleague. I was expressing to her how one part of me was happy about a change that was taking place but another part of me was feeling really sad. I confessed that I just didn’t know what to feel. Her response was to hold both her hands out in front of her with both palms up. As we walked, she explained that it was normal and OK to feel this happiness AND this sadness at the same time.
It was so simple, and yet so profoundly helpful. I instantly felt relief both in my body and in my mind that I didn’t have to decide which way to feel — I could just feel both, simultaneously.
Perhaps you are experiencing a crisis or a devastating loss. You may feel torn: though you are thankful for the incredible support you are receiving and how good that support feels, you are still grieving the loss immensely. You aren’t sure how you are supposed to feel. However, thankfulness and sorrow can be experienced together — you don’t have to choose.
It may be that you have been wounded by your parent(s) in how they treated you during your childhood. You feel grateful for the Christian home in which you were raised, yet are deeply saddened by their treatment of you and the lack of relationship with them. You might find yourself feeling guilty, wondering if you are just being ungrateful.
How about holding both emotions? Hold the grief of what is lacking in your relationship with your parent(s) and what may not be healed, AND hold the thankfulness that they taught you about God and the free gift of salvation. One doesn’t have to cancel out the other. Both emotions are true and valid, and you can experience them alongside each other.
When we validate our difficult emotion rather than suppress it, our nervous system is calmed. The emotion receives the attention it needs, thereby softening it. Acknowledging the difficult emotion can lessen depression and anxiety symptoms, and replace them with increased peace and calm. This isn’t a cure but rather one strategy in positively impacting our mental health.
When I learn something new in the social work and therapy field, I like to see how it aligns with truth. God is truth and if the new learning aligns with what I know about God, then I can accept it. If not, I don’t take it on as my own. I was encouraged to consider how the Bible presents this concept of holding two opposites at the same time. Ecclesiastes 3:4: says, “A time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance.”
As I read this verse, I was reminded of a deep, dark time last year while going through my inflammatory breast cancer journey. I was grieving the loss, yet it was time to celebrate Christmas with the grandsons. Rather than reprimanding myself for still feeling sad while my grandchildren were so happy, I allowed myself to feel both the sadness as well as the joy of the little boys around me. This was much more healing for me emotionally than wondering why I couldn’t just be happy. Giving ourselves permission to feel the hard emotions often makes them easier to process.
The ultimate example of feeling opposite emotions is our Savior on the cross. Such deep sorrow, and yet immense joy! In the Garden of Gethsemane, listen to Jesus’ words, “Father, if you are willing, please take this cup of suffering away from me. Yet I want your will to be done, not mine” (Luke 22:42). Then, “He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood” (Luke 22:44).
Our bodies hold our emotions physiologically, and to read how deeply the Lord Jesus felt His own emotions silences me. There are no words to express the depth of His pain. And yet, in Hebrews 12:2 we read, “Looking unto Jesus the author and finisher of our faith; who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross.” Our perfect Savior knew what it was like to experience and hold opposite emotions — agony and joy — with such love.
We often sing of this dichotomy of emotion during a Sunday morning worship meeting from the Believers’ Hymn book #435, verse 2:
We think of all the darkness
Which round Thy spirit pressed,
Of all those waves and billows
Which rolled across Thy chest;
‘Tis there Thy grace unbounded
And perfect love we see;
With joy and yet with sorrow
We do remember thee.
May we deal gently with ourselves as we navigate the various emotions that 2022 will bring us. It has possibly already handed us opposing emotions: remnants from last year and anticipation “feels” for the upcoming year. Let’s remind ourselves that we can hold more than one emotion and truly honor all of what we are experiencing, just as our Lord Jesus did.