September 1, 2002
The Positive Side of
Mixed Emotions

Reaping the Benefits of
A Protean Personality
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m thirty years old and have been married four years,” James explained to Dr. Lawrence.

“Some days I feel ecstatic to be married to Sarah. But other days the spark isn’t as strong.

“There’s no question about my commitment. I’m resolved to stay faithful to her and the marriage no matter how much my feelings fluctuate. But I wish they’d grow more consistently positive; these mixed emotions are driving me nuts.

“Here’s the weirdest part,” he continued. “Most of the time I have mixed emotions about marriage itself. I’m delighted to finally be married and grateful for its many benefits. Yet I also long for certain freedoms I enjoyed as a single man. And these mixed feelings go on within me at the same time. Recently a friend called my attitude schizophrenic, and that got me worried. I decided it was time to talk with a counselor.”

Dr. Lawrence gave James some practical advice he found helpful. “Take five or ten minutes at the beginning of each day, and think about occasions when you have felt most in love with Sarah and most excited she is your wife. Focus on those things that most attracted you to her in the first place. Enjoy the bliss of those memories for a moment, and then recall them many times during the day. Bring to mind also the benefits of marriage that are most important to you, and rehearse them many times throughout the day. Practicing these simple steps daily will help your attraction to Sarah and the marriage grow stronger.

Then Dr. Lawrence offered counsel that startled James. “But don’t make it your goal to get rid of mixed emotions altogether,” she cautioned. “For one thing, you can’t do it; your personality isn’t built that way. For another, you shouldn’t want to do it. Your mixed feelings actually are an advantage in many ways. For your assignment this week, I want you to think carefully about what benefits they may provide, and list as many as you can.”

If you are as surprised as James was by Dr. Lawrence’s counsel, you’re not alone. Most people assume that fluctuating emotions are not our ideal mental state, and that our goal should be emotional consistency. A growing number of psychologists, though, regard a temperament such as James’ as healthy, and see advantages to the ability to live with different feelings at the same time.

Psychologist Al Siebert extols this trait in his The Survivor Personality.* Siebert’s concern in this exceptional book is to understand the personality features of people who are able to survive and thrive under life’s most difficult conditions—including serious illness, financial collapse, natural disasters, war, concentration camps, and the like. He concludes that one of the most helpful traits for survival is the ability to live naturally with different emotions and different states of mind at the same time. This capacity enables you to be flexible, to adjust successfully to unwelcome circumstances, and to respond to the demands of emergencies. It also best positions you to recover from the ordeal and make a fresh start once it’s over.

This ability to be in different worlds internally is a cherished gift, Siebert insists, not only in survival situations but in dealing with normal challenges of life. It helps us to live comfortably with imperfect situations and make the best of them, and aids us in many ways as we seek to accomplish goals and dreams.

“The protean self” is a term Siebert uses for this talent for emotional flexibility. It was coined by psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton, in reference to Proteus, the Greek God of the sea, who changed his shape as circumstances required.

Historically, though, psychologists have not viewed the capacity for mixed emotions as a strength, but as a detriment to mental health, Siebert notes. The ideal has been emotional stability—to become a consistent optimist, for instance. A growing number now see the ideal differently—to be an optimist and a pessimist at the same time.

Seibert waits till his final chapter to introduce his most radical concept, perhaps fearing readers would turn him off if he mentioned it earlier. There he suggests that the ability to be at different places in one’s thoughts and feelings is a “healthy schizophrenia.” He doesn’t mean that the delusional aspects of schizophrenia are desirable. But the inclination toward mixed emotions itself is life-giving when it’s in right balance.

The Benefits of Emotional Flexibility

I find this notion redemptive, and highly compatible with Christian teaching. It is a comforting one as well. Most of us, if we’re honest, experience fluctuating emotions and mood swings in many areas of life. We may be too quick to berate ourselves for this inclination and to see it purely as a curse on our life. We may wonder if we’re mentally unbalanced.

In most cases the experience of mixed emotions doesn’t signify mental illness. It’s a healthy feature of our personality and a benefit to our life as God has designed it. The key is to understand specific ways this feature helps us, then to harvest these advantages as fully as possible.

We would each do well to pose to ourselves the same question Dr. Lawrence asked James, and to answer it as broadly as possible. In what ways does emotional flexibility benefit me? Should I perhaps be nurturing this ability rather than repressing it?

Scripture suggests at least four major ways that God builds into us the ability to live emotionally in two different worlds at once. Appreciating these points where he wants us to bend in different directions helps us see the value of a protean temperament, to our success in life and to our service for Christ.

The capacity for empathy. Empathy is the ability to put myself in another’s shoes and identify with that person’s feelings. No quality contributes more to my ability to share Christ’s love with others, for empathy enables me to read someone’s needs precisely, then to extend help they perceive as genuine.

Empathy enhances my own success immensely also, for it sharpens my judgment about how best to approach others for help. Siebert, in his book, lists empathy as one of the most important survival skills.

Yet the need for empathy presents me with an interesting challenge, since different people in my life are usually at vastly different points of need. If I’m going to display empathy meaningfully to a variety of people, I’ll need to be able to feel a variety of emotions at once. It’s to this end that Paul counsels us, “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep” (Rom 12:15 RSV). Since it’s often true that one person close to me is celebrating while another is grieving, I’m expected to do nothing less than mourn and rejoice at the same time!

The ability to own different feelings simultaneously strengthens our potential for being empathetic, and for loving others effectively for Christ. The ongoing need we have for expressing empathy suggests that our goal shouldn’t be to eliminate the experience of mixed emotions, but to channel the capacity for them in the best possible way.

Responding to life’s roller-coaster nature. One of the most jubilant moments Evie and I enjoyed when our boys were young occurred one afternoon in May 1988, when Ben was in fifth grade. Arriving home from school that day, Ben announced he’d been elected president of Woodfield Elementary’s student counsel. Since we’d thought his prospects for winning were minimal, we were thrilled by his unexpected success.

We hadn’t celebrated his victory fifteen minutes when the phone rang. A friend was calling to inform us that she and her husband were divorcing. The couple were close friends of ours and role models to us as Christians. We were shocked by the news and deeply saddened, as we hadn’t a clue there were cracks in their marriage.

How often life presents us with this sort of roller coaster. A victory in one area is followed by a setback in another.

The ability to live with different states of mind helps us to get through such episodes and not be derailed by them. At the best extreme (which we were far from in 1987), we’re resilient, able to enjoy a success in spite of disappointments we’re also experiencing, and able to continue pressing forward, leaving the past behind. If the mountaintop-to-valley experience goes with the territory in normal living, it’s equally true that we often move quickly from the valley to the mountaintop when we keep our life in motion.

We see this vacillating nature of life often in the experiences of those in Scripture who lived courageously. The disciples in Acts who undertook evangelistic missions experienced constant shifts in public opinion. They were extolled as heroes one moment, derided as predators the next. After Paul and Barnabas healed a crippled man in Lystra, the citizens exclaimed, “The gods have come down to us in the likeness of men.” Even after Paul and Barnabas pleaded with the crowd not to deify them, “they scarcely restrained the people from offering sacrifice to them” (Acts 14:8-18 RSV).

These same people soon were willing to offer them as a sacrifice. In the next sentence Luke records, “But Jews came there from Antioch and Iconium, and having persuaded the people, they stoned Paul and dragged him out of the city, supposing that he was dead” (Acts 14:19 RSV).

On another occasion, islanders at Malta judged Paul a villain when a viper fastened to his hand. “This man must be a murderer; for though he escaped from the sea, Justice has not allowed him to live.” After awhile, when Paul showed no ill effects, “they changed their minds and said he was a god” (Acts 28:4, 6).

So life unfolds for each of us. Others’ opinions of us change, and our fortunes rise and fall in many different ways. This oscillation can wear us down and diminish our desire to fight. However, God’s objective through it all is to build into us a vibrant spirit of adventure—to the extent that we’re stimulated by life’s unpredictability rather than dismayed by it. When Jesus promised us abundant life (Jn 10:10), he was speaking of an adventuresome life, not one free of hills and valleys. We emphasize security far too much in our goals and expectations as Christians, when we ought be courting adventure more.

Appreciating the importance of adventure in God’s plan for us helps us see the joy that is possible for us even when life takes on a “schizophrenic” quality. The ability to live in different worlds at once is at the heart of a healthy spirit of adventure, and the key to turning the page as God’s plan for our life unfolds.

Embracing self-esteem and humility. God not only is building into us a greater instinct for adventure but fashioning our self-image as well. He helps us on the one hand to think positively about our abilities and our potential for doing constructive things with our life. We each have an extraordinary need for such self-esteem. We need assurance we have gifts that are noteworthy, and opportunities to make an impact on human life that are significant.

We also have a substantial need for humility, and God is equally concerned with developing it in us. Without humility, we take our own importance too seriously. We elevate ourselves above the Lord and lose the incentive to grow. Humility in right measure keeps us on the growing edge and properly dependent upon the Lord.

No one short of a divine being could possibly have the wisdom to address both of these needs in us human creatures simultaneously. Yet God is constantly working in us, giving us appreciation of our gifts and vision for our life, while deepening our humility at the same time.

Peter’s experience in the gospels shows just how schizophrenic the process can seem. On one occasion Jesus asks his disciples to identify who he is, and Peter responds, “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Jesus, ecstatic, commends Peter highly for this response, exclaiming, “Blessed are you, Simon son of Jonah, for this was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven. And I tell you that you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven; whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven” (Mt 16:13-20).

Jesus then begins to talk about his impending crucifixion, and Peter immediately rebukes him, declaring, “Never, Lord! . . .This shall never happen to you!”

Jesus just as abruptly rebukes Peter, retorting, “Get behind me, Satan! You are a stumbling block to me; you do not have in mind the things of God, but the things of men” (Mt 16:21-23).

Within a short time Peter is exalted by Jesus, then severely humbled. The extremes in this case are almost beyond belief: Jesus first extols Peter for a brilliant insight, calling him a “rock”—a courageous person—who will be a cornerstone in the emerging church; then chastises him for a foolish conclusion, labeling him Satan incarnate.

As we follow Peter throughout the gospels and Acts, we see this sequence repeated time and again: Jesus encourages him in one instance, reproves him in another. The implication is that this pattern will be ours as followers of Christ. If that thought seems unsettling, we should take heart in what Peter’s example also teaches us—that through walking closely with Christ, we gain the ability to live comfortably with these different states of mind. Jesus developed this capacity in Peter during three years of discipleship, and the results were stunning. Following Jesus’ ascension, Peter was able to assume leadership of the early church, and give inspired direction to its complex affairs.

We learn from Peter, then, that Christ builds protean qualities into us as we follow him, and that we are able to handle more challenging and fulfilling responsibilities as a result. Peter’s example inspires us to take our relationship with Christ seriously—to give devoted time to prayer, to studying God’s word, and to steps that best deepen the relationship for us personally. Through walking closely with Christ, we gain the treasured ability to live in different worlds at once, and the many benefits it confers.

Enjoying the blessings of life without allowing our well-being to depend upon any of them. God expects us to exult in the provisions he makes for our needs. At the same time, we’re not to let our happiness hinge upon any of his temporal blessings.

Scripture expresses both of these needs in the strongest possible terms. Enjoyment isn’t optional; we’re commanded to rejoice in the bounty of life and to celebrate the accomplishments God makes possible for us. We’re also warned severely against elevating any attraction to the status of an idol.

Again, we’re expected to nurture inclinations that may seem contradictory. Yet in truth, we need both of these qualities. Enjoying life contributes immensely to our health, vitality, productivity, relationships, and our ability to feel gratitude to God.

The problems that result when our love for some provision of life grows too strong are also substantial. A possession or relationship can take on so much importance that it consumes us; our identity is lost to it; our happiness rises or falls on how well it meets our expectations. Life loses its appeal in other areas, and if what we cherish is taken from us, our world collapses. Our neediness also works against us when we want something too much, for we’re too quick to make compromises for the sake of it. When our affection for a person grows obsessive, for example, our neediness can kill the relationship. We lose the ability to treat the other person compassionately, for we’re banking on her or him too greatly to meet our needs.

While we need, then, a strong inclination to enjoy the good things of life, we need some detachment from them as well. There are several secrets to living effectively in both these worlds at once.

Deepen your love for Christ. Nothing helps us more to keep our desires and interests in right balance than a growing relationship with Christ. Through it we give him the fullest opportunity to inspire desires in us that move us in the best directions. A strong love for him also helps ensure that other affections will not take on more importance than they deserve.

When an attraction in our life has grown too strong, we usually address the problem best not by trying to tone down our desire, but by doing what we can to increase our love for Christ. 

Diversify. We’ve learned the lesson graphically from the stock market in recent months. Investing solely in one security is a dangerous strategy financially. The experts continually counsel us: Diversify your holdings. Don’t put all your money into a single stock or type of investment.

The same principle applies to life. If we count on one relationship or interest in life to be life to us, we’re in trouble. We do well to have a variety of friendships and not to expect any one person—not even our spouse—to provide all of our needs for friendship and intellectual stimulation. It’s important as well to make new friendships as life moves on.

We should strive also to have more than one consuming interest. If we hit a dry spell in one, we can take refuge in another. Music and poetry gave David fresh heart for his leadership responsibilities. The craft of tent making played a similar role for Paul, Priscilla and Aquila, undoubtedly.

Be open to choices that reflect moderate desire, rather than extreme. In areas of life where we may be prone to obsessive desire, we often do best to choose options where our affection is something less than volcanic. Many find their greatest happiness in a marriage in which romantic love is significant, but not mind numbing. They are able to enjoy a life apart from the marriage and have more to contribute to the relationship as a result. They are better able to focus on their partner’s needs, to love that person, and less likely to destroy the marriage through excessive neediness.

Which brings us to why Dr. Lawrence counseled James as she did.

Dr. Lawrence didn’t feel that James’ mixed emotions signified his marriage was in trouble. Sarah is devoted to him and patient with his fluctuating feelings. James himself is a strong Christian, who loves Sarah compassionately, and is resolved to stay faithful.

What his mixed emotions demonstrate is that James isn’t staking his happiness solely on the marriage. He has a life outside of it, and some important friendships and interests. The result is that he doesn’t fall apart if Sarah isn’t able to respond to his every need or if they experience conflict. Nor does he worry himself sick that she might leave him. He is naturally supportive of her and responsive to her needs, in part because he isn’t living with outlandish expectations about her.

Dr. Lawrence recognized also that James cannot fully change the protean nature of his personality. He needs to begin by accepting it as a given in God’s design of his life and to focus on its strengths. Over several sessions, Dr. Lawrence helped James appreciate many benefits of his temperament, and how it equips him to respond effectively to challenges.

A Gratifying Discovery

Many of us have a similar discovery to make. We’ve been berating ourselves for a characteristic that is actually a positive in God’s intentions for our life. It can be stunning to realize how many ways a protean personality benefits us.

If you are one who often experiences mixed emotions, try a paradigm shift. Assume this tendency is a virtue, not a weakness. Take time to consider the benefits a protean temperament brings to your life, and note as many as you can. Realize you are better able to respond to certain demands of life than many others are.

Protean tendencies can cause us problems as well. If you are unable to make firm decisions or keep your commitments, or if you constantly feel miserable about the choices you make, then you are suffering too greatly from emotional swings. Counseling can help considerably in this case. With the help of the right “Dr. Lawrence,” you can gain greater emotional stability and confidence about your decisions.

But begin with the premise that you are dealing with a strength, and need to modify its unhealthy extremes. Take heart that God fashioned your personality in the first place, and has an exceptional purpose for your life as you learn to channel your uniqueness in the best possible way. And there’s no need for mixed emotions about that.

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