Can Competing Emotions Coexist?

Higher ed is a mountain with no peak.

The final weeks of my undergraduate philosophy studies draw nigh, and I find myself looking back on five years of relentless intellectual stimulation.

As I’ve put on Facebook, this is your brain on college:

imageThat burden of being expected to memorize, comprehend, and synthesize endless new information—even for someone who loves learning—can spawn negative reactions. One of those, for me, has been anxiety.

I finished a two-year degree flawlessly: twenty seven classes in a range of subjects, and aced them all. Naturally these were not upper-level courses, but there were countless times when I had to struggle to maintain that perfect GPA, especially in the sciences. Further, the more I kept getting As, the greater the fear of staining that record increased.

That anxiety to maintain straight As was immediately halted in my second semester at a four-year university. I earned a B in a lower-level class due to a simple yet costly error on one of my assignments. The struggle to maintain straight As has since become a burden of the past, but I nevertheless still yearn for an overall high GPA. The anxiety yet remains.

This leads me to an interest paradox. After five years of studies, my grades have never fallen below a B, yet I still, even in this last semester, harbor anxiety about earning high scores. But why?

Hasn’t experience shown I’ve been able to do well across a host of disciplines, in a variety of difficulty levels? Doesn’t it seem reasonable I can at least for this final semester rest assured that I’ll likely, yet again, knock a bevy of courses out of the park? This reason-producing-emotion is itself an interesting subject, but I’ll pass on that for now.

But let’s say I take it easy and accept I’m likely to finish strong. What would happen then? What if the anxiety itself is the very motivator of my success? The fear of failure coupled with the hope of triumph may be the very elements necessary to achieve and maintain high grades. If I drop my guard I might drop my grades! How do we address this?

It’s tempting, then, to suppose we be both anxious and content about the same issue at the same time. But is it possible to hold two conflicting feelings about the same object? What are the implications of this? Are emotions indeterminate and nonconflicting?

When I feel content that I’m likely to continue getting good grades, am I actually only momentarily suspending anxiety as a result of reason, and quickly returning to anxiety, flitting between the two emotions in such rapid succession that the distinction is unobservable or practically nonexistent?

Maybe it’s not much of a paradox. Maybe we can picture the relationship between contentment and anxiety as an alternating current between two poles, the result of which charges my efforts to succeed in academia. But if this is the case, then I can’t really say I feel either anxiety nor contentment fully, because I teeter betwixt the two. This solution erases both feelings. Hmm.

Is this the best answer, or is there something I’ve missed? So far I’ve come up with 1) a solution that assumes mutually exclusive emotions [but certainly it’s reasonable I can find some assurance of my ability to succeed?]; 2) a paradoxical unity of seemingly competing emotions; or 3) a metaphor that erases both feelings altogether.

How would you solve this?


*The main “feels” image here is a meme of unknown origin, not my own ;]