Primary Versus Secondary Emotions


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You may have heard about (or have first hand experienced) emotions in various intensities. 

Say you’re experiencing the emotion of anger. That anger can look differently in different settings and circumstances. When a cashier takes an incredibly long time to scam your items you may feel a mild version of anger like irritation (because you have places to go and things to do). In another instant, say you discovered your significant other cheating on you with one of your closest friends you may experience a strong emotion of anger like rage. 

But did you know that emotions come in different levels with different motives and different trigger points? In this blog we’ll be discussing primary and secondary emotions and how they influence our day to day lives. 

Primary emotions are our first initial reaction. Let’s say that a friend of yours cancelled going to a party with you at the last minute, what would your first reaction be? You may feel hurt, sad, lonely or confused. Primary emotions are the vulnerable emotions that we feel; they center around what our child-self would experience. Secondary emotions, on the other hand, are the emotions that are much more defensive in nature. Emotions like anger, envy and jealousy are a few examples of it. In this case, you may feel anger towards the friend because you were looking forward to going to the event and don’t feel like your time is respected.

Unfortunately, unlike the elaboration above, a great deal of the time we are unaware of our primary emotions and are only consciously aware of our secondary emotions; the anger that covers up feelings of hurt, the embarrassment overpowering our sadness, or the anxiety masking a much deeper fear.

Our secondary emotions, therefore, are in response to our resistance of feeling our vulnerable emotions. This is a protective mechanism designed to keep us free from pain (because pain is uncomfortable). If you’ve ever responded in the heat of a secondary emotion, like anger, you may have ended up with maladaptive outcomes. However, despite that it’s important to not rule out these feelings because their role is to let us know when something isn’t right. An easy way to spot a secondary emotion, like anger,  is by noticing if it’s action oriented. These emotions make us want to get into fist fights, destroy property or create a desire to ruin a person’s reputation. If you also feel driven to act without any sense of relief that too is a great indicator of a secondary emotion.

Luckily, before we take any action desired by our secondary emotions we can develop a habit of slowing down our impulses by noticing our primary emotions and unmet needs. These emotions can include feeling hurt, unwanted, or ashamed and can showcase in the body as a vulnerable feeling washing over you.

Through this identification process of our feelings and unmet needs we enable ourselves to practice good emotional habits by communicating our needs to others and learning how to meet them ourselves.

Where Do Primary Emotions Come From?

Primary emotions can either stem from a present moment or from the past. In psychology this is known as adaptive and maladaptive emotions. 

Maladaptive emotions can be sparked in the present moment but are tied to the way we felt earlier in life. For instance, a girl that grew up in an environment where everyone told her she’s incapable will feel triggered by someone saying, “You can’t do it.” These feelings evoke a lot of shame but before the vulnerable emotion can be recognized she will be swept away with feelings of resentment, anger, and defensiveness. As a result, she begins to participate in self defeating behaviours such as holding herself back and pushing away loved ones. 

Adaptive emotions, on the other hand, are closely tied to the present moment. For instance, a black man that is racially profiled may feel saddened and hurt for not being given the same opportunities as his fellow white counterparts. He too may be swept away with anger for the unfair treatment. 

Luckily, with conscious awareness over our emotional states we can respond to our life situations more strategically and emphatically. 

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