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. 

I feel so ashamed…

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My singing performance didn’t go as well as I hoped. I had worked tirelessly, rehearsing for weeks to perfect the annunciations, tone and swag of the song but it had seemed that my anxiety got the best of me. Because my worth was so wrapped around my performance, I felt like a failure. To add on top of that, my mother tossed in a statement, “See, I told you can’t make this into a career. You’re not good enough.” That statement cut me like a knife since I was incredibly passionate about music and I did have the capacity to do a good job in it. Moreover, it was my very own MOM who said that (the one who’s ‘supposed’ to be unconditional with love).

My body posture slumped in defeat and I felt like a failure. The emotion I was experiencing was the feeling of shame. Let’s dive into the logistics. Shame is a self conscious emotion that serves to remind us of an inadequacy within – forcing our body to shut down and avoid taking any social risks. The purpose of doing so is to help us stay survive. 

The feeling of shame can be triggered in several ways. It’s through feelings of inadequacy, unworthiness, dishonour, regret, and disconnectedness.  Let’s break those down.

Feelings of inadequacy and unworthiness are closely tied to how we felt earlier in life. The way that our parents/ environment treated us played a role in defining our belief systems which impacted the assumption of how we think we deserve to be treated, what we’re capable of, and how we perceive ourselves. A child that was taught that they’re incapable or unworthy is likely to carry that belief into adulthood. 

Dishonour arises when we feel we failed to live up to cultural or personal expectations. For instance, in many cultures there is a great deal of shame associated with marrying a person outside of a religion. This can also be closely associated with race, economic and social status. This emotion is very closely bonded with the emotion of betrayal. Social rejection is incredibly painful and even deadly at times which is why shame helps us remind us of that.

Regret arises when we made a mistake in a relationship or when we missed a great opportunity. Our lack of acceptance to our human nature provokes us to participate in self destructive behaviours where through rumination hopes to emphasise to avoid a mistake like that again. 

Lastly, the feeling of disconnection hopes to remind us of how terrible it is to be ALONE. If we feel disconnected amongst a group of people we often blame our character for being rejected; failing to see that other factors were at play. Shame directs us towards conformity enabling people pleasing and peer pressure to take its course.

Shame can be triggered by another person or by our own internal citic. The emotion of shame makes us believe that our character is flawed or bad which only motivates us to hide or try to save face. Unfortunately, the more we try to run away from this feeling, the more likely we are to withdraw within ourselves and fall into an addiction.  

Shame is often confused with the emotion of guilt, but are VERY DIFFERENT. Guilt is when we don’t feel good about an action we made. For example, you make a joke at the expense of your friend’s insecurity and your friend turns beet red and is clearly embarrassed, ashamed and upset at you. You feel bad because you care about your friend and her well-being. Shame, on the other hand, has a great emphasis on a character flaw. It cannot see the difference between ‘bad behaviour’ and ‘bad self’. 

Shame can be a messy emotion. Luckily with conscious effort we can come to acknowledge its purpose with compassion and find constructive ways to manage it.