Primary and Secondary Emotions
There are many types of categorizations of emotions. Within emotion-focused therapy, there is an important distinction between a primary emotion and a secondary emotion.
Primary emotion is the emotion we feel in response to some event or situation. Secondary emotion is the emotional reaction to the primary emotion itself.
Why is this distinction important and how can it help us manage our emotions?
(Note: The emotion research literature is complex and often the same terms can mean different things. This is in fact also the case with primary and secondary emotions,
which can also refer to ‘simpler’, often called basic, emotions (e.g., fear, joy, anger, disgust, sadness, surprise) and ‘complex’, most often social emotions
(e.g., pride, jealousy, envy). This is NOT the sense in which primary and secondary are used here.)
One of the core assumptions of emotion-focused therapy is that emotions are primarily adaptive, and that the affective system provides us with important information
about our needs. In other words, when the affective system is working as it should, it lets us know the degree to which our needs are being met. Are we achieving
our goals? (If so, we may feel joy.) Are we feeling physically safe? (If not, we may feel fear.) Are things going according to plans or is something in the way?
(If something is obstructing our plans and goals, we may feel anger.) Are we following our own or established societal norms for behavior?
(If we violate these norms, we may feel guilt.)
Indeed, the assumption that the emotional system evolved to provide us with information that improves our ability to survive and thrive is generally accepted by researchers
in affective science: a recently established cross-disciplinary area of research that focuses on understanding emotions, in humans and other animals.
When the emotional system is functioning well, the primary emotion we experience in response to an event provides us with important information, which we can then
use to guide our behavior. For example, something, or someone, causes us pain, so we naturally avoid that situation or person; something, or someone, brings us
joy or pleasure, so we seek out that situation or person. These immediate emotional reactions may not last long, often just a few minutes before the emotion dissipates.
(This is in contrast to moods, which can last much longer.)
So far, so good, but things can become complicated, when the primary emotion immediately gives rise to another emotion, the secondary emotion, which in effect masks
the primary emotion and silences its important message. The secondary emotion is an emotional reaction to the primary emotion itself. For example, suppose that
someone behaved unfairly toward you. The natural emotional reaction in this situation might be anger or frustration. But you were brought up not to feel anger towards
other people. So even before you become fully aware of the feeling of anger, you may instead experience the feeling of guilt or shame. This secondary emotion of guilt
or shame is an emotional reaction to having experienced the primary emotion of anger.
What’s the problem here?
First of all, the secondary emotion may be confusing. To continue with the example above: in fact it does not make a lot of sense to feel guilt or shame when someone
has been unfair to us. That confusion may in turn trigger anxiety. So now we feel guilty or ashamed AND anxious. And we may have no idea why, which makes it challenging
to do anything about it.
Second, and most importantly, we never receive the adaptive message of the primary emotion of anger: someone treated us unfairly, perhaps violated some social norm
or transgressed some personal boundary. There is a lot of information in the feeling of anger: about the other person, about social norms, about our own needs and boundaries,
but all of this information is lost to us, because we are not aware of the primary, adaptive emotion and its important message.
Third, the secondary emotion may be difficult to let go of, and it may linger and continue to cause distress, whether on its own (guilt and shame do not feel good)
or because the associated affective confusion may induce anxiety. Or, particularly in the case of anger, its expression may cause harm to others or ourselves.
So how do we use all this information? The distinction between primary and secondary emotions is helpful for emotion regulation, and for managing distressing emotions.
When we feel a strong, distressing emotion, and are finding it both confusing and difficult to let go, it may be because it is a secondary emotion. It may then help to
delve more deeply into our emotional experience, and ask ourselves whether the distressing emotion may in fact be secondary to another emotion. If we find that there is
indeed another emotion ‘lurking’ underneath, we then try to get in touch with that primary emotion. We try to feel it, approach it with curiosity, asking ourselves questions
such as: Where am I feeling this emotion in the body? What are some thoughts, especially thoughts about myself, associated with this emotion? What am I feeling about myself?
About the other person, if there is another person involved?. We then try to accept the emotion without judgment: without judging the emotion itself as ‘good’ or ‘bad’, and
without judging ourselves for experiencing the emotion. (Note, however, that accepting an emotion does not mean you encourage or accept its expression - these are two distinct aspects
of an emotional experience. See the entry on 'Common Emotion Confound" below, which discusses this distinction.) This process often results in a feeling of relief, both from the
distressing secondary emotion and from the associated anxiety that often accompanies a situation where a secondary emotion masks an initial emotional reaction.
The primary emotion is often easier to let go of than the secondary emotion. We recognize and acknowledge it, we listen to its message, and we can move on.
How do we know whether a particular emotion is primary or secondary? It takes some work getting to know our emotional reactions. Any emotion can be primary or secondary,
so there is no easy formula. It takes some individual exploration to identify our specific patterns. That said, anger is often secondary to more ‘vulnerable’ emotions,
such as fear, emotional hurt, a sense of helplessness or a sense of shame. So next time you find yourself feeling anger, check in with yourself to see if there is
a different emotion underneath, and listen to the message it is trying to send you. And next time you are experiencing an emotion that is intense, confusing and
difficult to let go of, step back for a moment from the situation and spend a few minutes exploring your affective experience, to see if the intense emotion may be
secondary to a different primary emotion.
Resources and Readings