Written by therapist Clair Miller
Feelings are a pretty cliché topic for therapists- and they’re cliché for a reason. Our feelings are important in more ways than one, and many of us don’t spend enough time or energy exploring or understanding them. There are a lot of different kinds of therapies out there, and many of them involve the clients’ emotional responses and awareness. We are designed to feel all kinds of things; our body is almost constantly reacting to our environment. Whether we’re aware of them or not, our emotions do tend to drive our thoughts and behavior. So, the more we can learn to acknowledge those feelings in ourselves, the more attuned we become to the world around us and the better we will be able to process and manage those feelings in our everyday life.
A lot of the work I do as a therapist starts with developing or bolstering one’s emotional awareness, identification, expression, and regulation. Emotions are impacting us all of us all the time, and it takes work to become adept at using or coping with them. That work starts with that awareness (paying attention to what we’re feeling) and identification (learning to recognize and name the feelings). One aspect of that process that has been coming up in many sessions lately is the difference between primary emotions and secondary emotions, so I thought I would use this blog to explore what that means and why the differentiation is important.
Our primary emotions are probably what you typically think of when thinking about feelings. It is our emotional response to some kind of stimulus, and often can be identified as one of the basic core feelings (essentially gladness, guilt, anger, sadness, hurt, fear- though there are many different opinions on how many core emotions there really are!). If someone insults us, we likely feel hurt and/or sad. If something unfair happens, we will probably feel angry. When a friend surprises us with a gift, we might feel happy. Those initial feelings, those “pure” reactions to life’s stimuli, are primary emotions.
Secondary emotions can be traced down to a core emotion as well, but these are a bit more complex and we often use a lot of different and sometimes more specific words to describe these feelings. While our primary emotions are a pure reaction to our environment, secondary emotions are our reaction to those feelings. It’s like a “meta”-reaction; a reaction to our reaction. It’s how we feel about our feelings, often based on our own judgments and beliefs about emotions in general.
Let’s continue with the examples above to flesh this out a bit. If someone insults us, we likely feel hurt or sad. Now for some people, that may be where the feeling stops. Some may be able to acknowledge and sit with those vulnerable feelings and move through them as is. Some of us, however, will have a secondary reaction. Rather than sitting in the hurt, we might start to feel angry or defensive. If something unfair happens and we initially feel angry, we might start to feel guilty that we’re feeling something “negative” like anger or embarrassed that we’re reacting at all. Secondary emotions vary, but they are always a reaction to whatever our first and pure feeling was.
Why it matters
So why do we want people to be aware of these two categories of emotions? I would say we as counselors generally encourage emotional awareness as an essential part of the work towards mental and emotional well-being. I think the idea of secondary emotions is a particularly useful tool in conceptualizing and understanding the power of our emotions and the opportunity we have to better acknowledge them and use them well. Learning to differentiate between primary and secondary feelings is so fundamental to our emotional awareness because it allows us to explore and adjust our biases or judgments and gives us more agency over what we do with our feelings.
Differentiating is also really helpful in relationships. Many of us can get stuck in secondary emotions, and while they are important to feel and acknowledge, they often get in the way of addressing our truer and more vulnerable primary feelings. If we feel guilty about feeling angry, for example, that guilt is going to block us from feeling the valid and appropriate anger that’s there. As a result, we might miss out on expressing that anger to the offender, or even on addressing whatever the unfairness was.
One other reason it can be helpful to differentiate between your primary and secondary emotions is that without it, we run the risk of misdiagnosing ourselves. I often work with people who seek counseling to deal with one emotion, and as we explore and process together, we discover that while they certainly are experiencing a lot of that emotion, it’s not actually the issue. It is secondary- a reaction to the real feeling underneath.
A common combination is anxiety and anger. People come in for anger management, only to realize that the anger isn’t the problem- it is just their reaction to their underlying feeling of anxiety. No matter how much anger management we do, it probably wouldn’t help all that much because we’re not getting at the source (the anxiety). Only once we recognize and name the anger as a secondary emotion can we pivot and explore ways to manage and cope with the anxiety. That’s just one example, but there are tons of secondary emotions we experience, whether out of self-protection or lack of understanding, and if you don’t know there’s a deeper feeling underneath it, your processing can only get you so far.
If you’re interested in fostering your own emotional intelligence or just learning more about our emotions and their purpose, I’d encourage you to connect with one of our therapists. We’d love to meet you and walk with you through that process!