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Primary and Secondary Emotions: How to Recognize and Deal With Them

emotional, emotions, feelings

Put simply, the human experience is filled with emotions… and lots of them. We can experience an array of emotions in a single day. But not all emotions are created equal, and some are far easier to grasp than others. We all contain within our psyche primary and secondary emotions. They’re fundamental to how we perceive the world around us, how we relate to others, and how we understand ourselves. They exemplify the multi-layered complexity of what we feel and why feel it from day to day. When we begin to explore the question, “What are primary and secondary emotions?”, we start to understand the intricacy of our emotional experiences, and how we can best deal with the array of our emotions as they arise for better overall mental health.

What are primary and secondary emotions?

Primary emotions are the instant responses to our external world or something that has happened to us. They’re typically easier to identify and are an instinctual response to a cue or an experience. They provide us with information about what is happening around us so that we can take action accordingly. Unlike secondary emotions, we move through these relatively quickly as they are immediately felt. Primary emotions are thus easily released once identified. For example, if we find ourselves in a situation where we feel that our safety may be threatened, we may feel fearful. When we are celebrating a birthday or an accomplishment, we feel happiness or joy.

Secondary emotions, on the other hand, are more complex and harder to identify. Secondary emotions are typically triggered by our primary emotions, many of which are conditioned from childhood and learned behavior patterns. For example, if we feel angry with someone, we may feel ashamed of ourselves for reacting with anger. We may have learned during childhood that expressing anger is “wrong” or “bad.” Secondary emotions can linger within our psyche and can ultimately mask the primary emotions that we are reacting to.

The benefits of distinguishing primary and secondary emotions

Having the ability to discern what are primary and secondary emotions in our lives allows us to find more emotional stability, and differentiate between our instinctual reactions (primary) and the learned behavior patterns (secondary). Emotions are complicated, and our emotional range is vast. It can be a struggle to clearly identify what it is we are actually feeling. Are we just feeling a reaction from an event or experience? Or are we harboring emotions we subconsciously inherited as kids? How can we tell the difference?

You can start by developing a mindfulness practice that teaches you to check in with your emotional state. Ask yourself what you are feeling and take inventory of your emotions to grasp what are primary and secondary emotions, and which ones you are actually feeling. When we start to recognize the real underlying feelings, we are better able to release them. Ask yourself if the emotion that you’re feeling is a direct response to something that has happened. If so, it’s most likely primary. If the emotion lingers, you are more likely dealing with a secondary emotional reaction.

This evaluation can be especially helpful for powerful feelings of shame, guilt, depression, or anxiety. We have to feel it, to heal it. When we can distinguish what are primary and secondary emotions, we can feel our emotions freely and fully. Since we typically develop secondary emotions through our childhood experiences, they can often be harmful behavior patterns that can be hard to break. But beneath the murk of the secondary emotions, there is a primary emotion that is wanting to be released.


The key then is to determine what primary emotion is rooted within the secondary emotion. When we know what primary emotion is at the origin of the experience, we are able to take the best action to deal with it and move on. When we acknowledge and sit with our emotions, we move through them with more ease and act with more compassion towards ourselves and others. When we differentiate what primary and secondary emotions are, we are better able to break free from the emotional patterns we may be harboring that ultimately hold us back.

No matter what kind of childhood you experienced, we all develop learned habits and behavior patterns. We can hold on to trauma, shame, or resentment from childhood that ultimately have a profound effect on the way we act and react as adults. These secondary emotions can be problematic when they obscure the primary emotions, thus preventing us from dealing with our emotions in healthy ways. If we hold on to our secondary emotions, we risk letting our emotions control us.

Developing the self-awareness to distinguish what are primary and secondary emotions gives us the power to recognize our feelings, feel them fully, and release them.

When we separate our secondary emotions, we challenge their validity and diminish their power.

We all have basic emotional needs. They are crucial in our ability to react, communicate, establish boundaries, make decisions, and serve as our internal guidance system. But all emotions, both good and bad, are fleeting. We do not have to hold on to them. Yes, they are important in understanding who we are, how we feel, and how to deal with our external environment. However, not all of our emotional reactions serve us. If we can be more mindful of our emotional responses, we can identify what primary and secondary emotions are present. We can recognize the suppressed patterns that are self-destructive to our personal growth. We can find the root cause of our emotional reactions and liberate ourselves from the secondary emotions that prevent us from moving through our emotions with more clarity and empathy.

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