Primary vs. Secondary Emotions: Why Knowing the Difference Matters
Emotions play an essential role in our health, behavior, social interactions, and life in general. They help us understand our experiences and how those experiences make us feel. Also, emotions help us communicate ourselves to others and grasp how our actions affect other people.
Working out the difference between primary and secondary emotions allows us to understand better how different emotions affect us and how to manage them.
What are Emotions?
Emotions represent an internal mental and physiological state that profoundly impacts our perspectives, behaviors, relationships, and decisions we make.
Emotions, together with cognitive abilities, are what distinguish us as humans. They are vital to our well-being because they allow us to understand ourselves and others, avoid danger, make choices, and succeed in work and life.
Every emotion is made up of three components:
- How we experience emotions (a recognition of an internal state)
- The body’s response to emotions (a biological element)
- How we react to experienced emotions (a behavioral aspect)
Primary vs. Secondary Emotions: What’s the Difference?
Many attempts have been made to categorize emotions. For example, according to Robert Plutchik’s famous wheel of emotions, there are eight primary or basic emotions, which are divided into four pairs of opposites:
- Happiness – sadness
- Fear – anger
- Trust – distrust
- Surprise – anticipation
Similarly, psychologist Paul Ekman identified six basic emotions:
However, we experience a wide range of different emotions. So, understanding the difference between primary and secondary emotions can help you know what you are feeling, why you are feeling it, and what you want to do about it.
Primary emotions involve our first reactions to specific internal or external environment changes. They are natural and instinctive, and they serve an evolutionary function. As such, primary emotions are less complicated and easier to understand.
On the other hand, secondary emotions represent our learned responses. The secondary emotions’ main role is self-protection, as we habitually use them to cover for more sensitive primary emotions.
For example, feeling enraged may feel better than feeling rejected, afraid, or ashamed. So, we may use anger to cover vulnerability and turn unpleasant emotions into feelings of power and control. In other words, we get angry to protect ourselves against these feelings.
On the other hand, letting secondary emotions get in the way of your primary emotions could be harmful in the long run.
Primary Emotions are Feelings of Instinct
When we realize that changes in our internal and external environments affect our well-being, we experience a primary emotion that drives us to take action.
For example, when we discover that someone has lied to us, we feel sad. Sadness might drive us to confront that person, become infuriated and strike out at them, withdraw and stop communicating with them, etc.
Primary emotions are automatic, universal, and hard-wired. They occur close to the triggering event and hence involve our instinctive reactions. They play a protective role by motivating us to behave in some way.
Secondary Emotions are More Like Habits
Experts explain that secondary emotions occur as a combination of primary emotions. According to American psychologist Robert Plutchik, the four pairs of core emotions are the foundation for all other emotions. For example, joy and fear combine into the feeling of guilt.
Secondary emotions tend to stick around for a longer period, masking our primary emotions and often causing trouble in our relationships.
For example, fear that your partner might leave you is more sensitive than anger. So, if your partner repeats specific behavioral patterns that you find hurtful, you will most likely feel sad and unsafe. So, you will either shut down or react with anger and hostility. And this goes the other way round, causing mistrust, communication issues, and distance in your relationship.
Secondary Emotions Can Be Both Obstructive and Destructive
Secondary emotions are often unhelpful because they prevent self-awareness and self-discovery. They may motivate us to be on guard, causing us to feel unsafe, lonely, and disconnected.
For example, suppose you habitually use anger to cover for shame or sadness. In that case, you will be unable to understand your primary emotions, react to them in healthy ways, or heal emotional wounds.
Learning to Recognize and Reframe Your Emotions
Recognizing and understanding your secondary emotions can help you deal with anxiety, loneliness, and depression, improve your relationships, and feel better overall.
The best way to identify and reframe your secondary emotions is to increase your self-awareness. You can try mindfulness meditation, write down your thoughts and feelings in a journal, or talk to a counselor.
1) Mindfulness Meditation
Mindfulness meditation can help you become more conscious of your thoughts and reduce rumination. In addition, it can help you figure out what your secondary emotions are by letting you be in the moment and watch your thoughts and feelings without reacting to them.
Writing in a journal can help break down mental barriers and encourage the release of emotions. It allows you to recognize, track, and accept secondary emotions, which can help you become more self-aware and better able to control your emotions.
Counseling and psychotherapy can help you reframe your secondary emotions to understand where your issues are coming from and what is happening to you underneath the secondary emotions.
For example, if you become angry or shut down in communication with your partner, you may use these behaviors to cover up your primary emotions and restore balance. So, if you focus only on what’s on the surface, you will not truly understand your triggers and will not be able to communicate your needs to others.
Counseling can help you recognize and challenge such secondary emotions, reducing their effects so you can stay in touch with your primary emotions.