Primary and Secondary Emotions
Understanding Primary Emotions
Primary emotions are in- the- moment emotional responses to a pleasant or unpleasant stimulus. They happen as a direct result of an external cue that affects us emotionally. That is, they occur in close proximity to the event that brought them on. Primary emotions are important because they provide us with information about our current situation and get us ready or motivated to act in some way.
Primary emotions can be extremely pleasant and they can also be extremely unpleasant. Crucial to understanding our emotional reactions and how we behave, either in a healthy and self-actualising way, or conversely in an unhealthy detrimental way, is being aware of our primary emotions and that they all have value. They are important cues to our humanity and growth on a personal level as well as interpersonally and socially.
We can look at our primary emotions as a human survival mechanism. If we do not allow ourselves the expression of our primary emotions, we at best fail to thrive and live a meagre detached existence, and at worst, when the primary emotions become secondary emotions (which they inevitably do), we cause damage to ourselves and others.
It's interesting that we, in most cases don't have a problem recognising, accepting and expressing the pleasant emotions. Although, in some instances people do inhibit the expression of pleasant primary emotions. However, it is most often the case, that the unpleasant emotions cause problems for people. Why is this? Why do we have a problem giving validity to something unpleasant. It is a crucial cue or piece of information for us.
To analyse this response, it's interesting to note that in some instances we have no problem responding. For example, if we're crossing the street and a car is going through a red light, our fear kicks in and we react immediately to save our life.
But what about other fears? Fear of losing someone. Fear of exposing yourself too much. Fear of looking needy or weak? What do we do with those nasty fears? What about sadness, shame and hurt? What happens when we feel those and then don't express them?
What happens is something kicks in to stop us after we feel the primary emotion. Our inner dysfunctional voice starts up. This voice is not our best friend. It's our enemy. It warps and destroys our natural God-given (or whatever you believe in) ability to thrive as humans. The voice has a lot of power if we give it power. It convinces us that we are being smart by listening to it, because isn't a voice (something that uses intelligent "rational" thought) much better than listening to our instincts?
But, aye there's the rub! Is it really smarter and better to listen to that voice? What is it telling us?
You're not allowed...
You don't deserve...
You will lose....
You are a loser
.....will hate you
.....will leave you
You are weak
You are stupid
You are incompetent
You are selfish
Do not believe what you feel
!!!! Don't trust yourself. !!!!
Understanding Secondary Emotions
Let's look at the above statements. These statement do not help us to achieve. They do not make us better people. They disguise themselves by making us think we'll be better if we listen to the voice. But, in fact what they do is destroy our sense of self and demoralise us.
If that were not bad enough, in the long term, we get into a pattern of not even recognising the primary emotion anymore because the dysfunctional voice has infiltrated completely. What happens then? Not a pretty picture. Because the primary emotion never goes away. It gets buried, but we need it to survive. It makes us human.
This brings us to our secondary emotions. These are very familiar. We might mistake them for primary emotions if we're not self aware. For example, anxiety is often due to fear. We may not be aware that we're afraid, or even what we are fearing (it could be many things), so it becomes expressed as general anxiety. The thing about secondary emotions that will be a tip off is if you can't alleviate it without digging deeper.
Secondary emotions are not there to help us. They hinder us. They are the emotions we have in response to a primary emotion not being recognised or expressed. Secondary emotions can be analysed by listening to our inner dialogue. When we feel uncomfortable with the expression of a primary emotion, our inner judgemental voice kicks in. What does it say? Whatever that voice is saying will be a cue as to how we our turning our primary emotion into a secondary one.
A secondary emotion is what occurs when we don't value, listen to respond to our primary emotions. If we do not express the primary emotion it does not go away. We may not express it for a variety of reasons. It may be because of habit from our past (emotional blocks from childhood, family, school, society or relationships and past hurts), or it may be because we are in a social or work situation in which it is not acceptable or safe to express the primary emotion, or it could be because our current situation blocks us from expressing it (ie. it is not accepted by a partner).
A defining characteristic of secondary emotions is they do not pass quickly. They tend to stick around for a long time. They do not provide us with a useful way of interacting and growing. In addition, secondary emotions are problematic in that they interfere with us getting information from our primary emotional responses and acting on those emotions in healthy ways. Instead, they simply tell us that we aren't willing to have our valid, primary emotional responses. As a result, they often lead us to try to avoid our emotions and cause damage to ourselves and our relationships.
Low Self Esteem
What Can Be Done?
The first step in reducing your secondary emotional responses is to increase your awareness of your emotions. This can be done through self-monitoring:
* identify your emotional responses to a situation
* stay in the moment
* be aware of how you evaluate those emotional responses (are you telling yourself judgements on them?)
* capture what kind of thoughts your primary emotions bring about, as well as how you feel as a result of those thoughts
* counter those thoughts and judgements with self affirming statements
Next, practice responding to your thoughts in a different way. You can challenge your thoughts or be more mindful of your thoughts. That is, practice not taking your thoughts at face value or as truth, but simply as a thought you are having only because you have had that thought before -- it is a habit.
Practicing these steps will help prevent the occurrence of secondary emotions and increase the extent to which you can get in touch with your primary emotional experiences and have a more fulfilling life