Primary Versus Secondary Emotions

Emotions are powerful components that make up our moment-to-moment experiences and can be confusing and even scary if we do not understand them.  Without awareness of and insight into our emotional experiences, it can be challenging to manage and cope with uncomfortable and even painful feelings.  Therefore it is important to be able to identify and understand what emotions we have and the meaning behind them so that we can develop the appropriate coping skills to effectively manage them. 

We can think about our emotions in two categories: primary and secondary.  Primary emotions are the basic universal feelings that we experience in response to our instincts. Primary emotions are quick, immediate responses to a situation and do not require cognitive processing or learning.          

Secondary emotions are feelings that we experience as a result of how we process the meaning of people, places, and objects and involve memory and learning.  Secondary emotions are responses to the primary emotions we experience and can be felt for short or long durations. 

Primary                                 Secondary

Anger                                    fury, outrage, irritability, hostility, resentment      

Fear                                       anxiety, apprehension, nervousness, dread, panic

Sadness                                 grief, sorrow, gloom, melancholy, despair, loneliness, depression

Joy                                         enjoyment, happiness, relief, bliss, delight, pride, ecstasy

Shame                                    guilt, embarrassment, remorse, regret

Desire                                    acceptance, friendliness, trust, kindness, affection, love, devotion

Disgust                                  contempt, disdain, scorn, aversion, distaste, revulsion

Surprise                                shock, astonishment, amazement, astound, wonder

The relationship between primary and secondary emotions can be complex because secondary emotions often take over and mask our primary emotions.  Therefore the goal of managing our emotional experiences effectively requires the ability to identify the underlying, or primary emotions, of our more overt, or secondary emotional responses.  Once we can identify our instinctual or basic emotions, it can be easier to identify the needs we can aim to meet in those moments and situations so that it feels more manageable.

~ Cory Stege, M.S., LMFT