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How To Be Emotionally Healthy: Primary Versus Secondary Emotions

emotionally healthy, utah counselingIf you want to learn how to be emotionally healthy, you need to learn about the difference between secondary and primary emotions. In a past article you learned about the importance of recognizing, feeling and coping with your emotions (Related Article: Emotions 101: How To Be Healthy). Learning the difference between a primary emotion and a secondary emotion is part of the first step in Emotions 101 – recognizing your emotions. In order to deal with emotions in a healthy manner, you will need to know what you are feeling in the first place. This is a crucial part of being strong in life and relationships. 


So, let’s review what a primary emotion is and what a secondary emotion is. 


What Is A Primary Emotion?


A primary emotion is a core emotion that is raw, uncovered and genuine to what is happening in your life. Primary emotions are not covered up by other emotions. They are fundamental to what is happening in your life. They are your first response to a stimulus in front of you. 


Example Of A Primary Emotion


Let’s say that your mother dies of cancer. Because of this you feel sad. Sadness, in this case, is your primary emotion to the event of your mother’s passing. You might also feel other emotions such as hurt, relief (because she was suffering), confusion or grief. These can also be primary emotions to your mothers death. 


What Is A Secondary Emotion?


A secondary emotion covers up your primary emotions. It only appears because you are feeling something else – so in a sense, it is misleading. You might be tempted to think that what you are feeling is just anger. Right? You are angry because of your mom’s passing. You can feel it. However, this anger, no matter how strong, is simply covering up your sadness. Let’s take a look at an example of how this works. 


Example Of A Secondary Emotion


Using the example from above, you might feel angry because of your mothers death (Related Article: Anger Is A Secondary Emotion). You are mad at God because your mother died after you had asked for her cancer to heal. After asking God for this healing and having it not happen, you are sad because she died and then angry. In this case, your anger covers up your sadness. Anger does this because feeling sad is vulnerable and anger comes along to seemingly protect you so that no one can get to your sadness and hurt you anymore. There is part of you that knows that you are hurt and could be hurt more, so it kicks into protective mode and covers up your vulnerable emotions. 


Anxiety can also be a secondary emotion (Related Article: Counseling For Anxiety). This happens when you feel many different emotions at the passing of your mother, such as sad, hurt, lonely, abandoned, overwhelmed, stressed, confused, relieved, and lost. When you feel so many emotions, you might not know what to do and your emotional body goes into shock. You cover all of those emotions with anxiety. This causes you to buzz and not have to feel everything else. Anxiety, in this case, acts as a secondary emotion that covers up what you are really feeling so you don’t have to deal with it. 


Keep in mind that anxiety isn’t always a secondary emotion, however. If you are anxious about a presentation you have to give later this week, that anxiety is primary. So, pick it up and feel it. If you are anxious because you are feeling 10 different emotions about your mother dying, then that is a secondary emotion. Dig past that emotion and get down to what you are really feeling. 


Difference Between A Meta-Emotion And A Secondary Emotion


A quick note on meta-emotions versus secondary emotions. Meta-emotions are ones that you feel about what you feel. For example, if you are sad your mom died and then feel guilty about feeling sad, then guilty is a meta-emotion. You feel guilty about feeling sad. It works the same way with thinking. A meta-cognition is thinking about how you think. Or, meta-communication is talking about how you talk. 


What To Do With Secondary Emotions And Primary Emotions


Knowing that secondary emotions are just covering up what you are really feeling, you want to dig past your secondary emotion and recognize your primary emotion. Then pick it up. 


Instead of asking the question “Why am I feeling this way?” Ask, what am I really feeling? The question of ‘why?’ leads you to talk about the situation rather than about your primary emotion. It moves you to get more angry or anxious about the circumstances. That is what we are trying to avoid. So, ask yourself ‘what’ you are really feeling beneath being angry or anxious. This will help you identify your primary emotions. You could use an emotions chart to give you options of different emotions. When you discover what you are really feeling, then pick it up and embrace it. This will help you to eventually let it go. 


Schedule a counseling session with a competent Utah therapist who can help you learn how to be emotionally healthy. Offices in South Jordan, Orem, American Fork and Spanish Fork. Telehealth, online counseling session also available. 


Written by Triston Morgan, PhD, Utah Marriage and Family Therapist

Utah Therapy


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