When the Bee Gee’s opined, “It’s just emotion that’s taking me over,” they weren’t exaggerating—emotions affect us in powerful ways, impacting our behavior and our relationships. So, it’s important we understand them as best we can. Which, if we’re being honest, is easier said than done. In fact, civilizations have been trying to categorize human emotions for centuries. In today’s modern era, one of those categorizations focuses on primary and secondary emotions. Read on to learn more about these types of emotions—and how to best identify them.
What are emotions in the first place?
Happy, sad, mad, scared, friendly, thoughtful, lonely, cranky, grateful, delighted—the list goes on and on. How do you actually describe these invisible forces? Merriam-Webster defines emotions as “a conscious mental reaction (such as anger or fear) subjectively experienced as strong feeling usually directed toward a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioral changes in the body,” meaning that these feelings aren’t just fleeting, but they have real-life impacts on our actions and our health. Dr. Tracy Thomas, a psychologist and emotional scientist who works with emotionally sensitive people, likes to think of emotions as energy in motion (e-motion—get it?).
So, what’s the difference between primary and secondary emotions?
Think of it most this way: Primary comes first and secondary comes, well, second. From there, the psych field tends to differ on what exactly primary vs. secondary emotions are. For example, there are the Ekman and Plutchick models. Neel Burton M.D. writes for Psychology Today, “In the 20th century, Paul Ekman identified six basic emotions (anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise) and Robert Plutchik [identified] eight, which he grouped into four pairs of polar opposites (joy-sadness, anger-fear, trust-distrust, surprise-anticipation).” Some experts, explains Burton, believe these basic emotions are hard-wired, “innate and universal, automatic, and fast, and trigger behavior with a high survival value.” Secondary emotions—like apprehension, interest, trust, for example—are hypothesized to come from a combination of the primary emotions
The key word there is hypothesize. Human emotions are so complicated that experts are continually studying, testing, disagreeing on and updating these theories.
Dr. Thomas, on another hand, sees emotions on a more individual level—instead of looking at a color-coded wheel of definite primary and secondary emotions, Dr. Thomas says that primary emotions are simply our initial reactions to external events or stimuli. Secondary emotions are the reactions we then have to our reactions. For example, If you’re a sensitive person, this might ring especially true for you—most emotionally sensitive people tend to not only react to stimuli in their environments but also to that aforementioned reaction. This leads to a chain of reactions that can get more intense and last a longer time.
Are happiness, anger and sadness primary or secondary emotions?
That answer depends on which psychologist you talk to. If a professional follows the Plutchik Model, the basic, primary emotions are joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger and disgust. Emotional scientist Dr. Thomas, however, doesn’t believe emotions are experienced exclusively as primary or secondary. Says Thomas: “One can actually experience a full range of emotions as a primary response to our environment.” Secondary emotions, Dr. Thomas argues, are responses to our primary emotions. Think: Your submission to a literary journal is rejected. Your primary response is discouragement. Your secondary response might be anxiety. Why? You've become anxious in response to your own emotions.
Emotions are also arguably highly impacted by external factors, like culture. In clinical psychologist Harriet Lerner’s The Dance of Anger: A Woman's Guide To Changing The Patterns Of Intimate Relationships, the author argues that the oh-so common anger women feel is not a primary emotion but an alarm bell signaling a deeper issue. Kathy Caprino interviewed Lerner in 2014 for Forbes asking, “Do you consider anger a negative emotion, especially in our culture of positivity?” Lerner responded: “Anger is neither positive nor negative. Anger simply is. It’s an important emotion that deserves our attention and respect. But most of us have little experience using our anger as a vehicle for positive change. Instead we silence our anger or vent it in a way that leaves us feeling helpless and powerless.”
How do primary vs. secondary emotions impact my relationships?
While we’re not going to tell you the frustration you’re feeling towards your partner who left the bathroom floor sopping wet is a primary or secondary emotion, it is clear that our emotions are complicated, and we should honor them by taking a step back to really consider what it is we’re feeling. If we can get to the crux of what we’re experiencing—and why we’re experiencing it—we can make better decisions. It’s important to be able to understand the reason why any feeling, from joy to deep sadness, arises.
Here’s an example: Your wife broke your favorite dish and you’re angry.
Are you angry that your wife would be so careless with something you love or are you embarrassed at how you yelled at her when she dropped the platter? This would feed into Dr. Thomas’s ideas of emotions. Remember, Dr. Thomas says that when it comes to our relationships (including the one with yourself!), the most important thing is to be able to recognize whether you’re reacting to your internal stimuli or the environment around you.
In the Plutchik Model, your anger surrounding the broken platter might be considered a secondary reaction to the initial, primal terror you felt when you heard it crash to the ground and instinctively thought, “danger!” But Dance of Anger author, Harriet Lerner, has another postulation: Your anger surrounding the broken dish might be trying to alert you to a more important story about your relationship.
If you’re yelling at your wife about how you’ll never be able to find a replacement, but really, you’re hurt that your wife is often careless with things that are important to you, you won’t get the resolution you need. Think of the big waves of emotions you experience as opportunity for positive change—ride the waves safely to the shore instead of battling against the current. Take a breath (try some square breathing) and ask yourself, is this really a time to lambast your loved one or is this an occasion to access what’s really going on with your relationship and it address it head on? If it's the latter, perhaps you calmly suggest, "I'm hurt you broke something important to me, but I need some time to process my thoughts. Let's enjoy dinner and make time to talk about this tomorrow."
OK, so how do I interpret my emotions?
There are lots of ways to gain clarity on your feelings. Here are some of our suggestions.
1. Seek professional help
Whether it’s a psychiatrist, psychologist, therapist, social worker or other mental health professional, often times gaining insight into your own emotions means bringing in some outside help. Seeing the big picture can be impossible when you’re stuck inside the whirling chaos of it all. But as soon as you bring in a third, neutral party whose job is to help you understand yourself the truth can unravel fairly quickly—but only if you’re open to it.
You’d be surprised at how effective putting pen to paper can be. Try spending ten minutes every day free writing. Jot down any thought that comes to you for that set period of time without worrying about making sense, and you’ll be amazed at what comes to the surface. Who knew you were so moved by your roommate’s cooking? Or so offended by the criticism your friend texted you? Not sure you can commit to journaling just yet? Try a one-word journal (consider it self-care for when you’re feeling a little lazy.)
3. Mindful Meditation
You’ve heard all the fuss about mindful meditation, but the hype is legit. The 2,000-year-old Buddhist practice has been a proven way to improve awareness around the present moment and self. While meditation can seem lofty and unfamiliar, there are so many ways to bring the ancient practice into your life. Start with a quick ten-minute session with an app like Headspace or Calm. Not into sitting still? Try mindful running!
If one of the emotions you’re feeling often is anger, get your hands on a copy of Harriet Lerner’s Dance of Anger ASAP. If talking or thinking about your feelings is brand-new to you, try Marc Brackett’s Permission to Feel: Unlocking the Power of Emotions to Help Our Kids, Ourselves, and Our Society Thrive, which provides a blueprint for acknowledging and skillfully understanding our emotions in a society that shames emotions.