What’s The Difference Between Primary And Secondary Emotions?
The ability to feel emotions is part of what makes us human. Many people struggle to understand the different emotional states they may experience and what causes them. Learning about the different types of universal emotions—including primary and secondary emotions—can help.
What Are Emotions, Exactly?
Emotions come from the Latin term emovere meaning “moving”. The term is a combination of the words “energy” and “motion”, which captures the often fleeting nature of human emotions. They typically occur when triggered by an internal thought, an external event, or a thought in response to an event. Emotions help us understand and interpret what we’re experiencing.
Positive emotions are meant to encourage us to pursue the thought or situation that caused them again. That’s because these types of feelings activate the reward systems within the central nervous system, which helps us feel safe. Negative emotions, on the other hand, help warn us of potentially dangerous situations to avoid or be aware of in the future. Emotions helped humans stay safe enough to survive and evolve over time. While the world we live in today doesn’t have the same risks as the world of our ancestors, emotions can still help us make sense of our surroundings and defend ourselves.
It’s important to note that people may feel different emotions with different levels of intensity. Some level of variance in this is perfectly natural. For example, roughly 20% of humans fall into the category of “highly sensitive people”, which is “a trait associated with greater sensitivity and responsiveness to the environment and to social stimuli”. In other words, some people may naturally feel some emotions with more or less intensity, which is not inherently problematic.
In other cases, however, experiencing emotions outside of what’s considered to be a typical or healthy range may be a sign of an underlying condition. For instance, past trauma may cause a person to have difficulty feeling and expressing emotions or to feel and express emotions that are out of proportion to events—known as emotional dysregulation. In still other cases, a mental illness like depression may cause distorted thought patterns, which can contribute to a person experiencing strong emotions that are based on a warped view of reality. In these situations, a therapist may be able to help an individual build a healthier relationship to their emotions.
Primary Vs. Secondary Emotions
Human emotions are complex, and researchers don’t fully understand or agree on the details of where they come from or exactly how to classify them. That said, one of the more popular theories is known as the Plutchik Model of Emotions, in which psychologist Robert Plutchik posits that there are eight primary emotions that can be paired into polar opposites: joy and sadness, anger and fear, trust and distrust, and surprise and anticipation. According to this model, one of these eight always comes first, with any following emotions being classified as secondary. For example, getting into a minor car accident might make you feel fear as a primary emotion, with annoyance about the other driver’s actions or remorse about your own as secondary emotions.
Typically, primary emotions are more transient than secondary emotions. They may also have an effect on body language and facial expressions, or may trigger other physiological responses. They usually reflect a more instinctive initial reaction, until our logical brain starts processing the event. Once cognition kicks into gear, the way you feel about something that happened may change. That’s where secondary emotions—which can be far more long-lasting—may come into play.
To tell if an emotion you’re feeling is primary or secondary, think about the timing. If it’s the first thing you feel in response to a stimulus such as an event or conversation, it’s likely a primary emotion—especially if it came on strongly and started fading shortly after. If an emotion lingers long after the event has happened, it’s likely to be secondary. If the emotion is complex and/or relates to past experiences, it’s almost always secondary.
Where Do Secondary Emotions Come From?
If primary emotions are typically instinctive, where do secondary emotions come from? The answer is that many of them are learned responses. Secondary emotions often refer to how you feel about the primary emotion you experienced, and we may face conflicting information on how we should relate to different primary emotions. These things may be instilled in us by our parents or caregivers, other role models, the media, etc. For example, you may have learned to feel shame or embarrassment as a secondary emotion after feeling anger or sadness. While these associations may be deep-seated, it may be possible to change them with effort and patience over time.
How Understanding Your Emotions Can Be Useful
Distinguishing between primary and secondary emotions may help you gain a deeper understanding of yourself and your own emotional landscape. Understanding what triggers certain secondary emotions and how to work through them can be an insightful exercise. When secondary emotions cause us problems or interfere with our lives or relationships, it can be helpful to delve into their triggers and potentially address any wounds that may exist from past trauma or other negative experiences. Plus, understanding how your emotions work can help you become more aware of and gain more control over them, which can benefit your overall mental and social well-being.
Experiencing emotions is a perfectly normal and healthy part of the human experience. However, if you find that your emotional reactions are causing distress or problems in your life, a therapist may be able to help. They can work with you to identify the secondary emotions you’re feeling in response to certain stimuli and potentially discover the underlying causes. If wounds from past experiences are playing an outsize role in your reactions, they may be able to help you on the path to healing.
If you feel more comfortable meeting with a therapist virtually, online therapy is one available treatment option. A platform like BetterHelp can connect you with a therapist who you can speak with via phone call, video call, and/or chat to address the emotional challenges you may be facing. Research suggests that virtual therapy may be a viable alternative to in-person sessions, and many find it to be a more convenient and cost-effective option as well. Regardless of the treatment method or format you choose, getting in touch with your secondary emotions and their roots can help you feel more stable, healthy, and in control of your life.
Understanding the distinction between primary and secondary emotions can be the first step on the path toward creating a more balanced emotional life. If you’re looking for assistance or guidance on this journey, a mental health professional may serve as a helpful resource.
What are primary and secondary emotions in emotion-focused therapy?
In emotion-focused therapy (EFT), a therapeutic approach rooted in humanistic, client-centered, and gestalt principles, emotions are categorized into primary and secondary types. This distinction is crucial in helping individuals understand and work through their emotions in therapy.
Primary emotions are often considered basic emotions. They are the initial, instinctual emotional responses to a situation and are typically genuine and deep-seated. These emotions are direct reactions to external events and are usually adaptive, informing us about our needs and desires in a given situation. For example, feeling sadness after a significant loss or fear in response to danger are primary emotions.
Secondary emotions, on the other hand, are emotional responses to one's primary emotions. They can be seen as a layer on top of the primary emotions and are often influenced by personal judgments or interpretations of those primary feelings. For instance, feeling ashamed of one's fear or angry about feeling sad can be considered secondary emotions. These are often more complex and sometimes maladaptive, as they may stem from personal biases or unhelpful learned patterns.
EFT focuses on helping individuals transition from the often maladaptive secondary emotions to recognizing and accepting the more adaptive primary emotions. This approach involves therapeutic interventions facilitating awareness, acceptance, and appropriate expression of primary emotions. By doing so, EFT can help individuals better understand their core emotional experiences and develop healthier ways of responding to their emotional states.
What are primary and secondary emotions in animals?
In animals, emotions can be broadly categorized into primary and secondary types, similar to the classification in humans. Primary emotions in animals are fundamental biological responses that are universally expressed across various species. These emotions are typically the primary response to an initiating event or stimulus in their environment. For instance, fear in response to a perceived threat or joy in response to positive stimuli are considered primary emotions. These are instinctual and often vital for survival, guiding behaviors like fleeing from predators or seeking food.
Secondary emotions, on the other hand, are more complex and are believed to require higher cognitive capacities. Emotions such as jealousy, guilt, envy, and shame fall under this category. These emotions are generally considered to be exhibited only by a few species that possess advanced cognitive abilities, such as humans and nonhuman primates. The expression of secondary emotions suggests a higher level of social and cognitive functioning, where the animal not only responds to an external stimulus but also processes and reflects on the emotional states of themselves and others.
The distinction between primary and secondary emotions in animals is important in understanding animal behavior and welfare. While primary emotions are straightforward responses to environmental stimuli, secondary emotions indicate a deeper level of psychological complexity. Research in this area continues to evolve, offering insights into the emotional lives of animals and their capacity for experiencing a range of emotions similar to humans.
What is the difference between primary emotions and secondary emotions?
Primary emotions are considered the "first emotions" we experience in reaction to a given stimulus. These emotions are often universal, straightforward, and closely linked to survival. They serve basic purposes like pain reduction, alerting us to danger, or drawing us toward pleasant experiences. Joy, sadness, anger, fear, and disgust are some examples of primary emotions.
Secondary emotions tend to be more nuanced and complex. These emotions develop in response to the primary emotions themselves and are influenced by a person's thoughts, beliefs, and social influences. Secondary emotions are more discrete and can vary significantly from one individual to another, influenced by personal experiences and cultural contexts. For instance, feeling guilt over one's anger or embarrassment about one's fear are examples of secondary emotions.
While primary emotions are immediate and often physically expressed, a secondary reaction requires a level of cognitive processing and is shaped by individual psychological and social factors. This distinction is crucial in understanding human emotional experience, as secondary emotions can sometimes mask or complicate the underlying primary emotions.
Recognizing the difference between these two types of emotions is important in both personal growth and therapeutic contexts. Understanding primary emotions can lead to direct responses for meeting our needs while recognizing and processing secondary emotions can help us identify and challenge unhelpful thinking patterns that may be influencing our emotional experiences. By working through both types of emotions, individuals can gain a deeper understanding of their own emotions and develop healthier coping strategies for managing them.
What is an example of a secondary emotion?
Secondary emotions develop as a response to primary emotions, often shaped by our thoughts, beliefs, and social conditioning. Some common secondary emotions include guilt, shame, envy, jealousy, and embarrassment.
A typical example of a secondary emotion is feeling guilt as a result of how we handled a situation where we may have lacked self-control. For instance, imagine a scenario where you initially feel frustration (a primary emotion) due to a challenging situation. If you react to this frustration with an outburst that you later perceive as inappropriate, you might experience guilt as a secondary emotion. This guilt arises from your reflection on the initial reaction and a judgment about your lack of self-control at that moment.
In this context, guilt is not a direct response to the external situation but rather a reaction to your own behavior and the standards you hold for yourself. These sensitive emotions require a higher level of cognitive processing and self-awareness, making them more complex compared to primary emotions.
While painful emotions like guilt can be challenging, acknowledging and processing them can ultimately lead to growth and self-improvement. Understanding secondary emotions helps us recognize the layered nature of our emotional responses and the importance of self-awareness in managing them.
What are considered secondary emotions?
Secondary emotions often involve a combination of primary emotions and cognitive processing. These emotions are usually considered unique to humans, although some animals may also display similar behaviors. Some common secondary emotions include guilt, shame, pride, empathy, jealousy, envy, and embarrassment.
In general, secondary emotions can be categorized into two types: self and other. Self-related emotions, such as guilt and shame, involve reflecting on our own behavior and internal states. Other-related emotions, like empathy and jealousy, require us to consider the thoughts and feelings of others.
Research in this area is ongoing, with studies exploring the complexities of secondary emotions regarding social, moral, and cultural influences. As our understanding of these emotions deepens, we can develop more effective ways to support individuals in navigating their emotional experiences and developing healthier coping mechanisms.
Is guilt a primary or secondary emotion?
Guilt is generally considered a secondary emotion, as it typically arises in response to another, more primary emotion. For instance, you might first experience a primary emotion like feeling angry about a particular situation or interaction. Then, as you reflect on your response or behavior while angry, you may start to feel guilty. This guilt is a secondary emotion because it is not the immediate, instinctual response to the initial event but rather a reaction to your own feelings or actions.
Primary emotions like anger are direct, instinctual emotional responses to stimuli. They are the first layer of emotional response and are often straightforward and universally experienced. Secondary emotions, on the other hand, develop from these primary emotions and are shaped by personal experiences, societal norms, and individual reflections. They are more complex and can vary significantly from person to person.
In the case of guilt, it emerges as you process the primary emotion (anger, in this example) and evaluate your actions or reactions. It often involves self-awareness and moral or ethical judgment about whether your actions were right or wrong. This introspective process is what categorizes guilt as a secondary emotion.
Your ability to recognize and understand the distinction between primary and secondary emotions can help you better manage your emotional responses and work through any underlying challenges that may be contributing to them. During this process, it can be beneficial to seek professional guidance to resolve emotions that are difficult to manage. Cognitive therapy, mindfulness techniques, and other therapeutic approaches may be utilized to process both primary and secondary emotions in a healthy and effective manner.
Is embarrassment a primary or secondary emotion?
Embarrassment is typically classified as a secondary emotion, although it can also be considered a tertiary emotion, depending on its context and depth. Secondary emotions develop in response to primary emotions, which are the instinctual, immediate reactions to a stimulus. Tertiary emotions, on the other hand, are even more complex and nuanced, arising from further processing of secondary emotions.
In the case of embarrassment, it often emerges from the present moment, reflecting a self-conscious response to how others perceive one's actions or behaviors. For instance, if you trip in public (a situation), the immediate primary emotional response might be surprise or fear. However, as you become aware of others witnessing your fall, you may feel embarrassed. This embarrassment is a secondary emotion, as it arises from processing your initial response in the context of social evaluation.
Embarrassment can also evolve into a tertiary emotion, particularly when it involves a deeper, more complex processing of the situation and your feelings about it. For example, if your embarrassment leads you to ruminate about your social skills or self-worth, it becomes a tertiary emotion. This is because it's not just a direct reaction to an event (primary) or a simple reflection on your initial response (secondary) but a more profound contemplation that might involve your past experiences, personal insecurities, and broader self-perception.
The complexity of our emotional experiences can be both beautiful and challenging. By understanding and acknowledging the role of primary, secondary, and tertiary emotions in our lives, we can develop a more compassionate and non-judgmental attitude toward ourselves and others. With this awareness, we can cultivate healthier coping mechanisms for managing these complex emotional states constructively.
Is love a primary or secondary emotion?
Love is often considered a primary emotion, as it is a natural and instinctual response to certain stimuli. However, like many emotions, love can also have secondary and tertiary components depending on its context and depth.
As a primary emotion, love arises from our innate desire for connection and attachment. It is the immediate feeling that we experience when we bond with someone or something. This primary response is often characterized by feelings of happiness, comfort, and safety.
However, as we process our initial experience of love and deepen our connection with the person or thing, it can also develop into a secondary emotion. For instance, as we reflect on our feelings for someone, we may start to feel gratitude, appreciation, and empathy towards them. These emotions are considered secondary as they arise from our primary experience of love and involve a deeper evaluation and understanding.
Love can also take on tertiary aspects, especially in long-term relationships. As we navigate the complexities of maintaining love over time, it may lead to emotions such as compassion, patience, and forgiveness. These tertiary emotions reflect a more profound level of processing that involves our immediate reactions and our values, beliefs, and personal growth.
Is jealousy a secondary emotion?
Jealousy is often considered a secondary emotion, as it arises from the processing of primary emotions such as fear, anger, or sadness. It involves a complex evaluation of one's own feelings and actions in response to a perceived threat or loss.
When experiencing jealousy, one may first feel fear or insecurity about losing something or someone they value. This primary emotional response triggers further processing, where an individual may feel sad or angry about the perceived threat. As they continue to evaluate their emotions, they may also feel jealousy towards the person or thing that is causing these feelings.
Jealousy can also have tertiary components, particularly if it involves a deeper reflection on one's personal insecurities and values. For example, if someone feels jealous of their partner's success, it may lead them to reflect on their own achievements and self-worth. This tertiary emotion involves a broader evaluation of oneself and can have both positive and negative effects depending on how it is managed.
Is anxiety a secondary emotion?
As a secondary emotion, anxiety often develops in response to primary emotions like fear or stress. It is not just an immediate reaction to a situation but rather a complex response to one's feelings about that situation. For example, you might feel fear (a primary emotion) when facing a challenging situation, and this fear could lead to anxiety as you process and think about the potential implications of that situation.
However, when anxiety becomes persistent, overwhelming, and starts to interfere with daily functioning, it may be indicative of an anxiety disorder, which is a mental health condition. Unlike the secondary emotion of anxiety that arises in specific situations and is relatively transient, an anxiety disorder is characterized by excessive and prolonged worry, tension, and nervousness, even in the absence of any apparent reason or threat.
In the context of mental health, anxiety disorders include a variety of specific conditions, such as generalized anxiety disorder, panic disorder, and social anxiety disorder, among others. These conditions often require professional treatment, including therapy, medication, or a combination of both.
Thus, while anxiety can be a normal secondary emotional response to certain experiences or thoughts, it can also escalate into a more serious, chronic condition that impacts mental health and requires clinical attention. Understanding anxiety in both contexts is crucial for recognizing when it's a normal part of emotional processing and when it has become a significant health concern that needs professional intervention.
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