What Are Primary And Secondary Emotions

By Nadia Khan|Updated June 15, 2022
CheckedMedically Reviewed By Patricia Corlew , LMFT, LPC,

Being able to feel emotions is part of what makes us human. Many people struggle to understand their emotional state and the things that cause us to feel so deeply. Emotionally, human beings experience a huge range of different things in response to any situation. If you are depressed, it is a common misconception that all you feel is sad when, in fact, it is likely you feel many things like lonely, invisible, unimportant, hopeless, and more. The reason many of us struggle to identify our emotions properly is that they are often gone as fast as they appear. We are constantly experiencing new things which means our emotions are rarely static, which complicates being able to identify what is going on with our emotions.

What Are Emotions?

Emotions come from the Latin term emovere meaning moving. The term is a combination of energy and motion, an expression of how life is constantly in flowing motion. Human emotions are something we constantly feel and can happen when actions or feelings stir a certain mental or physiological response within us. We may feel emotions from a situation, an experience, or from memories. They assist us to understand the things we are experiencing and to express the way such behaviors make us feel whether they are good or bad.

Sometimes, in the case of trauma, emotions can get stuck or blocked off, so that when we experience them again, we cannot process or react properly to them. Positive emotions are meant to reinforce an experience as enjoyable so that we seek out the pleasant emotional state again. Positive emotions activate the reward systems within the brain which makes us feel safe. Negative emotions, on the other hand, warn us of potentially dangerous situations and raise the survival instincts within us so that we become much more aware. In a way, our emotions have evolved to help us survive human life in a more cerebral society than that of our distant ancestors, but the reactions, like fight or flight responses and other defensive behaviors, are very much the same.

Structuring Emotions

According to HUMAINE, there are 48 recognized emotions proposed in the emotional annotation and representation language. Internationally, there are 128 recognized emotions, including many that have no name in English. Most psychologists agree with this, with the option to classify them further according to other theories. The primary, secondary, and tertiary approach was originally described in 1987 in the Journal of Personality and Social Psychology as a tree shape starting with the self and with primary, secondary, and tertiary emotions extending like branches from the trunk of the personality.

This was the next step from Plutchik’s wheel of emotions. The wheel is a much easier design for clients to understand because it also uses colors to classify both positive and negative emotions as well as making it easier to identify opposing emotions. This wheel was also beneficial because it was easier to identify the different intensities from a single emotion and the relationships between different emotions.

In 2012 a research piece based on Plutchik’s petals determined that perhaps psychologists were too broad in their definition of emotions. Analysis of 42 facial muscles used to create emotional responses was only able to create four basic emotions; every other was either too similar or a sub emotion of one of those four. For example, the facial reaction to surprise and that of fear were similar; though this could also be because the wide-eyed look is a survival instinct to increase visual attention, essential in most situations that elicit fear or surprise.

Primary And Secondary

Imagine something has happened, anything, and suddenly you are feeling an emotion. It is strong; it is the first reaction to what has happened. That is a primary emotion. Emotion theories suggest primary emotions are the body’s first response, and they are usually very easy to identify because they are so strong. The most common primary emotions are fear, happiness, sadness, and anger.

These may also be secondary emotions given different situations, but when we first react, it’s usually with one of the above. If the phone rang and someone started yelling at you for no reason you would probably feel angry or afraid or if the phone rang and someone told you that your dog had died you would feel sad. There does not have to be a huge stimulus to elicit a primary emotion. Primary emotions are adaptive because they make us react a certain way without being contaminated or examined. They are very much an instinctual, primal, survival response.

Primary Emotions

Primary emotions are more transient than secondary emotions which is why they are less complicated and easier to understand. The first thing we feel is directly connected to the event or stimulus but as time passes we struggle to connect the same emotion with the event because our emotions have changed.

Secondary Emotions

Secondary emotions are much more complex emotions because they often refer to the feelings you have about the primary emotion. These are learned emotions which we get from our parent(s) or primary care givers as we grow up. For example, when you feel angry you may feel ashamed afterward or when you feel joy, you may feel relief or pride. In Star Wars, Master Yoda explained secondary emotions perfectly – “fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering.”

Secondary emotions can also be divided into instrumental emotions. These are unconscious and habitual. We learn instrumental emotions as children as a form of conditioning. When we cry a parent comes to soothe us; so, we learn to use the facial expressions and physiological reactions associated with crying when we need that soothing or sense of security.psp

Many toddlers are very adept at using instrumental emotions to get their way with anger. A toddler throws a tantrum, and parents give in to make them quiet. As we get older, we learn that such behaviors are not appropriate; if not, we become spoiled and manipulative. By not learning the correct secondary emotional response it leaves the person distant and emotionally detached from those around them.

How To Tell The Difference?

Aside from secondary emotions being harder to name, there are several ways to determine whether you are feeling a primary emotion or a secondary one. Firstly, ask yourself if the emotion is directly a reaction or not. If it is a direct connection, then it is a primary emotion. If the emotion came on strongly, but that feeling has begun to fade then it is also likely a primary emotion; if the opposite is true it’s more likely to be a secondary emotional reaction.

If the emotion lingers long after the event has happened or even effects new but similar or connected events, then it is likely to be secondary. If the emotion is complex, it’s almost always secondary. There is such a thing as tertiary emotions, but as elusive as secondary emotions are tertiary emotions are even harder to pin down.

For children, and even some adults, who struggle to identify their emotions one of the easiest ways to differentiate between primary and secondary emotions is to use flashcards. A flashcard can have several feelings on one side (e.g., rage, envy, irritation) and whether they are primary or secondary responses on the back. The person must guess, or make an informed decision, about whether the feelings and emotions are primary or secondary or identify which primary emotion they belong to.

What Use Are Primary are Secondary Emotions?

Primary and secondary emotions give a person a deeper understanding of their emotional stability and integrity, but to a healthcare professional they can make diagnosis much easier. Rather than blindly accepting an emotion, being able to understand where it comes from and the actions that led up to that emotion can act as a path to trace back to prior abuse or traumatic events that have left emotional scars.

Finding the real cause behind a person’s reaction means examining the primary emotion, while the secondary emotion will help to understand how the patient processes information. Also, by slowing down the thought process and consciously working through the internal reasons why someone feels a certain way, they are likely to understand more about themselves and their emotional life through a process that would have been entirely unconscious until now.

Another reason why identifying emotions is important is to be able to react to them properly. For someone who struggles with handling emotions or reacting appropriately being unable to express themselves can be frustrating. This, in turn, leads to anger and even rage.


Everyone experiences primary and secondary emotions. If you are finding it hard to differentiate your feelings or you are feeling emotionally detached, then getting help doing so is essential to living a fully connected life. Experienced mental health professionals like the therapists and counselors at BetterHelp are there to help you. All you need do is reach out.

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