What Are Primary And Secondary Emotions

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Being able to feel emotions is part of what makes us human. Many people struggle to understand their emotions and the things that cause us to feel so deeply. Emotionally, we often experience a huge range of different things in response to any situation. If you're depressed, it's a common misconception that all you feel is sad when, in fact, it's 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're often gone as fast as they've appeared. We're constantly experiencing new things which means those emotions are rarely static which complicates being able to identify what's going on with your emotions.

What Are Emotions?

Emotions come from the Latin term emovere meaning moving. The term is a shortening of energy and motion, an expression of how life is constantly in flowing motion. Emotions are something we constantly feel and they can happen when actions or feelings stir a certain response within us. We may feel emotions from a situation, an experience, or from memories. They assist us to understand things we're going through and to express the way those things 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 can't process or react properly to them. Positive emotions are meant to reinforce an experience as enjoyable so that we seek it out again. They 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 within a much more subtle society than that of our distant ancestors, but the reactions 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. 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 then primary secondary, and tertiary emotions extending branch like from the trunk of personality.

This was the next step from Plutchik's wheel of emotions. The wheel is a much easier design for patients 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 was also beneficial because it was easier to identify the different intensities from a single emotion and the relationship between one emotion and another.

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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're feeling an emotion. It's strong; it's the first reaction to what has happened. That is a primary emotion. Primary emotions are the body's first response, and they're usually very easy to identify because they're 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 these. If the phone rung and someone started yelling at you for no reason you'd get angry; if the phone rung and someone told you that your dog had died you'd feel sad - it doesn't have to be a huge stimulus to elicit a primary emotion. Primary emotions are considered to be adaptive because they make us react a certain way without being contaminated or examined. They are very much an instinctual survival response.

Primary Emotions

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Primary emotions are more transient than secondary emotions which is why they're 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. There are eight primary emotions that we are born with. They are:

  • Anger
  • Sadness
  • Fear
  • Joy
  • Interest
  • Surprise
  • Disgust
  • Shame

All emotions have a connection to one of these 8 or are derived from them. As babies, our psyche is primarily controlled by the id, and it is wholly interested in our survival at a selfish level. As our psyche develops and we grow to understand the reality around us, we can then process more complex secondary emotions.

Secondary Emotions

Secondary emotions are much more complex because they often refer to the feelings you have about the primary emotion. These are learned emotions which we start understanding by coping parents or others as we grow up. For example, when you feel angry you may feel ashamed afterward, when you feel the 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."

A secondary emotion is one that isn't a reaction but a response to understanding the initial reaction. Secondary emotions are not connected to any part of the psyche like primary emotions are connected to the id which is why they are not hardwired and are often cultural. Since they're much more complicated, it is often the secondary emotional response that is compromised when dealing with patients who have emotional detachment or other emotional disorders.

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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 response associated with crying when we need that soothing or sense of security.

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, but as we grow, we learn that this behavior isn't appropriate or 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?

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Asides from the secondary emotions being harder to name there are several ways to determine whether you're 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 continues to affect you long after the event has happened, even to affecting 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 patient 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 And Secondary Emotions?

Primary and secondary emotions to a person say a lot about 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 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 them understand how the patient processes information. By slowing down the thought process, and consciously working through the internal reasons why someone feels a certain way they are also likely to understand more about themselves through a process that would have been entirely subconscious until now.

Another reason why identifying emotions is important is to be able to react to them properly and for someone who struggles to handle emotions or react appropriately being unable to express themselves can be frustrating. This, in turn, leads to anger and other secondary issues.

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Conclusion

Everyone experiences primary and secondary emotions. If you're finding it hard to differentiate your feelings or you're feeling emotionally detached then getting help doing so is essential to living a full connected life. Therapy, counseling, and people who have experience with exploring emotional difficulties can use your knowledge of how you experience primary and secondary emotions in your treatment. If you're not already in a treatment program, experienced professionals like those at BetterHelp can help you. Living a life that isn't full of emotion, or compromised emotional responses are disrupting that is unnecessary and often lonely.


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