Understanding Your Feelings: The Difference Between Primary and Secondary Emotions

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    Together, primary and secondary emotions create layers of emotional experience that add richness and depth to human experience.

-Dr. Jason Holland, Lifespark

5 min read

If you’ve ever watched a therapist portrayed on television or in the movies, they probably at some point asked their client, ‘How did that make you feel?’

That may seem like a cliche or generic question to ask, but there are very good reasons why a therapist might want a client to have a better understanding of their feelings and recognize the difference between ‘primary’ and ‘secondary’ emotions.    

What’s the Difference Between Primary and Secondary Emotions?

According to Dr. Leslie Greenberg, a developer and proponent of Emotion Focused Therapy, “Primary emotions are the person’s most fundamental, direct initial reactions to a situation, such as being sad at a loss.”

These primary emotions hold important information and help to organize experiences and guide behavior. At the most primal level, imagine the fear experienced when faced with an immediate, life-threatening situation, like being confronted by a wild animal or reacting to a vehicle that’s swerved onto the wrong side of the road. This instinctual fear is quite helpful because it alerts you to an emergency and motivates you to respond quickly.

These primary emotions can also play an adaptive role in everyday living.

For example, recognizing primary emotions in relationships, like having a ‘fear of rejection’ or ‘hurt over a perceived slight,’ can help orient someone to their emotional needs (e.g., a need for reassurance or clearer boundaries) and put them in a better position to articulate their feelings in a way that’s going to get a positive response (e.g., asking for reassurance rather than lashing out in anger).

In contrast to primary emotions, secondary emotions are “responses to one’s thoughts or feelings rather than the situation,” says Greenberg.

And from an Emotion Focused Therapy perspective, the same emotion can sometimes be a primary or secondary emotion, depending on the context in which occurs.

Dr. Greenberg points out, for example, that secondary emotions could include being “angry in response to feeling hurt or feeling afraid or guilty about feeling angry.” The primary distinction is that secondary emotions are, in essense, feelings about feelings. And together, primary and secondary emotions create layers of emotional experience that add richness and depth to human experience. Imagine, for instance, the emotional complexity involved in bittersweet feelings of nostalgia that arise when an old song comes on the radio.

When Do Feelings Become Problematic?

Secondary emotions aren’t necessarily problematic. But they can become problematic when they blind us from our primary feelings or serve to reinforce repetitive, unhelpful behaviors, like having angry outbursts or avoiding emotions altogether.

“Maladaptive emotions are those old, familiar feelings that occur repeatedly and do not change” Greenberg explains.“They are feelings, such as a core sense of lonely abandonment, the anxiety of basic insecurity, feelings of wretched worthlessness, or shameful inadequacy that plague one all one’s life.”

Breaking Out of Unhelpful Emotional Patterns

So, what can be done to break out these unhelpful emotional patterns? Greenberg suggests that you can’t really leave an emotional space until you arrive there first. In other words, he argues that “maladaptive emotions need to be accessed and regulated to be transformed.” Part of the solution then seems to be getting good at identifying one’s emotions and, at least momentarily, accepting them for what they are, even if they’re unpleasant or unflattering.

TRY EXERCISE: Learn How to Verbalize Your Feelings Using This List of Emotion Words

The truth is that most of us walk around with feelings inside that we’d prefer not to have. And part of being resilient and finding positive meaning in life involves coming to terms with these feelings and learning to relate to them in a productive way.   

For example, in a series of three studies, researchers at the University of Social Sciences and Humanities in Warsaw recently found that people who tended to ‘take the bad with the good’ and integrate positive and negative emotional experiences (rather than experience them as separate or conflicting with one another) had a higher capacity to cope with adversity.

READ RELATED: You Are the Author of Your Own Life Story: 3 Ways of ‘Re-storying’ the Most Stressful Events in Life

This week, we take a closer look at the role of emotion in human life and explore how you can learn to get better at understanding your feelings.

Tomorrow, guest author Ragini Rao discusses six purposes of emotions in our lives.

Then on Wednesday, you can take our emotional intelligence quiz and test your EQ!

Thursday’s piece focuses on emotion regulation strategies for achieving optimal performance.

And we end the week on Friday with another article from guest author Ragini Rao on the benefits of learning to momentarily step back and disengage from intense emotions.

So, join us everyday this week for more on understanding your emotions. And in the comments below tell us how emotions have helped and hindered you in your search for meaning in life.


Further Reading:















Braniecka, A., Trzebińska, E., Dowgiert, A., & Wytykowska, A. (2014). Mixed emotions and coping: The benefits of secondary emotions. PloS one, 9, e103940.

Greenberg, L. S. (2010). Emotion-focused therapy: A clinical synthesis. Focus, 8, 32-42.

Johnson, S. M. (2012). The practice of emotionally focused couple therapy: Creating connection. New York: Routledge.


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