• cierrakarson

Primary and Secondary Emotions



In our last blog post we talked about anger as an emotion and how practicing self awareness with emotions can help you move through experiences in a healthy way. We briefly talked about how emotions are categorized as primary or secondary emotions. Today we are going to go more in depth into what primary and secondary emotions are and how we can use this knowledge to help grow our emotional awareness. In addition, we are going to introduce some signs that our bodies might be giving us to let us know if we are blocking emotions.


Primary emotions are the initial reactions to situations or people. They are inherently good and serve the primary purpose of indicating pain. They are usually more sensitive and vulnerable which is why they are often masked by secondary emotions to control or protect the initial, sensitive pain. Primary emotions are instinctive and can guide us to action when they are listened to.


Secondary Emotions are reactions to the primary emotions. Secondary emotions are learned and usually react to protect from the initial, more sensitive emotion. A lot of times secondary emotions take over before people can tell what the primary one was. They attempt to control, numb or push away with the intention to reduce pain. Secondary emotions can often lead to distancing or disconnecting.


When we react to secondary emotions it can be counterproductive and result in disconnection.


Recognizing primary emotions is the key to figuring out what is going on underneath the surface.


Emotional awareness is key to acknowledging primary emotions and working through them. Emotional awareness takes curiosity and a willingness to slow down and not immediately react based on the emotion we are feeling in the moment.


Here are some helpful questions you can ask yourself to get back to your primary emotions and not be dictated by secondary emotions.


What am I feeling?

  • Just naming the emotions that you are experiencing can be a helpful step in working through your emotions. Secondary emotions don't slow down. By taking a step back and exploring all your feelings, you can be less reactive and learn from your emotions.

Why I am feeling it?

  • By taking the time to get curious about why you could be feeling what you are feeling, you can also have the opportunity to unpack your needs. For example, let's say you are angry at your partner for getting home late but you slow down and ask why you are feeling that way. What you might uncover is that you are actually sad and feeling disconnected from your partner because you have both been so busy recently.

What can I do about it?

  • Once you identify your emotion and why you are feeling it, you can make a plan for how to handle it. Sticking with the previous example, you could tell your partner that you miss them and need connection. Instead of reactively snapping out of anger which, in this case, was the secondary emotion, you are able to rationally think through your needs and what you can do to meet those needs.

A final way that you can practice emotional awareness is by paying attention to cues your body might be giving.

If you suppress your emotions or don't acknowledge them, the body always finds a way to be heard.


This can look like a tense neck, headaches, exhaustion, stomach problems or lack of motivation. Once again, curiosity is key. If you are experiencing any of these signals, ask yourself if there is anything that you are holding in, stressed about, or grieving. If you would like to learn more about the way the body stores stress and trauma, we highly recommend the book The Body Keeps The Score by Bessel van der Kolk.


We hope that this was a helpful introduction into primary and secondary emotions. If you feel like you are struggling to identify your emotions, one of our counselors would be happy to talk with you through different emotions, how to identify them and work through them.

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