Primary and Secondary Emotions


Introduction to Emotions

An emotional wound is not healed with logic and reason as the only tools. Emotions do have a foundation in reality, however transitory an emotion may be. An emotional experience is real for the person experiencing it. Using reason and logic alone results in the invalidation of a person’s emotional experience and leads to further feelings of resentfulness, confusion and anger. Logic and reason when not integrated with the emotional experience of the person increases their sense of isolation and distance from a vital adaptive aspect of their humanity.
These handouts are designed to assist you to become familiar with the latest knowledge about our emotional experience. You will learn effective to develop emotional awareness and emotional competence, regulating, expressing and integrating your emotional experience. An enhanced awareness of your emerging emotions and your increased ability to integrate them with your thoughts will help you gain greater emotional intelligence.

What are Emotions?

Emotions (from Latin emovere meaning moving, displacing) could be described as “Energy in Motion”. They are the flow of life force that is being expressed by a person.

There is no current agreement concerning the demarcation between affect, feelings and emotions. A particularly useful categorisation is suggested by Greenberg and Paivio (1997):

Affect (Felt Sense)
Affect refers to an unconscious biological response to stimulation. It involves automatic, physiological, motivational and neuronal processes involved in the evolutionary adaptive behavioural response system. Affects do not involve reflective evaluation.

Feeling involves awareness of the basic sensations of affect. This involves bodily felt experience such as “feeling shaky” or “feeling tense”. The more complex bodily felt feelings that involve felt meaning, such as “down” or humiliated, feeling that something is not right, or feeling that one doesn’t care, we call complex feelings. This refers to relating affect to one’s view of oneself.

Consciously experienced human emotions are experiences that arise when action tendencies and feeling states are joined with evoking situations and self. Emotions are thus experiences that involve the integration of many levels of processing.

Emotions assist us in finding different ways to deal with experiences in life and in finding self expression. Emotions expressed in the present as a way of dealing with the present are not good or bad. They are simply a way of dealing with what is there. However emotions sometimes become petrified and blocked in the past and then are experienced out of context at a later stage.

This is often what happens in the case of trauma. An overload of emotion remains unprocessed and stored in the mind, and are activated later by similar events which results in a recurrence, in kind, of the original experience. One of the essential tasks of Emotion Focused Therapy is to help client’s to identify, unpack the stored up emotion, remove the blockage, express the emotion and tap onto its adaptive and energising potential.
Negative emotions, when primary and adaptive, act as warning and protective systems.

  • The experience of anxiety or fear informs us of danger.
  • The experience of anger attempts to keeps the danger at a distance.
  • Sadness mobilises us towards self care and elicits the care of others.
  • Shame guilt and regret informs us of an internal threat.

Negative emotions can be highly energising as in the case of anger or paralysing as in the case of anxiety.
Positive emotions are generally motivating and powerful indicators, which move towards further exploration and to seek out the activities, people, and events that are generating them. They promote interest in life and often become antidotes to their negative cousins. We become adept at using our emotions.

Primary Emotions (adaptive) (core experience)

Primary emotions are the first sense experience or response about an event. This sense is not contaminated by our thinking. It is experience physically as “gut feeling; wave of sadness; heat of anger; cold fear”.

These feelings are primary not just because they are a physiological response but because they are the first fundamental experience after an event. Primary sense experiences are helpful in that they help us to do something towards righting a situation that is causing the emotion to be there in the first place.

Primary feelings need to be sensed, recognised, explored, expressed and unblocked if necessary to make it possible for adaptive action to take place. Since primary feelings are uncontaminated by thought there is no need for exploration of our thinking to se if it is rational or irrational. However, an integration of emotion and thought can be achieved by the exploration of primary feelings leading to better understanding of our inner world. Emotions, thoughts and actions can often become entangled and we can experience them all at the same time. This can b very confusing and distressing at times.

Secondary emotions

Many emotional reactions are secondary to either thoughts or other emotions. Secondary emotions “ are reactions to identifiable, more primary, internal, emotional, or thinking processes- thus secondary in time and sequence to internal processes.”

Anger is often a powerful secondary emotion. It masks a range of more vulnerable painful emotions such as hurt, vulnerability and fear. It is also secondary to thoughts of injustice, unfairness and also beliefs such as what is fair or right. Because its power anger often results in a release of physiological felt sense such as muscular tension.

The opposite is also possible. Anger as a primary emotion is avoided due to the individual’s anxiety and fear of its consequences. Thus the individual often experience a particular secondary emotion such as depression or hopelessness in order to avoid feeling the primary emotion of anger, which is threatening to them.

Anxiety can also be a secondary emotion. In this case the anxiety does not involve an unidentifiable fear of an external event such as being lost in an unfamiliar dangerous city but an unidentifiable fear of an internal event such contacting their vulnerability or weakness. The anxiety in this case assists the individual to avoid contacting their vulnerability or weakness. Emotion such as shame and guilt are often secondary to irrational and intensive self-criticism or perfectionist self- appraisal.

Instrumental Emotions

Instrumental emotions are a specific type of secondary emotions. They are understood as learned conscious or unconscious emotional reactions expressed in order to achieve a goal. These emotions when unconscious are preset automatic and habitual reactions often learned at an early age. A very early example of this learned emotional expression is an infant’s cry. The infant feels a need “to be fed or to feel the presence of the attachment figure” and out of fear or anxiety begins to cry. As a result of the crying the infant is comforted by his/her mother “or carer. Soon the infant becomes “conditioned” to cry in order to have this needs met. That is the infant will soon “use crying and its associated emotion as an instrumental response to have their need of attachment, security, soothing and hunger met.

Another early example of instrumental emotions is the anger and rage that toddlers often exhibit. In this case toddlers learn that through angry outbursts they often get their own way. The tantrums will vary in intensity according to the infant’s temperament. The toddler’s will form an action tendency in accordance with their parent’s response to their tantrums.

Instrumental emotions can be adaptive for a child. If parents are aggressive and punishing a child may use a passive depressive tendency and avoid punishment by making himself a very small target. However, as an adult this tendency will not be adaptive any longer. The identification of the instrumental emotional response and its intended goal is crucial in helping the adult to finds new adaptive ways to meet his needs.

Adults who frequently use anger as an instrumental emotion need to learn assertive communication and emotional regulation techniques to replace instrumental anger as a way to reach their goals. Individuals who frequently use their emotions instrumentally will be experienced by others as phony and manipulative. Their maladaptive emotional responses have the effect of distancing others.

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