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3 reasons you need to know the difference between primary and secondary emotions



Not all emotions are born equal.


There is an ongoing debate as to whether some of our emotions are hardwired into our brain, whether we are born with them. The classical theory of emotions argues that basic, or primary emotions like fear, joy or disgust are innate to your brain to keep you alive so that babies can cry when they’re hungry, in pain or scared and can bond with their parents. More recently, however, neuroscientists like Lisa Feldman Barrett disagreed, saying that emotions are made and created by our brain along the way.


Regardless of whether some of our emotions are hardwired in us or not, it is helpful to look at the concept of primary and secondary emotions.


Primary emotions, as the name suggests, are the first emotions that come up when you are reacting to something.


Primary emotions are the first emotions that come up when you are reacting to something.

For example, pain when you fall over, anger when someone criticises you and joy when you are bonding with someone. These emotions fall under the “nature” category of our emotional buildup. They are our initial emotional reaction and their purpose is to help in our decision making. For instance, we can run away if we are scared, we can tend to our wounds if we are in pain and we stick to people we like.


Secondary emotions are an emotional reaction to an emotion. These are mostly learnt via our environment and society and therefore fall under the “culture” category of our emotional buildup.


Secondary emotions are an emotional reaction to an emotion.

For example, we might feel shame from being scared of something. We can also feel shame from physically hurting ourselves, which often happens after being teased in school as well as shame from experiencing joy from certain things. We can feel frustrated about being angry.


When we struggle with our emotions, it’s often because of the secondary emotional reaction to a primary emotion.


These secondary emotional reactions can be problematic for 3 reasons:


#1 They contradict the primary emotion

If you feel shame about feeling angry or sad, there is a contradiction (cognitive dissonance) between your primary and secondary emotion which can cause a lot of confusion.


#2 They escalate the primary emotion

If you feel angry about being angry, or sad about being sad, this will escalate the primary emotion. This contributes to creating very strong emotions that get out of control.


#3 They repress the primary emotion

When the secondary emotion contradicts the primary emotion, one of the things it does is to try and repress the primary emotion. For example, if we feel shame about being angry, our shame tries to repress the anger. Repressing a primary emotion usually causes it to erupt again later, often stronger.

The better we are at distinguishing our secondary and primary emotions the more apt we become at controlling our emotions.


The better we are at distinguishing our secondary and primary emotions the more apt we become at controlling our emotions.

One of the ways we can become better at untangling this mess (because it really can be a mess!) is to practice getting to the root of our emotions.


I have put together a FREE 5-day course precisely to that effect.


During that course, you will get an email every day right into your inbox with some content and practical exercises so that you can teach yourself how to get to the root of your emotions and gain more control over both your primary and secondary emotions.


Sign up here



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