Primary Emotion And Secondary Emotion

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Secondary emotions can cause a lot of needless distress in your life. They are usually a result of conscious or unconscious value judgments you place upon your primary emotions. Leslie Greenberg has a quote I like that says “Although thought can produce emotion, not all emotion is produced by thought” (Leslie S Greenberg, Emotion Focused Therapy, POS 851 Kindle Version). The emotion not produced by thought is considered primary. Primary emotions can help you successfully navigate our complex modern world. They communicate powerful messages about the practice of your life and how you need to change it.

In general the types of emotions that precede thought and are direct, visceral responses to your immediate situation are considered primary emotions. An example of a primary emotion is the feeling of happiness you have upon seeing a loved one. Lots of people try to pick the emotions that are pleasant and ignore or deny the ones that are unpleasant. Understanding evolutionary psychology helps us see that all of the emotions, pleasant and unpleasant, can be adaptive because they give us important insight into our lives. If they had no evolutionary value they probably would have fallen by the wayside. For example, some people don’t enjoy feeling angry, but anger is a quite healthy response to being emotionally or physically violated. It helps give you the energy and direction to activate and protect yourself or the people you care about. When you are angry you are ready to act.

As you can see the primary emotions are ostensibly in place to help us. But our modern world is defined by conflicting messages, values, and judgments. What psychoanalysts call the super ego is the collection of norms, tabus, morals, and rules for living that you have been storing away since you were a baby. The super ego, just like the primary emotions, can act like a road map to help you navigate the world by unconsciously telling you which thoughts and behaviors are appropriate and which are not. Every culture and family is different in this regard and that’s why people from various cultures and various families view and react to their primary emotions differently. If the primary emotion you are having syncs up with societal values and norms as well as what you experienced as acceptable in your family of origin there probably won’t be any conflict. However, when what you feel goes against the unspoken rules you have internalized, you will place a value judgment upon that emotion, which will in turn create a new emotion, called a secondary emotion.

Let’s use an example we are all familiar with in the United States. One of the values transmitted in our culture is that men are supposed to be strong. Showing emotions that make them appear weak, like sadness and its associated tears, feels unacceptable to many. I see this slowly changing in the 21st century but as a general rule I think we can all agree it’s still a very powerful cultural norm. For many situations in life the correct primary emotion is sadness. And even if you don’t want to feel it, many situations involving loss make it unavoidable. When males do feel sad or feel like crying, lots of them experience the secondary emotions of shame, guilt, or fear of being judged. Then this secondary emotion becomes the point of focus and life decisions and relationships are influenced by it.

These secondary emotions are often maladaptive because they obscure the truth of a situation and make it impossible for you to properly experience and work through your primary emotion as it is. You get hung up, losing sight of a clear message that is being transmitted to you. It makes growth much more difficult. Leslie Greenberg makes the distinction between primary emotions that are adaptive and primary emotions that are maladaptive. A primary emotion can be maladaptive when a person associates touch or closeness with feelings of shame and worthlessness, for example. This usually occurs because of having grown up in an abusive family. However, I think the distinction between adaptive and maladpative is culturally biased and misses the most important factor, which is shining the light of mindfulness on whatever primary emotion you are feeling in order to get to the heart of your situation.

Mindful meditation can help you reestablish a healthy relationship with your primary emotions and make you a lot healthier and happier in the process. A quote by Carl Rogers that I have always loved says “When I accept myself exactly as I am, then I can change.” This paradox feels comfortable for those versed in Eastern philosophy or existential thought but it’s difficult for many Westerners to accept. A common sarcastic response is “If I accept myself exactly as I am, then why would I want to change?”

The existential answer is that all of us are in the process of human growth, have been since we were born, and will continue to be until the day we die. If you were able to live longer you would have the opportunity to self-actualize further as a person. It’s the paradox of human life. You know deep down who you really are, but you have to activate your potential to get there. Just like a carrot seed can only grow into a carrot and a sequoia seed can only grow into a sequoia, you have seeds of potential inside of you that you can water and make grow. Change actually makes you become who you really are. That’s why if you accept yourself as you are now, it means accepting your current state of human development, inhabiting it fully as it is, and recognizing that moving forward on your continuum is possible.

One way to advance your human development is by mindfully and gently touching your primary emotions with all of your being when they occur, without putting any value judgments on them. Realize that most of your judgments are a product of the culture within which you live and not your own. They do not necessarily represent truth, and you would probably respond much differently to an emotion if you had been adopted and raised somewhere else in the world.

Next time you feel anger, or sadness, or any other primary emotion, instead of reacting without thinking or judging the way you are feeling, try focusing on and accepting your emotion without censure or judgment while breathing. Say to yourself “Breathing in I am aware that I am angry. Breathing out I touch my anger.” Do this for a while. You don’t want to try to influence or change your emotion in any way, just accept it for what is and meditate upon it. When you are angry, you are your anger, but you are also the Self who recognizes that anger. When you are able to understand and live this dialectic, at once being the object of your concentration and yet observing that object of concentration, you are in a state of meditation.

The more you can mindfully touch all of your primary emotions, the more deeply you will understand their origin and the message they are sending you. Instead of only listening to societal norms you are also listening to your Self, and this is joyful. Your happiness levels will increase because you will feel more sure that you are on your own path instead of one chosen for you by others. When your thoughts and actions sync up with your primary emotions you are usually in a state of balance, which produces peace and all of the other pleasant emotions that make life wonderful.