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Primary vs. Secondary Emotions

You may have heard the phrase “anger is a secondary emotion”, but what does that mean? To understand this phrase, let me first describe the two levels of emotion humans experience:

Primary emotions: These are our core, most vulnerable emotions that are often difficult and scary to show to others. These may include emotions such as sadness, fear, shame, and hurt.

Secondary emotions: These are the emotions that feel safer to show to others and often act as defenses/protection from having to show our more vulnerable emotions to others. These may include emotions such as anger, frustration, and jealousy.

You can also think of this concept visually as an iceberg, with your secondary emotions being the part of the iceberg above the water’s surface (the part we see), and the primary emotions being below the water (the part we don’t see).

An example of how this may play out is during an argument with their partner/spouse, an individual may be displaying anger and the behaviors that go with that (raised voice, red face, etc.), when really what they are feeling underneath that is a deep fear of their partner abandoning them if they disappoint them in some way. A way you can identify that something like the above example may be happening in your own relationship is if you find that you and the other person consistently argue over the same thing and never come to a solution. This may be because the issue represents a deeper, primary emotion. For example, if a couple argues about completing household chores over and over again, it may be that the issue is actually hitting at a deep-set fear or shame in one or both partners, but is coming out on the surface as anger or frustration.

In order to be able to express our deeper primary emotions, we must feel safe to do so. If you do not feel emotionally safe to be vulnerable in your relationships (including romantic, family, friendships, etc.), it is more likely that you will more often display your secondary emotions in these relationships as a way to protect yourself from showing those deeper, often uncomfortable, primary emotions. If you (or you and your partner, family member, etc.) find yourselves struggling to express your primary emotions with each other, therapy can be a safe place to explore what is keeping you from feeling safe to express this part of yourself. The therapist can help you process these deeper, vulnerable emotions in a safe space, and help you learn how to express them to others in a healthy way.

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