Primary Emotions vs. Secondary Emotions

Emotions allow us to experience the heights of excitement, joy, and love, as well as the depths of anguish, guilt, and sorrow.  Emotions color our worlds and are the foundation of our basic humanity.  They act as signals to us, alerting us to what is happening internally.  That bodily surge of excitement is a clear indication to us that something positive is happening.  In many ways, these “alerts” are like constant news updates of our internal experience.

The initial emotional response that you have to what is occurring is a primary emotion.  These powerful feelings arise quickly and don’t require cognitive processing of the event.  If you found out that just won the lottery, you would likely have an instant emotional response of joy or surprise.  On a sadder note, if you just found out that a loved one has passed away, you would likely feel a powerful emotion of sadness quite quickly.

There is another level to our emotional responses called secondary emotions.  These are your emotional reactions to your primary emotions – feelings about your feelings.  An example of this is yelling at your significant other because he or she has done something to make you very angry.  The primary emotion of anger comes on very quickly, but you may later begin to feel guilty (the secondary emotion) for having gotten so angry.  This relationship between primary and secondary emotions can be quite complex.

A more complicated example is feeling anxious (primary) about an important presentation at work or school, then becoming depressed (secondary) while thinking about the overwhelming anxiety, later feeling worthless (secondary) about feeling unable to make the presentation, then feeling guilt (secondary) the day after the presentation about having made such a big deal about it in the first place.  Emotions quickly and easily become layered on top of one another as situations unfold, until it becomes more and more difficult to remember what we were feeling in the first place.

How can you use this knowledge about primary and secondary emotions to enhance your own life?  Try practicing mindful awareness of your emotional experience in your daily routine.  What basic powerful emotional responses (primary emotions) to events do you find yourself experiencing?  How do your subsequent thoughts about the emotional event create new feelings (secondary emotions) within you?

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McKay, M., Wood, J.C., & Brantley, J. (2007). The dialectical behavior therapy skills workbook. Oakland, CA: New Harbinger Publications, Inc.

Featured image: Jump for Joy by bingbing / CC BY 2.0

About Laura K. Schenck, Ph.D., LPC

I am a Licensed Professional Counselor (LPC) with a Ph.D. in Counseling Psychology from the University of Northern Colorado. Some of my academic interests include: Dialectical Behavior Therapy, mindfulness, stress reduction, work/life balance, mood disorders, identity development, supervision & training, and self-care.


  1. James on April 21, 2011 at 11:17 am

    While we so often focus on the consequences of our actions (and rightfully so), after reading this post it is dawning on me that we may not be as aware of the consequences of our emotions… the emotional consequences of our emotions in particular. Emotions are tricky little buggers, aren’t they?!

    • Laura on April 21, 2011 at 10:22 pm

      It is easy to get caught up in focusing on the consequences of our actions to the exclusion of noticing the consequences of our emotions. It is important to notice how much our thoughts, emotions, and behaviors are inextricably linked. Emotions are definitely tricky! The more that we increase awareness of our primary and secondary emotions, the greater sense of agency we are able to build.

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