How Are You Feeling?

How Are You Feeling?

Insights into Primary and Secondary Emotions

Written by Michele Dial, M.Ed, LPC


We therapists tend to ask how you’re feeling . . . a LOT! Sometimes we keep asking in different ways even after you’ve answered the question. Ever wonder why we do that?


The answer can vary in the details from therapist to therapist, but the overarching idea is that there is almost always something more than meets the eye. People often get stuck in discomfort and disconnection because they are not able to get to the root source of their pain or discomfort. As we peel back the layers of your experience, we can often help you unearth feelings and messages that lie deep down inside, sometimes beneath our conscious understanding.


Deconstructing Emotions

Emotions can generally be thought about in two categories – primary and secondary. These emotions do not operate in silos, however. Quite the opposite – they influence each other in big ways. The symbiotic nature is often most apparent in times of distress, such as an argument or a perceived insult. In therapy, when I’m deconstructing a disagreement or otherwise negative emotional experience, my clients often respond to the “feeling” question with irritated, frustrated, mad. These feelings are classic secondary emotions. They are the outward, protective layer that we allow other people to see. When we unpack those feelings, we usually find more tender emotions, such as sadness and fear, hovering inside. And who wants to feel those, let alone show them! So we quickly cloak them in secondary emotions and maybe even go on a counterattack to deflect our own uncomfortable experience.


Secondary Emotions

Function: Dual Protection

Mission: Keep me from feeling something painful. Keep them from seeing my pain.


It may help to think of secondary emotions as a shield. When your shield is in place, your opponent can’t see you and his/her weapons can’t touch you. It keeps you from being vulnerable to attack, which feels safe. The protective nature can also, sometimes subconsciously, be turned inward, shielding us from encountering our own painful primary emotions that are simmering under the surface.


Secondary emotions express notions about other, or something outside of ourselves, whether it’s a person or a situation. When someone or something offends us, our thoughts and feelings are often focused on the offense or the offender. Some common secondary emotions include:

-       Irritation

-       Frustration

-       Anger

-       Outrage

-       Annoyance

-       Withdrawal

-       Indignation

-       Bravado


While it certainly makes sense to want to protect ourselves when we feel attacked, acting on these secondary emotions can often propel us further down the rabbit hole of tit-for-tat arguments that escalate quickly and never reach resolution. As an isolated incident with a perfect stranger who spilled coffee on us or cut in line at the checkout, this outcome doesn’t carry much weight. But when the issue is with someone we care about – a spouse, mom, dad, sister, friend – the impact is much greater. The adverse effect is that secondary emotions push others away from us and block connection, so we end up feeling distant and alone.


Secondary emotions are reactive in nature – but what are we reacting to? The insult, the accusation, the attack of course. But what happens in the space between the initial trigger and the reaction? Enter primary emotions.


Primary Emotions

Function: Hidden meaning

Mission: Show me what’s at the heart of my reaction; where the real hurt is.


Primary emotions are the crack in the proverbial armor that, when exposed, have the potential to lead to painful experiences. They are the deep-seated emotions we feel in the pit of our stomach. The gut punch that sets off alarm bells and calls in the cavalry of secondary emotions to guard against more hurt. Bodily signals include heaviness in the shoulders, tightness in the chest, flushed face, weak limbs, and shortness of breath.


Primary emotions express notions about self. That’s why they are so hard to acknowledge and accept. If the underlying message we interpret from the outside source (“You’re not good enough,” “You can’t …,” “I don’t love you”) is true, then I am at risk of losing you or losing my sense of self. Common primary emotions include:

-       Fear

-       Shame

-       Sadness

-       Anguish

-       Inadequacy

-       Insecurity / Disregard

-       Hopelessness

-       Helplessness


We often throw off our protective secondary emotions to shield us from the perceived threat. If we open up and talk about these emotions, will it make us weak? Won’t our opponent sense vulnerability and go in for the kill? When one person lets down their guard, we assume the other was waiting for the opportunity to deliver the fatal blow, to win the battle. But no one really wins when we’re battling people we care about. And what if our opponent is not out for the kill? What if he/she is in protective mode as well? We’re not animals living in the wild who fight to the death for survival. We’re human beings fighting to be heard and understood and loved. If one of us is willing to put down the shield, it’s possible the other will follow.


Sometimes it’s easier to feel annoyed than to feel unimportant or disregarded. Easier to feel indignant than inadequate. But when we deny these delicate emotions, we only see part of the picture – the external experience. When we are able to tap into these softer, more vulnerable emotion, we gain valuable insight into our internal experience. And when we are able to lay down our shields and share this experience with another person, it has the power to draw that someone closer to us. When “I hate you” becomes “I’m afraid I’m going to lose you” or “You never call me when you’re supposed to” becomes “I’m worried I don’t matter to you” the conversation is transformed from an insult or accusation to a heart-felt desire for a deeper connection.