Why it is important to be able to differentiate between primary and secondary emotions

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For most people, being able to identify primary emotion is fairly easy. Primary emotions are reactions we have to an external event, i.e. something that happens in your immediate environment. So, for example, when someone you know and love passes away, you may feel sad. If you are going to be having a test in the near future, you may feel nervous or anxious about it. 

Secondary emotions are very different, however, and when they occur, they turn the original, primary emotion into a much different kettle of fish. But, when you understand them and why they occur, you are in a position to develop some very powerful coping skills.

Secondary emotions can become overwhelming because they increase the intensity of our reactions to the stimulus, or Prompting Event.

Examples are when you have been angry at someone and lashed out at them. The primary emotion is anger but the secondary emotion might be shame or feelings of guilt. Similarly, anger is almost always prompted by hurt. We “jump off” into anger when we can’t tolerate the original or primary emotion.

When do secondary emotions become problematic?

Secondary emotions become problematic when we experience discomfort about the primary emotion. This can occur when you fail to validate your experience of your primary emotion as a normal response to the prompting event.  So, you create the secondary emotion. An example is when a person has experienced hurtful behavior from another person and, rather than being able to acknowledge that they feel hurt, they transform the hurt feelings into anger and lash out at the person who hurt them (or the next person who comes along). When you do this, you are avoiding attending to the primary emotion which was hurt and because you have created the secondary emotion of anger, you are forced to deal with that and its aftereffects.DBT teaches us how to deal with the primary emotion first.

Emotions are generated in a place in the brain called the amygdala. But they are colored by our past history and past experiences. If you can see that your past influences your reaction a given prompting event, you can decrease your reaction to it. Emotions are also kept in our memories and our action urges are tied to those memories. So an action urge can be directly influenced by a memory which is evoked by a prompting event. When this happens you are responding from your Emotion Mind.  They are triggered by events which are similar to past events.

Our past history and current state of vulnerability influence the way we respond to a Prompting Event

Emotions are also related to the various assumptions you carry with you about the world at large and your environment. Sometimes these assumptions are based on fact, most of the time, they are not. And example of this is making an assumption that people will disapprove of your actions if you carry out a certain  behavior. 

So, how do you learn to differentiate between primary and secondary emotions?

  1. Figuring out if the emotion is a specific reaction to a Prompting event.

  2. Has the emotion gained more power (or traction) as time has passed?

  3. When the prompting event has faded, has the emotion faded as well?
    Is the emotion very complex and hard to understand?

  4. Does it fit the facts?

If the answer to these questions is yes, then it is likely a secondary emotion.