Emotions are useful. In fact, our feelings and thoughts want to be best friends. Emotions work together with our brain to let us know that “something is wrong”. The emotion you feel immediately after you sense that something’s wrong is called a primary (adequate) emotion. These emotions are healthy emotions and necessary to overcome difficulties and to grow. Without these primary emotions, we wouldn’t engage in a fight when someone jumps in front of us, or we wouldn’t be able to make a clear statement towards someone (immediately or when the time is right) that one of our needs is not met.
Life would be easy if everyone just bluntly expressed what they really felt
But people are complex and vulnerable and it’s only human to not always show our authentic (primary) feelings. Why? It may be for a variety of reasons, f.e. low self esteem, fear of judgement, or sometimes just plain bad communication. That’s when not only our feelings, but also our thinking kicks in and we may conclude that a remark, the way someone looked at us, or something that just happened, can only mean that we’re not allowed to be with someone, that this person does not care for us, that we’re not welcome in their house, that we’re weak, stupid, incompetent, or selfish. This can invoke other emotions like shame or guilt and it mostly happens on an unconscious level. We felt the authentic emotion for a split second, but something kicked in afterwards to hide the primary emotion. These are called secondary emotions. We feel ashamed, guilty or get angry (towards someone else or ourselves), or we just act like nothing happened and we hope that this feeling will go away by itself. It won’t.
The problem is not that we’re expressing secondary emotions (which we will inevitably do). The problem is that we’re not consciously aware of these secondary (maladaptive) emotions and thus not questioning them. If we mistake a secondary emotion for a primary emotion, they hinder us. Secondary emotions are not helpful and in worst case can be self-defeating since they destroy or prevent relationships and positive actions. Secondary emotions can only be properly analysed if we listen to our inner dialogue.
How do we know whether we’re feeling a primary or secondary emotion? We can ask ourselves:
- If the emotion fits a real, not an imaginary fact?
- If it’s appropriate in level of intensity?
If yes, then it’s probably a primary emotion. If not, then it’s probably a secondary emotion.
So we don’t always express our genuine feelings. Now what?
To accept ourselves with all of our faults, to accept that we make mistakes, to not rate our total being, but merely our behavior is good mental health. To accept others with all their faults, to accept that other people make mistakes and not rate their total being, is good mental health. To accept that sometimes our (secondary) emotions will have the upper hand, is good mental health. That we acknowledge all of our emotions, but that we would sometimes be better off fighting them by questioning them and replacing our beliefs, the thoughts that create them, is good mental health.
To live consciously and to be aware of our emotions is foremost about our life and our journey. We are free to feel and do whatever we want. We are free to do nothing at all. We just need to be aware that secondary emotions tend to stick around for a long time if we don’t do anything about it. They don’t provide us with any useful way to interact with other people and to grow. They don’t allow our primary emotions to respond and to let these emotions act in healthy ways. Instead, they simply tell us that we’re not willing to have our valid, primary, emotional responses and needs met. We will at best fail to thrive and live a better life. At worst, when secondary emotions keep on hiding our primary emotions (which they inevitably do), we can cause damage to ourselves and others.
Appropriate sadness and disappointment are useful, they can spur us to change our behaviors. We would not want to be happy over a real loss or failure, or be indifferent to them. That would not get us to change… and to grow.
More readings about emotions
Because emotions are connected to our most essential needs, they are commonly used in many types of psychotherapy. Emotion Focused Therapy (EFT) for example, is booming these days and proposes that emotions have an adaptive potential that, if activated, can help us to change inadequate emotional states or unwanted self-experiences. If you’re interested to learn more, Google can lead the way.