Primary and Secondary Emotions

Primary and Secondary Emotions

Emotion Recognition by fotologic
Emotion Recognition by fotologic

As we become conscious of our emotional dynamics, we can be a bit misled by more obvious, secondary emotions.

When we have an experience, the first thing is the actual experience – what is arising, without interpretation or response.

The next step is the initial response. Unless fully neutral, this means an immediate, primary emotional response. This happens in a split second, as we compare the experience to prior experiences subconsciously.

There are instinctive responses like fear, if the stimulus seems dangerous. And there are habitual responses, such as anger when a difficult friend calls.

Is there attachment or allowing? Does the experience flow through us and on, or does it meet barriers and resistance?

That emotional trigger, whatever it is, can trigger stories and identifications, like “this always happens to me.” We can notice inner narratives or the stories we tell others about “what happened to me.”

The primary emotional trigger can also trigger further emotions. These secondary ones are often the ones we’re more conscious of. They’re also learned responses. They’re pure personal reactivity, reacting to the reaction.

For example, we complete a project and feel pride. That brings satisfaction. We may mostly notice the latter. But we may be uncomfortable with pride, suppressing it habitually and reacting to others who express it. (Our reactions to others can be red flags about our own repressions.) The discomfort can create other emotions that may be mixed with or alternate with the satisfaction.

Perhaps a bad driver triggers anger. But prior conditioning (learning) can make us afraid of being angry. So we experience fear and resist the anger. Note the driver didn’t cause the anger or the fear – those both came from us.

Those secondary emotions are the ones we often notice, but we want to get to the primary ones to heal the whole dynamic. They’re the energy that drives the emotion, story, and secondary emotions. Resolve that and they all settle out.

When we’ve had a lifetime of emotional associations, resistance, and triggers, most emotional content is a blend of influences. They may be even hard to label as they’re such a mix.

As we heal our emotional backlog and see through bad habits, we step out of reactivity. Then a bad motorist won’t affect us the same way. We just avoid them. There may be a brief wave of annoyance, but it quickly passes, unresisted and resolved. We return to peace.

Subtle shoulds and musts can trigger many secondary responses. These are more subtle stories than the obvious narratives. For example, they have taught us that girls shouldn’t express anger. Or that real men don’t cry. With such dynamics in play, we’re guaranteed a secondary response. And we know we suppress those primary emotions. Heavier emotions like guilt or shame are common results, even if we don’t express the original emotion.

Any flavour emotion can be the primary and any other can be the secondary. Going behind the surface experience to get to the core emotional driver is the key to resolution. Secondary ones are good practice for allowing but are just reactions to the primary trigger.

Resolve the source and the other effects fade away.

Another dynamic to be aware of is the effect of long-term suppression. Like ancient organic matter turned into oil and coal, long-suppressed emotions can morph into darker styles of energy like sticky sludge. Rajas guna becomes tamas. Or for the really tight knots, explosively wound charges deeply hidden.

The influence of such sludge is not just the unresolved emotion but a heavier, stickier flavour of energy that encourages identification. And yet, it simply has to be experienced for it to complete. Shine the light of attention on it and the sludge dissolves.

The primary one can be well-hidden if it’s part of our identity or self-sense or long suppressed habitually. But we can still see it peak out, driving stories we tell about ourselves or reactivity over minor things.

Understand that all emotions are natural. Enlightenment doesn’t end feeling. Healing winds down reactivity and resistance, allowing us to more fully experience emotions that arise. Then they complete and fade, leaving us with peace and happiness.

Last Updated on January 4, 2021 by Davidya

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  1. Lucy Goldstein

    This article completely resonates with my experience and with my learning curve. Ganing awereness of primary [mostly suppressed] responses followed by cover up of secondary emotions is a game changer. I study and practice trauma informed pioneering psychology model NARM which stands for NeuroAffective Relational Model. It is the most effective tool I found so far in unwinding these entanglements in personality landscape, creating a lot of ease, spaciousness, clarity and equanimity with emotions. I felt very in sync reading this article. So true “Enlightenment doesn’t end feeling.”

    1. Hi Lucy
      I’m not familiar with the specific approach but anything that helps us become more conscious of our emotional dynamics and supports their resolution can be helpful. Effortless meditation has been found through research to be the most effective tool for PTSD as it takes the practitioner beyond their trauma and helps culture mindful self-awareness (not just mind awareness). However, I’ve also found that most of us need a little more to make our dynamics conscious so we’re able to break through old habits and resolve those primary contractions. Thanks for sharing.

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