Doors Behind Doors: Secondary Emotions

Emotions come from the Latin term ‘emovere,’ meaning movement. The word captures human experience- a combination of energy and motion, an expression of how life is constantly in flow.

Emotions have evolved to sustain us. Positive emotions are meant to reinforce an experience as enjoyable, so that we seek it out again. They activate the reward systems within the brain which makes us feel loved and safe. Negative emotions warn us of potentially dangerous situations and raise our survival instincts, so that we become alert and seek safety.

Secondary emotions are emotional reactions we have to other emotions.
For example, a person may feel ashamed as a result of becoming anxious or fearful. At times, I say to clients, you are feeling anxious about even being anxious. Sometimes, people feel angry when they feel a sense of loss and abandonment. In this case, loss/sadness would be the primary emotion while rage would be the secondary emotion.

What was the belief about emotions in your family?
Was it acceptable for you to feel vulnerable?
Do you become angry when you actually feel hurt inside?

Secondary emotions arise from the personal beliefs we have internalized about experiencing and expressing feelings. They come from a complex developmental foundation of family and cultural expectations, views about vulnerability and disclosure, boundaries and privacy issues. For example, people may believe that being anxious or sad is a sign of weakness, or says something negative about them as people. Others say that they have so much to be grateful for, they are not ‘allowed’ to be upset. It’s not uncommon for clients to say that distress is verboten, especially for boys and men. Therefore, when strong emotions are experienced, thoughts may come up which trigger secondary emotions, such as shame, guilt, anger, denial, minimization, and anxiety.

These beliefs also set up how we relate to our own emotions. Over time, the emotional reaction to the primary/initial emotion becomes so automatic, we are not even aware of our authentic emotions anymore. Subsequently, we can no longer connect to what we actually need. We may get more and more caught up in the secondary emotion, which does not get us any closer to what we actually need to be addressed. Because of repeated discouraging experiences, we come to the conclusion that strong emotions lead to bad things, are a threat, and should be gotten rid of, or suppressed. The more we engage in strategies to rid ourselves of emotions, the more things feel off kilter, until it feels like painful emotions are just something to be rid of, like taking out the trash.

In a stable therapeutic or intimate relationship, there can be a safe, consensual experience of being able to experience strong emotions, including anger, frustration, grief, and disappointment, without feeling that there will be permanent negative consequences or abandonment. We need safety to metabolize primary emotions, or we will always be knocking at the “outer door”.

Embolden Psychology
Embolden

Embolden offers the ADOS-2, the gold standard assessment for kids on the spectrum.

Combined with psychoeducational testing, it helps provide comprehensive information and recommendations to help children and teens six and up.

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