Primary & Secondary Emotion House

Figuring out our primary emotion in a situation can be tough.

Some emotions are so difficult or distressing that we won’t even notice we have experienced a primary emotion and moved immediately into a secondary more “pleasant” or familiar emotion.

For a long time, I was unable to experience anger. I didn’t know how to. It scared me. So much so, that if anything angered me, I would immediately-I am talking within seconds-move to the emotion of fear or sadness. Completely bypassing the emotion of anger. Because I just didn’t know how to handle my anger.

It took work with a DBT therapist to even realize that sadness or fear wasn’t my primary emotion. I was bypassing anger so fast I barely saw it, let alone experienced it or handled it. My experience of anger as a primary emotion was honestly, a surprise to me. I had bypassed it so fast I had no idea it was there until I was able to, with help, pause and realize there was more there than I thought.

It does take practice to recognize a primary emotion. And might even require professional assistance to help rewind the tape of the experience to see what the primary emotion even was.

If you’re able to identify primary and secondary emotions, it can be helpful to visualize it in an image. To see how big and pervasive the secondary emotion can become that you forget or don’t realize that it isn’t the primary emotion. Or that there was a primary emotion in the first place.

Much like an iceberg, where above the water is a small piece of ice, but beneath the surface can be an island.

A house, or an iceberg, can illustrate that we often live in our house (secondary emotion) because it is most familiar, or seems easier to manage than what it beneath us in the basement (primary emotion).

The basement can be scary to us.

It can be hard to identify primary emotions, so if you’re able to, on your own, you can imagine your most recent experience, or even an experience that happened a while ago but has stayed with you, and try to feel what your primary emotion may have been.

To do this, you will need to sit and think of the experience moment-by-moment (of what you can remember), and allow the feelings to arise as they come to you. Sitting with the emotion, and playing it over and over again as it occurred, will be the best way to identify what did you feel first? What was your primary emotion?

For some, like me, the secondary emotion can come swooping in pretty fast, so it can take practice and repetition to finally connect with the primary emotion.

It will take some work, and you may not be able to do it on your own without too distress, and that’s okay. Some emotions are very distressing, and you may need to have a therapist or professional there to guide you and support you.

You can still give the exercise a try. Drawing out what your secondary emotion is can lead you to clues of what your primary emotion may have been. Explore the emotion regardless.

– Identify a primary/secondary emotion pair that you’ve recently experienced

– The secondary emotion will be symbolized by some kind of dwelling, it is the most visible and obvious, on the surface

– In contrast, the primary emotion will be beneath the dwelling of the secondary emotion, like the basement or underground, it is not immediately discernible

– The primary and secondary emotions will be drawn or designed in a manner fitting the essence of the respective emotion

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