PsychEd: What are primary and secondary feelings?

Understanding what we’re feeling is difficult. One framework that helped me explore my feelings and understand what was going on was the concept of primary and secondary feelings. In short, primary feelings are stronger feelings and probably more likely what we’re actually feeling while secondary feelings are what we express or show because, usually, we find them easier to hold than primary ones.

Let’s begin with an example. Imagine a parent walking down the sidewalk of a busy street with their child in tow. The parent is scrolling away on their phone and only realizes in the last moment that their child is about to walk out onto the busy street. Pulling back their child to safety, the parent, full of anger, scolds their child for walking out onto the street.

In this example, the parent’s anger is probably only part of what they’re feeling. The feeling of anger is likely only one of many feelings affecting the parent and in this case only a secondary one. The parent is probably also feeling fear. Fear about what could have happened if they hadn’t noticed what their child was about to do in time to pull them away. The parent is probably also feeling shame. Ashamed over their thoughtlessness and carelessness, looking at their phone instead of keeping their child safe as they walked down the busy street. Fear and shame are, probably, the parent’s primary feelings but they’re also, much more difficult feelings to sit with. It’s easier to be angry. Anger allows us to feel more in control. Anger allows us to direct the attention outwards - why did my child do that?! - rather than sitting with the terrible thought of what could have happened and judging oneself - why was I so careless? I’m a terrible parent!.

It doesn’t matter if a feeling is primary or secondary. All feelings are information and that’s the point of them. We have to take them in and listen to what we’re feeling. We don’t have to do anything about them as long as we don’t ignore them. I found this framework helpful because it was an invitation to explore my feelings. Whenever I felt something strong, remembering that feelings can be primary and secondary encouraged me to ask, what is this feeling? and what else is going on for me? Is this feeling distracting me from some other, deeper feeling that I’m uncomfortable with?

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