We can distinguish between two types of emotions: primary emotions and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are direct emotional reactions to a situation, and they are called primary because they come first. It is your very first reaction to a situation or devent, and they alert you about your needs.
A typical example is if you get angry as a result of someone being ruthless to you or someone you love, and you feel a need to protect or set boundaries. Then the feeling of anger is a primary emotion and it helps you to protect what is important to you by making it more likely you assert yourself.
However, we don’ always know or show what we feel. You might experience unwanted feelings, or feelings that you have learned that are not ok to express. That is when you usually encounter your secondary emotions. A secondary emotion is an emotional response to a primary emotion, thus an emotion about what you feel.
For example, if someone who is important to you says something hurtful to you, you may become sad. That would be a primary sadness. If experiencing sadness for some reason might be difficult to you, you may also notice that you get angry. The anger then is a secondary reaction, since it is a reaction to you sadness.
There is a tendency in our society for men to show anger when they are experiencing more vulnerable feelings like sadness or shame, and there is a tendency for women to show sadness or guilt when they are experiencing anger. When you don’t understand your own or someone else’s emotional reaction to something or the reaction is completely out of proportion. that often is a sign of a secondary emotion covering up another reaction.
Our primary emotions are usually basic emotions like sadness, fear, shame, anger and joy. In theory, all the basic feelings can also be secondary. However, some secondary emotions are more typical than others, such as anxiety, irritation, global depressed mood, aggression, rage and emptiness or hopelessness.
The reason that secondary emotions usually aren’t helpful is that they cover up what you really feel and send confusing signals to the outside world about what you need. For example, if you are sad and need support and closeness, signalling secondary anger anger will tell others that they should stay away and thus create distance.
If you have a strong emotional response and it doesn’t go away it may sometimes be worth to take another look at what is going on inside yourself: What am I truly feeling right now?