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Three Ways We Complicate Our Emotions

My granddaughter Kaylie was excited to go shopping on Boxing Day with her Christmas money. I dropped her off at the Mall and when I returned, she was frantic.

She had set her shopping bags down at the food court and now they were gone. “Would I please come in and help her find them?”

Primary Emotions

We have two types of emotions; primary and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are the ones we experience first, before we have time to think. We sense and feel them immediately and instinctively.

I had two primary emotions when Kaylie lost her bags; fear and sadness. Fear, because I knew the chances of getting her bags back were slim, and sadness because I felt her pain.

Secondary Emotions

Secondary emotions are the emotions we feel in response to our primary emotions. They’re the emotions that kick in once we have time to think about the situation.

Almost immediately after experiencing fear and sadness, I felt the secondary emotion of annoyance. “Why hadn’t she been more careful?”

Our ordeal ended with relief and gratitude when the cleaning woman retrieved Kaylie’s bags from her storage cupboard.

The incident stayed with me the rest of the day as I thought about my emotional reactions. I was curious about why feelings of annoyance kick in so quickly when truthfully, I wasn’t really annoyed at all. In truth, I felt sorry for her.

Three Ways We Complicate Our Emotions

1) Often we try to avoid painful, unpleasant emotions by quickly escaping to a safer, less painful emotion. Anger feels better than hurt or fear, so it’s a quick “go to” emotion for many of us. It puts a buffer between us and our true feelings and makes our emotions easier to manage.

2) Our emotions are further complicated because we often have emotional reactions to our emotions. Feeling sad makes us angry, and getting angry often triggers feelings of guilt. The guilt may trigger feelings of worthlessness and so on. Each emotion causes a different emotion and to make things really confusing, these emotions often conflict with one another. It’s no wonder we often get confused and exhausted by our emotions.

3) Some of our emotional responses are actually learned responses. We learn from our family of origin and from our culture how we are “supposed” to feel and behave in certain situations. For example, we are “supposed” to be annoyed, angry, or punishing when a child loses something. We aren’t taught to respond with empathy and compassion, even though these are often our instinctive, natural responses.

Infants and Primary Emotions

Research has found that even newborns experience and express the emotions of happiness, interest, disgust, and distress. By two months of age, infants are able to express anger, sadness, surprise and fear.

These eight emotions are primary emotions because they occur naturally and instinctively. All other emotions stem from these basic emotions and we learn them within the family and culture.

DBT and Primary Emotions

In order to achieve wise mind so you can act with purposeful intention, it is critical to learn to validate your primary emotions while examining, questioning, and challenging your secondary emotions. Cultivating an attitude of curiosity about your emotions decreases their intensity and makes them less confusing.

Dialectical Behavioral Therapy (DBT) focuses on understanding and managing emotions. Observing and describing is a mindfulness skill that helps you step back from your emotions so you can see them more objectively.

“When you find yourself reacting with anger or opposition to any person or circumstance, realize that you are only struggling with yourself.” – Deepak Chopra

To learn more about DBT, or if you are interested in counselling services, please visit Validity Counselling's homepage,

Author: Jenny DeReis

Jenny is CEO and therapist at Validity Counselling in Prince George, BC. She has a Master's Degree in Counselling Psychology from the University of Calgary.

Jenny has intensive and advanced training in Dialectical Behaviour Therapy (DBT) from Dr. Charlie Swansen, author of several books on DBT . She has also received DBT training from the Behavior Tech Institute, and from DBT expert Sherri Van Dijk.


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