Secondary Emotions: An emotion about an emotion

The relationship, beliefs, and attitudes we have towards our emotional experience set us up for secondary emotions and emotion dysregulation. In the last blog (Emotion Regulation (Dys-Regulation) 101) we discussed how the emotion regulation system gets wired through our relationships early in life. We described how a mis-match in parenting style may predispose an infant to an “insecure attachment” style. Here, we describe how the internalized beliefs about, and reactions to, having normal emotions, further support the likelihood of emotion dysregulation.

It may be tough to buy into this idea that emotions contain Wisdom. Sometimes emotions can feel out of control or even “wrong,” for a given situation. (However, usually we do not come to this conclusion until long after the emotion has subsided). Emotions become extra confusing because we often have secondary emotions, or an emotion about an emotion. For example, when we become ashamed of feeling angry, or angry because a situation is causing us to feel anxious, or anxious because we do not feel safe to express our anger. There is just about any number of combinations. The important thing to remember is that the secondary emotions are like a red herring. They serve, in a way, to protect us (distract us) from feeling the primary emotion. But ultimately lead us astray.

PAUSE: What is a secondary emotion?

Some authors refer to these secondary emotions as “dirty emotions.” This is because they do not hold the same clean communication value as the authentic primary emotion. So, for example, I have frequently seen clients who resort to anger when they feel sad or disappointed. This makes sense as anger often times feels more empowering than the vulnerability of sadness. Unfortunately, these secondary or dirty emotions are the reason we begin to believe emotions only get us into trouble and should be gotten rid of at all costs!

Think about it for a moment. First, recall, we are wired to have an EMOTION → ACTION engine. That is, each emotion demands a specific action tendency to keep us safe and/or get our needs met. (See “Purpose of Emotion” blog for review.”) So, ask yourself: If you feel sadness, what is it you need? The likely answer is compassion. Now, ask yourself: when someone expresses anger, what do they usually elicit from others? The answer is usually fear and thus avoidance. SO, expressions of anger (facial, body language, and tone) are unlikely to get the needs of sadness met (caring, nurturing, and healing). The thing to remember here is, the more experiences we have with these red herring/secondary/dirty emotions, the more threatening emotions feel and seem! This is because dirty emotions only lead us astray from what we really need and want. They lead us astray because they activate an inaccurate communication message, to ourselves and to others.

We all internalize our beliefs about whether or not it is safe and acceptable to have emotions from our families.

PAUSE: What was the belief about emotions in your family? Was it acceptable for you to feel vulnerable?

These beliefs set up how we relate to our own emotions. Over time, the emotional reaction to the primary/clean 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 just know that we are not happy! We get more and more caught up in the secondary emotion, which does not get us any closer to what we need.  We have repeated experiences where these emotions are paired with unpleasant outcomes, which only confirm what we saw at home.

Because of these repeated experiences, we come to the conclusion that 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 and more the system becomes dysregulated. And around and around we go, we are out of balance. It becomes more and more difficult to find equilibrium. This is why it can feel, very convincingly, like emotions are something to be rid of.

The question is, are you fighting the right emotions?


Go back and review the table in the “Purpose of Emotions” blog. See if you can unearth the primary/clean emotion for something you are experiencing strong emotions about. See if you can identify one of the 3 Communication Functions, and work backwards from there. NEXT: Practice by using “Willingness Hands,” (open arms, palms up, shoulders down, belly out, half smile) and saying aloud, “I am willing to feel this feeling, right now, in this moment.” See what happens to the secondary emotion.


1. How do secondary emotions get set up?
2. What function do they serve? How do they get reinforced?

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