Emotions guide our lives in a million ways. Whether we’re inclined to hide and avoid or ponder and express them, most of us don’t realize the extent to which they are driving our thoughts and behavior. Exploring our emotions is a worthy endeavor for anyone hoping to know and develop themselves, build healthy relationships, and pursue what they want in life. Recent research has even suggested that emotional intelligence is more important than IQ, showing that it “predicts over 54% of the variation in success” in relationships, health, and quality of life.

Our emotions can offer us clues into who we are as well as how we’ve been affected by our history. Many of our actions are initiated by emotion, which leads to the natural question of what emotions are being surfaced and why. Which of these emotions are adaptive and maladaptive? Which may be triggered by the present but rooted in our past? Recently, I had the privilege of developing an ecourse, “The Power of Emotion,” with Dr. Les Greenberg, the primary originator of Emotion-Focused Therapy. Dr. Greenberg suggests we “need to live in mindful harmony with our feelings, not attempt to control them.” Much of that harmony comes from understanding our emotional reactions and distinguishing when our emotions are primary or secondary in nature as well as when they are adaptive or not.

Primary emotions are our first emotional reaction. They’re often followed by a more defended secondary emotion. Sometimes, we are only consciously aware of the secondary emotion: the anger that covers up feeling hurt, the embarrassment overpowering our sadness, or the anxiety masking a deeper fear. For example, if our partner doesn’t show up for us or lets us down in some way, we may feel righteous and enraged. We may stonewall or erupt in our next interaction with him or her. However, if we look at our initial reaction, our primary emotion, we may recognize that we had more vulnerable feelings, such as feeling hurt, unwanted, or ashamed. These primary feelings give us a glimpse into our needs. When we allow ourselves to get in touch with them, we can then express them to our partner, and we are more likely to generate a very different reaction because we are allowing him or her to feel for us.

Primary emotion “is not the stale resentment followed by resignation at remembering being overlooked for a promotion 2 years ago; neither is it the sense of complaint that comes from unresolved hurt,” wrote Greenberg in his book Emotion-Focused Therapy. “Instead, it is a vital feeling that often leaves the [person] feeling very open and perhaps vulnerable.” Greenberg further described primary emotions as “less rapid and less action-oriented” than secondary emotions. They are “poignant and full” and “more likely to slowly wash over a person.”

If we imagine a moment of feeling tense, frustrated or stuck in a bad feeling, driven to react without a sense of relief, we were probably caught in a secondary emotion. However, if we were able to access the deeper, more vulnerable feeling, perhaps a want or a need, or a core feeling of sadness or shame, we were then experiencing a primary emotion. Initially, we may have noticed the feeling building, but then easing like a wave. When we allow ourselves to feel a primary emotion, we often experience relief. We aren’t necessarily inclined to act. Instead, we feel more in touch with ourselves, softened yet more alive. 

Primary emotions can be either adaptive reactions to the moment or maladaptive reactions based on schemas from our past. Maladaptive primary emotions may be sparked by current events, but they’re tied to a way we felt early in our lives. For example, if we were seen or treated like we were unintelligent or incapable in our family, being called “stupid” or related to as if we’re incompetent in the current day can trigger us to feel deeply pained or ashamed. However, before we can acknowledge this pain or shame, we’re swept up in a secondary emotion like anger, resentment, or defensiveness. 

According to Dr. Greenberg, we can identify the thoughts that generate our maladaptive emotional reactions. We may experience what I often refer to as a “critical inner voice,” a negative internal commentary that tells us things like, “You made such a fool of yourself. Look at how they’re looking at you. They all think you’re an idiot. You should just get out of here.” This destructive inner coach often gets louder when we feel triggered emotionally. These critical thoughts can drive us to feel a range of emotions that are painful and maladaptive, which contribute to self-defeating behavior, like holding ourselves back, turning to psychological defenses, or pushing away loved ones. The maladaptive secondary emotions can also lead us to react in ways that are not in our best interest: lashing out to defend ourselves, acting resentful or enraged, driven by thoughts like “How dare they treat you that way. That was so disrespectful. Who do they think they are to talk to you like that?”

Our maladaptive emotions are based on past schemas.  Although, they are not an accurate reflection of who we really are, when we fail to identify these emotions, we may feel stuck living in their shadows. The ironic comfort of their familiarity can even cause us to distort ourselves and others or provoke reactions and scenarios that recreate the emotional climate to which we’re accustomed. We may relate to others based on these old feelings rather than what’s really going on or what we really want. 

The good news is we can transform our emotions to become adaptive. Maladaptive emotions often leave us feeling stuck, as if they’re unresolvable, but if we can get to the underlying emotion from an old schema, we can feel the feelings, gain insight into the need underlying the emotion, and take actions to get the need met. We can do this by asking a partner or someone close to us to meet our need or, if necessary, by soothing ourselves. We can take our side by challenging our critical self-attacks and, thereby, offering ourselves compassion and love. We can be more willing to feel our sadness, anger, or the deeper primary emotions that make us feel more connected to ourselves. We can feel our feelings rather than suppressing them and allowing them to silently dictate our lives.

When we live in harmony with our emotions, we become more in touch with who we are. We gain insight into the real core emotions that are causing our reactions, and we can be the one at the wheel, choosing our actions. Feeling is an adaptive mechanism to give us critical information. By focusing on emotion with compassion and curiosity, we can discover who we are and what we want. As Dr. Greenberg put it, “People can find the gem of their adaptive, essential self.”

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