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Are We Really Feeling What We Think We're Feeling?

Anxiety about feelings can mask what we actually feel.

Key points

  • A primary emotion is how a situation actually makes us feel.
  • A secondary emotion is a reaction to a primary emotion because the primary feeling is uncomfortable.
  • It’s crucial that anxiety is addressed for us to properly address our experience.
  • There are a number of strategies for addressing anxiety about feelings.
Zolotarevs Shutterstock
Source: Zolotarevs Shutterstock

When we have feelings, we often think of them simply as emotions we’re having: I feel angry so I’m angry. I feel anxious so I must be anxious. However, what we feel is sometimes not that simple—the feelings we have can either be primary or secondary, and that difference is important.

A primary emotion is how a situation actually makes us feel, someone says something unkind and we feel hurt or sad. A secondary emotion is a feeling we have as a reaction to a primary emotion because the primary feeling is uncomfortable. For example, commonly when people feel hurt they aren’t aware of feeling hurt because the secondary emotion of anger kicks in quickly, so they feel angry. This is because feeling hurt is vulnerable, and vulnerability can often feel scary or unsafe because of the situation or because of past history. Instead of staying with the feeling of hurt, the secondary emotion of anger will kick in. The upside of feeling anger instead is feeling more powerful and safe. The downside is that the original feelings, the hurt, often don’t end up getting addressed.

Another common secondary emotion is anxiety. Of course, we can feel anxiety as primary–we are nervous about an upcoming event or fearful of something dangerous. But often it’s secondary–we feel angry, sad, hurt, embarrassed, jealous, or disappointed but those feelings are too uncomfortable, too vulnerable, or too difficult to express so we feel anxious instead. Again, theoretically the anxiety protects us from more complicated or painful feelings, but it does distance us from the true emotion evoked by the situation.

Secondary emotions are, at their root, a reflection of having anxiety about feeling feelings. We have this anxiety about our emotions because we were in situations where it is, or was, unsafe to feel them. However, this anxiety must be addressed; to know what we are actually feeling, we must address the anxiety about feelings.

Some ways to reduce anxiety about feelings are:

  • Talk to someone. Connecting with a therapist, a support group, friends, or family about how we’re feeling can help us to identify the primary feelings as well as reduce shame and increase comfort with those feelings and our self-esteem.
  • Learning to be assertive. Learning techniques for being more assertive and practicing them can help reduce anxiety associated with fear around vulnerable emotions.
  • Keep a journal. Journaling can help us get to the primary emotions and to process our feelings. We can then return to them later when we are feeling calmer and more centered.
  • Practice relaxation techniques. Techniques such as transcendental meditation, breathing exercises, muscle relaxation, and yoga can help us to relax, release stress, and allow our feelings to feel more natural to us.
  • Exercise. Activities such as walking, running, swimming, or bike riding can help us relax and reduce anxiety. Dietary adjustments may also reduce anxiety, such as increasing fruits and vegetables and decreasing caffeine and sugar.
  • Get enough sleep. Getting quality sleep or rest can help us feel less stressed and give us a fresh outlook on the situation.
  • Spend time in nature. Research shows that spending time in nature promotes feelings of well-being and gratitude, which in turn reduces anxiety.
  • Challenge your thoughts. When you feel anger or anxiety, allow yourself to doubt those feelings and wonder if other feelings may be more vulnerable or complex.

Secondary emotions, such as anxiety and anger, often are more comfortable than the primary emotions a situation evokes in us and are a reflection of our discomfort with those primary emotions. While jumping to secondary feelings is understandable, it can cloud our ability to identify what we are feeling. Lessening our anxiety about our feelings can help us to feel more and more comfortable with them and allow us to then respond optimally to ourselves and others, which is ultimately what we need.

Samantha Stein
Source: Samantha Stein
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