The importance of emotions: Part 1

In this 2-part blog, four key questions about emotions will be answered. We will talk about what emotions are, why they are important, the difference between primary and secondary emotions and how to identify emotions and needs. This is something that most of us do not learn growing up as there is usually no class in school on this topic or education from parents, and so I am excited to share this wonderful knowledge with you! 

What are emotions? 

The American Psychology Association (APA, 2022) defines emotions as “conscious mental reactions subjectively experienced as strong feelings usually directed towards a specific object and typically accompanied by physiological and behavioural changes in the body” (APA, 2022). I like to think of emotions as little messengers – our brain and body sending us a message on something that is happening in our world. This goes for comfortable and uncomfortable emotions – as much as we don’t like to feel uncomfortable emotions, they are as important.  

Why are emotions important? 

As mentioned above, we usually don’t like to feel uncomfortable emotions. They are, however, a part of life and very important to pay attention to. We will all feel them at some point in time, and that is totally okay! Emotions are extremely important as they can help us understand how we feel about a situation or a person, communicate with others, act quickly in urgent situations, identify when we need to set boundaries, identify unmet needs, process situations, and much more! In order to accomplish this, it is very important that we learn to identify what we are feeling, differentiate between root feelings and secondary feelings, as well as our needs. 

What are Primary vs. Secondary emotions? 

A primary emotion is the feeling at the root of our reaction and a secondary emotion is an emotional reaction to an emotion or situation. For example, often when I meet with couples in therapy I will hear one partner say something like “my partner makes me so angry!”. When we sit with this anger, we will realize that there is something underneath it, something deeper. Often, we find out that the person is feeling hurt, or abandoned or not seen or heard. In this situation, the primary emotion would be feeling abandoned for example, and the secondary emotion would be anger. The person is angry that they are feeling abandoned. When feeling an emotion, it is always important to sit with it and see what is really there – identify the primary vs. the secondary emotion. Doing so will then help you identify what you need, to feel better. 

Part two of this blog will look at how to identify emotions and needs.  

Dr. Mélodie Brown, D.Psy., C.Psych., is a clinical psychologist and co-founder of CFIR (St. Catharines). She offers psychotherapy for adult individuals and couples & psychodiagnostics assessments for adult individuals, in French and English. She also provides clinical supervision for students who are completing their masters or doctorate degrees in counselling/clinical psychology.