Recognizing Emotions​

Emotions are signals from your mind and body that something important is happening. Some emotions signal that something good is happening while others signal that something bad is happening. For example, experiencing joy tells our mind to continue doing something. And fear might lead us to avoid something later in life. 

On paper, emotions can be pretty straightforward. Yet, in the heat of the moment they can feel confusing. To make it easier to recognize your emotions, it can be helpful to discern the two different types.  These are primary and secondary emotions. 

Primary Emotions

Primary Emotions are your initial reactions to a situation. They come on fast and aren’t usually something you think about. Primary emotions aren’t typically in our control.  For example, if you won the lottery, you would likely feel surprised and excited. 

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Secondary Emotions

Secondary Emotions are emotional reactions to your primary emotions. They are our reactions to our feelings. For example, let’s say you got angry after your sister gave you unhelpful advice. You later felt guilty for getting “so upset”, even though you didn’t show how angry you were. In this example, anger was your primary emotion, and guilt was your secondary emotion.

Secondary emotions often become challenging when there’s more than one. For example, let’s say you become stressed about a presentation you are assigned. As the day draws closer, you become irritated about how anxious you are getting. You also feel ashamed because you’re judging yourself for feeling so stressed. Stress is the primary emotion, and irritation and shame are the secondary emotions.  

It’s understandable to feel hopeless and frustrated about your emotions. But, recognizing and finding ways to cope with both our primary and secondary emotions is possible. 

Make a List

If you’d like to start recognizing and exploring your emotions, below are some questions you can ask yourself: 

  1.  What was the situation that caused you discomfort?

Example: My wife didn’t wash the dishes like I had asked her to, it’s her fault I feel this way.

  1. Why do you think that situation happened? What were your thoughts during the situation? 

Example: I can’t believe she ignored me. She doesn’t care about what I want. She’s always making excuses. She’s so lazy!

  1. How did that situation make you feel?  Try to identify both the primary and the secondary emotions here. Also note any physiological sensations here. 


Primary: Stressed

Secondary: Angry, irritated, guilty

Physical: Felt hot and restless

  1. What did you want to do as a result of how you felt? What did you do and say? 

Example: Wanted to slam the door, wanted to yell, wanted to call her names. I later wanted to avoid talking to her. I tried to not talk about the situation and pretend it didn’t happen.

  1. How did your emotions and actions affect you later? What were the short-term or long-term advantages and disadvantages? 

Example: I later found out that my wife had been on an important phone call and that’s why she didn’t wash the dishes. I felt guilty because of how angry I got and all the mean things I wanted to say to my wife. I was distracted during the work day because of how angry I felt. I also felt worried about what I might say if we talked about it. I guess it was easier to blame someone else for how I felt instead of dealing with my stress.

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