Primary and Secondary Emotions: Recognizing The Difference

According to emotion research, there are believed to be two distinct types of emotions that humans feel: primary and secondary emotions. According to Damasio (1994):

Primary emotions are immediate, instinctual responses to stimuli (e.g., joy, fear, sadness). They’re universal and often linked to specific events or situations. Secondary emotions are reactions to primary emotions and are more complex, often influenced by personal experiences, beliefs, and thoughts.

basic primary emotions e.g., joy fear, anger
The basic emotions, also known as primary emotions, include joy, sadness, fear, anger, surprise, and disgust, which are universally recognized and experienced by individuals across cultures.

What are primary emotions?

As the name suggests, primary emotions are the first emotions that are felt when something happens. Imagine that you find out you won a competition, and your primary emotion may be to feel extreme joy. Or if you receive some bad news that you were not expecting, you may feel a surge of sadness. 

These primary emotions are the body’s first response which is directly connected to the event or stimulus.

Primary emotions are often very strong, which makes them easy to identify. They are thought to be instinctive, primal, and sensitive. 

Primary emotions are adaptive as they make us react in a certain way without the emotion being contaminated or analyzed by thoughts or habits.

As time goes on, the primary emotion is likely to fade since we struggle to connect the same emotion with the event because our emotions have changed. 

Psychologist Paul Ekman identified six primary emotions: Anger, disgust, fear, happiness, sadness, and surprise. He theorized that these human emotions are innate and shared by everyone across cultures.

Ekman later expanded this list to include emotions such as pride, shame, embarrassment, and excitement. 

Another psychologist named Robert Plutchik identified eight primary emotions, which he grouped into four pairs of polar opposites: joy-sadness, anger-fear, trust-disgust, and surprise-anticipation.

He famously developed the Feelings Wheel to display these emotions alongside their secondary emotions.

What are secondary emotions?

Secondary emotions are the emotions that are often felt after the primary emotion has been experienced. They are the reactions to our primary emotions and are often habitual or learned responses.

For instance, after feeling the primary emotion of anger, you may feel the secondary emotion of shame afterward; instead of feeling joy, you may feel relief or pride; instead of feeling fear, you may feel hateful. 

Secondary emotions are thought to arise from higher cognitive processes and come after the primary emotion.

The purpose of secondary emotions is to cover up the sensitive primary emotions with something less sensitive. In this way, they are a way of protecting the self from being vulnerable. 

Some of the secondary emotions can lead to more hurt and pain as they build up over time, especially if they are emotions such as guilt, shame, resentment, frustration, and remorse. These emotions are often learned in childhood from parents or other people in our lives. 

Secondary emotions are often harder to name than primary emotions as they saturate the primary emotion with complex reactions. They can influence your behavior, increase the intensity of your reactions, and last for much longer than primary emotions. 

Primary vs. secondary emotions

The main difference between primary and secondary emotions is that primary emotions are how we react to events and situations, whereas secondary emotions are reactions to how we feel. 

For example, feeling shame (secondary) about feeling fear (primary) in a certain situation. The distinction helps in understanding emotional reactions and their underlying causes more deeply.

If you are unsure as to whether you are feeling a primary or secondary emotion, ask yourself if the emotion is directly a reaction or not. If it is a direct reaction, it is likely primary. If it is not a direct reaction, it is likely secondary. 

You can also ask yourself whether the emotions receded after the initiating event receded. If the emotion was strong at first but has since diminished, it is likely a primary emotion. If the emotion continues long after the event and interferes with your abilities in the present, it is likely secondary.

Below are some other main differences between primary and secondary emotions.

Primary emotions:

  • Are instinctive and natural
  • Functional 
  • Can be painful or pleasurable
  • Can be harmful when reacted to
  • Are sensitive and vulnerable 
  • Are rooted in the deeper parts of the brain
  • Can help keep us connected with others
  • Can help guide our actions

Secondary emotions:

  • Are learned or habitual
  • Protective 
  • Defensive and avoidant 
  • Can be better controlled than primary emotions
  • Can numb emotions 
  • Do not listen to what the emotions are asking
  • Comes from a place of learning, e.g., ‘I should not feel sad’ or ‘I should not feel any anger.’ This is not the same as self-control.
  • Are motivated by pain reduction
  • Linger around long after the event has happened
  • Generally, leads to distance and disconnect from our goals, values, and people

The table below illustrates some examples of primary emotions and associated secondary emotions that can arise from them:

Primary emotionSecondary emotion
JoyHopeful, proud, excited, delighted
FearAnxious, insecure, inferior, panic
AngerResentment, hate, envy, jealous, annoyed
SadnessShame, neglectful, depression, guilty, isolated
SurpriseShocked, dismayed, confused, perplexed
Primary vs secondary emotions

Secondary emotions can get in the way

Secondary emotions tend to occur because we have judgments or beliefs about certain emotions. Someone may have grown up in a household where they were criticized for getting upset and showing raw emotions.

Likewise, they may not have learned healthy ways to express their anger and may have witnessed their parents displaying anger in unhealthy ways, such as acting passive-aggressive or jealous. 

When we observe and learn about our emotions, especially as a child, we can often carry this forward into adulthood, meaning that often, our secondary emotions get in the way of our primary emotions. 

Secondary emotions are a way of being reactive and are not a form of self-control. It means we do not take the time to notice or explore the emotions we are feeling. Instead, we may just want it to go away or be buried at any cost. 

We are likely to choose secondary emotions when we feel threatened, overwhelmed, or unsafe. When we act on secondary emotions, we tend to attack, criticize, demand, blame, withdraw, and resent others.

These behaviors are protective and stop us from having our true feelings exposed. 

However, covering our true feelings with secondary emotions and behaviors can be damaging over time. It can lead to breakdowns in relationships and push others away. For example, if someone you are close to hurts you, you may turn this hurt into hate, meaning you may blame and criticize them.  

Acting on secondary emotions alone may not solve any problems at all and can lead us to simply go around in circles. 

Pushing away difficult emotions such as sadness and fear and not being able to recognize them can make someone more at risk of harming their mental health.

People may develop anxiety issues or depression after years of burying their true emotions, hoping they will go away without being addressed. Other mental health issues may develop as a result of being unable to work with their emotions.

Below, a therapist describes her personal experience with borderline personality disorder (BPD) and how secondary emotions played a big role:

‘Unfortunately, a lot of the distress we experience doesn’t come from our primary emotions. It comes actually from our secondary emotions. Secondary emotions produce problem-focused thinking, negative behaviors… and negative outcomes.’

‘I learned at a very young age to focus primarily on that secondary emotional state, and I would stay there. So, I would feel intense shame, intense rage, intense anxiety.’

Rose Skeeters, licensed therapist

Is vulnerability useful?

Often, people expect others to show their primary emotions, thinking it is okay for others to express their vulnerability. However, they hold the belief that they themselves should not feel these emotions. 

When we react to our secondary emotions or avoid our primary emotions completely, we do not give ourselves many options to solve problems or resolve emotions.

When we learn to be more vulnerable with our emotions, we have the potential to solve more problems and learn to know ourselves better. 

Being vulnerable can have more positive outcomes, such as stronger relationships, performing better at work, and feeling more life satisfaction. Others may become more trustworthy of you and have a deeper appreciation for sharing your vulnerability.

You may find that you surround yourself with others who are equally as open with their emotions, and this means you can have deeper connections with meaningful people. 

When feeling caught up in an intense or complicated emotion, try to explore what is underneath the emotion and if there is something sensitive that is being covered up. We are more likely to find resolution when we look deeper than the surface level. 

When exploring our emotions, it is important to be intentional with

  1. Knowing what we are feeling
  2. Exploring why we are feeling it
  3. Choosing what we do about it

How to recognize primary emotions

Remember that it can take time to become more aware of what you are feeling. This is especially true if you are trying to unlearn unhelpful thoughts and behaviors that have been ingrained in you from a young age, such as the belief that you should not feel sad. 

Below are some ways in which you can learn to recognize and be more in tune with your primary emotions:

Use the Feelings Wheel

A helpful and simple way of identifying emotions is to use a Feelings wheel (also known as emotion wheel). This can be very useful for children, as well as adults who struggle to know what they are feeling and who may not be able to differentiate between primary and secondary emotions. 

The Feelings Wheel could be used every day to check in with how you are feeling or throughout the day to see how your emotions shift.

If you identify a feeling which is a secondary emotion, you can use the wheel to see which primary emotion that feeling stems from. This can inform you of what is going on under the surface. 

Plutchik's wheel of emotions
A feelings or emotions wheel is a visual tool that categorizes and expands upon various emotions, helping individuals identify and articulate their feelings with greater precision and depth, thus enhancing emotional awareness and communication skills.


Journaling can be a useful way to get all your thoughts down onto paper. There can be as little structure to journaling as you want since you are the only one who needs to read it.

You can just write down any thoughts that come to your mind without worrying about them making sense. 

Writing down your thoughts can help you to formulate your emotions and get to the bottom of what exactly you are feeling. It can be useful to see what comes to the surface as you write. 

If you cannot commit to writing a long journal entry, you can do as little as writing one line a day or a few words to express what emotion you are feeling that day. 


Mindfulness is a proven practice to improve awareness around the present moment and the self. 

Mindfulness encourages you to be aware of your emotions, whatever you are feeling. You can learn to experience your emotions without any judgment. You acknowledge that the emotions are present and that these emotions are what you are feeling. 

Conversations with others

Often, talking with others can help you to identify what primary emotions you may be experiencing. It can be helpful to practice having meaningful conversations with a trusted person or group of trusted friends.

It can be beneficial to have an outsider’s perspective who may be able to help pinpoint what you could be feeling. 

Seek professional help

Gaining insight into your own emotions and making sense of what you are feeling can be very difficult. It can be hard to see the big picture when you are stuck in the chaos of many complicated emotions.

Thus, getting some support from a therapist can help you to unravel your emotions and make more sense of what you are feeling and why.

If you find that you have a lot of painful emotions accompanied by unhelpful thoughts and behaviors, a suitable therapist can help you in overcoming these. 

Why is recognizing primary emotions important?

Recognizing primary emotions is important because they are full of helpful information. They can tell us:

  • Who we like or do not like
  • What is triggering or upsetting 
  • What we need to do to cope with what we are feeling
  • What is truly going on

If we do not learn to recognize our primary emotions, then we may come up with unhealthy ways to cope with our complicated secondary emotions. It is common for many people to turn to drugs, alcohol, or self-injurious behaviors as coping methods.

We may also be staying in unhealthy relationships or jobs since we do not know how we truly feel, which can be damaging to mental health over time. 

Primary and secondary emotions play crucial roles in emotion regulation:

  1. Understanding Emotional Triggers: Recognizing primary emotions helps identify immediate emotional reactions to stimuli. This awareness can aid in implementing early interventions before emotions escalate.
  2. Addressing Root Causes: Understanding primary emotions can help pinpoint specific events or triggers, allowing individuals to address or reframe them.
  3. Complex Emotional Layers: Secondary emotions reflect our thoughts and judgments about our initial feelings. Identifying these can reveal deeper beliefs or patterns that influence emotional responses, which can be addressed in emotion regulation strategies.
  4. Enhanced Self-awareness: Differentiating between primary and secondary emotions fosters greater emotional clarity, aiding in more effective emotion regulation.
  5. Improved Interpersonal Interactions: Recognizing whether an emotion is a primary response or a layered, secondary reaction can guide more productive conversations and reduce misunderstandings.

Frequently Asked Questions

Are secondary emotions universal?

Although there is more cultural variation in the meaning and expression of secondary emotions, they are still universal in that they are thought to be experienced by all cultures.
Secondary emotions are socially constructed and constitute the learned response from our families, people around us, and our culture on how to feel and react to our emotions.

Because of this, secondary emotions can differ between cultures and even within cultures, depending on how different families respond to primary emotions. 

Are secondary emotions learned?

Secondary emotions are habitual or learned responses that are often used to cover up sensitive primary emotions with less sensitive emotions.

We can learn secondary emotions in childhood or from the people around us. Common secondary emotions that can be learned include feelings of guilt, shame, resentment, frustration, and remorse. 

While they may be learned and deeply ingrained in us since childhood, it does not mean that they cannot be unlearned, especially if they are negatively impacting our lives.

Is anxiety a secondary Emotion?

Anxiety is a common secondary emotion that is often experienced in place of another emotion that is difficult for the person to feel or express.

Alongside other emotions, such as feeling nervous or worried, anxiety is a secondary emotion that often stems from the primary emotion of fear. 

How many secondary emotions are there?

It is likely, not possible to know exactly how many secondary emotions there actually are. Secondary emotions are thought to also be broken down further into what is known as tertiary emotions.

A recent study suggests that there are at least 27 distinct emotions, all of which are highly interconnected (Cohen & Keltner, 2017). These can include emotions such as admiration, calmness, horror, nostalgia, relief, romance, and sexual desire. 

Is anger a secondary emotion?

No, anger is not a secondary emotion. It is classified as a primary emotion because it is often an immediate and instinctual response to a perceived threat, injustice, or frustration.

Anger can trigger secondary emotions like guilt, shame, or sadness, but in itself, anger is considered a primary emotion due to its direct and visceral nature.


Cowen, A. S., & Keltner, D. (2017). Self-report captures 27 distinct categories of emotion bridged by continuous gradients. Proceedings of the national academy of sciences114(38), E7900-E7909.

Damasio, A. R. (1994). Descartes’ error and the future of human life. Scientific American271(4), 144-144.

Ekman, P. (1992). An argument for basic emotions. Cognition & emotion6(3-4), 169-200.

Ekman, P. (1999). Basic emotions. Handbook of cognition and emotion98(45-60), 16. 

Plutchik, R. (2001). The nature of emotions: Human emotions have deep evolutionary roots, a fact that may explain their complexity and provide tools for clinical practice. American scientist89(4), 344-350.

Skeeters, R. (Host). (2022, August 5). Emotion Regulation Hack: Primary & Secondary Emotions. [Audio podcast episode]. In From Borderline to Beautiful: Hope & Help for BPD with Rose Skeeters, MA, LPC, PN2. 

Saul Mcleod, PhD

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MRes, PhD, University of Manchester

Educator, Researcher

Saul Mcleod, Ph.D., is a qualified psychology teacher with over 18 years experience of working in further and higher education. He has been published in peer-reviewed journals, including the Journal of Clinical Psychology.

Olivia Guy-Evans, MSc

Associate Editor for Simply Psychology

BSc (Hons) Psychology, MSc Psychology of Education

Olivia Guy-Evans is a writer and associate editor for Simply Psychology. She has previously worked in healthcare and educational sectors.