A client recently asked me, WHAT IS THE DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PRIMARY FEELINGS AND SECONDARY FEELINGS?  The question came up in the context of me encouraging them to check in with what their primary feelings might be and to empathize for their partner’s primary feelings which are underneath their secondary feelings.

About Emotions

There are 8 primary emotions. You are born with these emotions wired into your brain. That wiring causes your body to react in certain ways and for you to have certain urges when the emotion arises.


Here is a list of primary emotions:  Eight Primary Emotions

  1.  Anger: fury, outrage, wrath, irritability, hostility, resentment and violence.
  2.  Sadness: grief, sorrow, gloom, melancholy, despair, loneliness, and depression.
  3.  Fear: anxiety, apprehension, nervousness, dread, fright, and panic.
  4.  Joy: enjoyment, happiness, relief, bliss, delight, pride, thrill, and ecstasy.
  5.  Interest: acceptance, friendliness, trust, kindness, affection, love, and devotion.
  6.  Surprise: shock, astonishment, amazement, astound, and wonder.
  7.  Disgust: contempt, disdain, scorn, aversion, distaste, and revulsion.
  8.  Shame: guilt, embarrassment, chagrin, remorse, regret, and contrition.

All other emotions are made up by combining these basic 8 emotions.


Often we have secondary emotions, an emotional reaction to an emotion. We learn these. Some examples of these are:

  1.  Feeling shame when you get angry.
  2.  Feeling angry when you have a shame response (e.g., hurt feelings).
  3.  Feeling fear when you get angry (maybe you’ve been punished for anger).
  4. Feeling angry when you are angry because you are hurt, disappointed, abandoned, etc.

There are many more. These are NOT wired into our bodies and brains, but are learned from our families, our culture, and others.

When you have a secondary emotion, the key is to figure out what the primary emotion, the feeling at the root of your reaction is, so that you can take an action that is most helpful.


For most couples I work with, the “Anger” category of feelings (Anger: fury, outrage, wrath, irritability, hostility, resentment and violence.) is often secondary feelings.

  1.  I’m often resentful (secondary) because I’m hurt (primary — aka what is underneath the other feeling).
  2. I’m often angry (secondary) because I’m disappointed (primary — aka what is underneath the other feeling).
  3. I’m have wrath (secondary) because I’m avoiding feeling insignificant (primary — aka what is underneath the other feeling).

Our job, if we can do it is to dodge and not let the anger dart (of our secondary feeling) that our partner throws at us destabilize us so we are incapable of loving and nurturing the primary feeling that is underneath.  Our task as human beings is to do this for ourselves.  Our task as partners is to do this for our partner.  Our task as parents is to do this for our children.

And the more you identify your primary feelings and ask your partner (softly) to nurture your feelings, the easier it will be for them to show up rather than going into their “warding off blame” mode, which is incapable of giving you the nurturance you need.

The feeling wheel is a good one to help you put words to your feelings (felt state).  I would print it out and save a copy on your phone.

When we put words to our feelings, we can shift from operating from our over-stimulated amygdala (our fight our flight part of the brain) and shift into our pre-frontal cortex which is capable of love,  compassion, creativity, logic, etc.  When we name our primary feelings we can slow our brain down to be capable of being aware of and asking for our needs to be met.

Here are three handouts that I found on the web that can be helpful:

  1. About Emotions
  2. Feeling Vocabulary
  3. Feeling Wheel