In DBT, primary emotions are emotions that people have about a situation or event. Secondary emotions are emotional reactions to emotions. Figuring out which is which may be helpful for people that have a lot of trouble sorting out what they feel, identifying what causes feelings, and knowing how to make use of feelings. The overall goal is to enable people to express emotions accurately.
Let’s take the example of anger. Sometimes, when people get angry, they say things they do not mean. They deliver “low blows”, say things that are extremely hurtful, and launch into full attack mode.When anger shows up, it is very possible that other primary emotions (betrayal, hurt, scared, or sad) are also part of the picture.
Imagine how the conversation would be different if the person who expresses anger was actually expressing any of the above emotions. “I was really upset when you didn’t show up. I thought something might have happened. At first I was really worried, and then I started thinking that you might have forgotten about meeting with me altogether. I wasn’t really sure what to make of the situation. I have this tendency to think no one cares about me when this happens. Perhaps you could tell me what happened.”
Another example may go something like this: Feeling afraid but then feeling ashamed for feeling afraid. Sometimes people are afraid of intimacy and connection but act on the shame. For instance, having a really good time with friends (feeling appreciated, included, and valued) is followed by withdrawal and avoidance. Is this you? If so, what words would you put on your fear that would be more accurate? Are there any elephants in the room that you’ve failed to consider?