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Why are emotions important?

Your emotions are your most important signaling system. Emotions were there long before thought and language, both in humans as a species and in you as an individual. You were born into this world with the capacity to be happy, sad, scared, shameful and angry.

Your emotions are important because they alert you to things that are important to you. They inform you about how you are doing with yourself, with those around you and most importantly – they inform you about what you need. This is because all emotions are related to your needs. This means that an emotion is your brain and your body’s reaction to the fact that something important has happened and your emotions tell you that you need to attend to what has happened since one or more of your needs are affected.

When your emotional system believes something important has happened, they come to your mind as alarms. These alarms usually contain a bodily experience, an urge to do something and an experience of a meaning. Examples of bodily sensations are: a knot in your stomach, pressure in your chest, a lump in your throat, feeling warm, energized or strong. Your urge to do something might be to approach other people, or pull yourself away. Your experience of meaning might be: “This is dangerous!”

For example if you lose someone you are very fond of, then you can become sad and feel grief. You may feel heavy in your body and get a lump in your stomach or throat. You may want to cry. You know how much this person meant to you, and that you could have needed to have that person with you, and the feeling of sadness tells you that you can no longer get that need covered. The sadness can make you approach other people to get comfort, care and support.

All of our emotions are connected to needs in this way. Fear needs safety, shame shame needs acceptance and confirmation, anger needs boundaries, and sadness needs comfort. Therefore, the next time you find yourself feeling a feeling, you could ask yourself: What does this emotion tell me that I need? 

Alfred & Shadow - A Short Story About Emotions 

If you are sad and need support and closeness, signaling secondary anger, anger will tell others that they should stay away and thus create distance.

Primary and secondary emotions


We can distinguish between two types of emotions: primary emotions and secondary emotions. Primary emotions are direct emotional reactions to a situation, and they are called primary because they come first. It is your very first reaction to a situation or an event, and they alert you about your needs.

A typical example is if you get angry as a result of someone being ruthless to you or someone you love, and you feel a need to protect or set boundaries. Then the feeling of anger is a primary emotion and it helps you to protect what is important to you by making it more likely you assert yourself.

However, we don’t always know or show what we feel. You might experience unwanted feelings, or feelings that you have learned that are not ok to express. That is when you usually encounter your secondary emotions. A secondary emotion is an emotional response to a primary emotion, thus an emotion about what you feel.

For example, if someone who is important to you says something hurtful to you, you may become sad. That would be a primary sadness. If experiencing sadness for some reason might be difficult to you, you may also notice that you get angry. The anger then is a secondary reaction, since it is a reaction to your sadness.

There is a tendency in our society for men to show anger when they are experiencing more vulnerable feelings like sadness or shame, and there is a tendency for women to show sadness or guilt when they are experiencing anger.

Our primary emotions are usually basic emotions like sadness, fear, shame, anger and joy. In theory, all the basic feelings can also be secondary. However, some secondary emotions are more typical than others, such as anxiety, irritation, global depressed mood, aggression, rage and emptiness or hopelessness.

The reason that secondary emotions usually aren’t helpful is that they cover up what you really feel and send confusing signals to the outside world about what you need. For example, if you are sad and need support and closeness, signaling secondary anger, anger will tell others that they should stay away and thus create distance.

If you have a strong emotional response and it doesn’t go away it may sometimes be worth to take another look at what is going on inside yourselfWhat am I truly feeling right now?

Difference Between Primary & Secondary Emotions
by Dr. Les Greenberg

When you don’t understand your own or someone else’s emotional reaction to something or the reaction is completely out of proportion, that often is a sign of a secondary emotion covering up another emotion.

When we are troubled by emotional memories

Alfred & Shadow- A short story about self-criticism 

If you were bullied in elementary school, but still as an adult feel that others don’t like you or that they are out to get you, then the emotional memory no longer helps you to deal with the current situation.

Emotions are meant to help you remember important events in order to prepare you for similar events later on in life. If you experience something difficult, your emotions will help you adapt to the situation, while at the same time storing this memory so you’re more alert the next time something similar happens. This phenomenon is called emotional memories.

For example, if you are being bullied in school or at your work place, your shame can make you feel like sinking into the ground, perhaps signaling submittance to the bullies. This can be adaptive in the moment as it may reduce further harm. Your emotional system effects your brain so that the memory of the situation is stored in order to make you more alert to the bullies in the future.

Emotional memories can be good or painful, but it is the painful emotional memories that causes trouble for us later in life. If you were bullied in elementary school, but still as an adult feel that others don’t like you or that they are out to get you, then the emotional memory no longer helps you to deal with the current situation. The memory can be said to have developed into a problematic emotional memory. It continues to affect you long after the situation is over.

All of us have painful emotional memories that affects us at different times in life. Typical problematic emotional memories are from experiences of bullying, abuse, violence, substance abuse in the family, living with critical or non-appreciative parents, being abandoned, losing someone of particular importance or not being seen for who you are.

If you have too many or too big problematic emotional memories, then chances are that they affect you in a way that impacts your life in a negative manner. These memories can be triggered by your surroundings whenever something reminds you of the painful experience.

It is also very common that problematic emotional memories are covered up by secondary emotions such as anxiety, depression, anger or emptiness. The first steps are therefore to get acquainted with what lies under the secondary emotions, figuring out what the problematic emotional memory is about and somehow manage to make sense of it. And yes, problematic emotional memories can be changed.

Changing Emotions with Emotion


Painful emotional memories can be changed. Emotional memories consist of networks in your brain and your body. Recent research shows that when such networks are activated, they can also be changed by adding new emotional experiences. Lets say you have grown up in an unsafe environment with a threatening father. The memory of him being threatening exists as a network in your brain and body.

By talking about what happened, how it was for you growing up there and actually contacting the emotional memories that were made back then, we can activate the network that is your emotional memory. Then we can get hold of your emotional needs at the time, for instance the need for safety and protection. You can then gain access to assertive anger against your father who mistreated you, and even activate compassion towards yourself as an unsafe and unprotected child. Emotions of assertive anger and self-compassion has the potential to change the emotional memory, so you no longer experience yourself as useless or unworthy. It’s as if you have rewired some important wiring inside your brain and body.

Other examples of typical changes is to stand up against someone who has bullied or criticized you, feel anger and sadness due an absent parent, mourning over something you have experienced, or feeling compassion for yourself over having lost something or someone you loved very much. More recent memories, such as a conflict from work or a difficult breakup can also be worked with in a similar fashion. There is a good amount of research to support the assumption of how emotions can change emotions.

Changing emotion with emotion by Dr. Les Greenberg

Recent research shows that when our neuro-networks are activated, they can also be changed by adding new emotional experiences such as assertive anger, sadness of not having our childhood needs met and self-compassion.

What is the Difference Between Healthy Anger and Unhealthy Anger?

Different kinds of emotional responses by Dr. Robert Elliott

Healthy expression of anger in non-aggressive, contains responsibility to ourselves and others and helps us make the changes to get to our emotional needs such as closeness, love, safety, validation, etc.

Unhealthy expression of anger is aggressive, contains blaming others and complaining with no responsibility for self and others, and leaves us away from our needs for closeness, love, safety, support, validation, etc. 

Healthy Anger:

  • is expressed assertively with ownership of experience using "I statements".

  • is appropriate to the current situation and points at something that is not helpful to our survival. 

  • the intensity of anger expression is appropriate to the situation.

  • gives us the information that something needs to change, helps us set limits and communicates a clear social message of assertion to others.

  • communicates our specific need to others such as need for closeness, love, support, validation, etc. and will help us to get our needs meet.

  • is NOT mixed with other emotions such as sadness, guilt, or fear.

  • expression provides elaboration and exploration of meaning to others and will promote resolution and change.

Unhealthy Anger:

  • is expressed aggressively, passively or indirectly with blaming, complaining, attacking or hurling insult at others.

  • is an old generalized feeling that we get stuck in and stems from the past. "I always get the bad treatment by everybody!"

  • the intensity of anger is inappropriate; either overwhelming rage or anger that is lacking energy. In both instances the needs and setting boundaries will not clearly communicated with others.

  • Our needs for closeness, love, support, validation, etc. will not be communicated and people cannot hear us, therefore, we will not get to what we need.

  • is mixed with tears or fear which does not allow you to access to your emotional needs such as being safe, loved, supported, validated, etc.

  • expression of unhealthy anger lacks specific meaning and information, and does not promote resolution and change.

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