Sometimes anger feels like a runaway train that has gone off the rails and is barreling into a village of innocent bystanders. Sometimes shame can creep in and envelop our whole world when we receive an offhand comment from a spouse, are left out by a group of friends, or don’t get the promotion we wanted. Rarely do these reactive emotions connect us to loved others. What Les Greenberg and Sue Johnson label as “secondary emotions,” are these feelings that come up as defensive and protective reactions to “primary emotions.” Vulnerable, primary emotions often lie under the surface, being shielded from our awareness because we don’t feel safe to experience emotions like hurt or fear.
In relationships, secondary emotions can lead to defensive or aggressive behaviors that create distance rather than connection. So, why do we lash out when it would be more helpful to share vulnerably? Some of us have learned that it is not safe to share these tender feelings with others (in childhood or in other intimate relationships) because we tried and were ignored, shut down, or squashed in the process. Thus, shame, anger, and their friends stepped in to keep us a little safer and more distant from people in our lives.
Because of the way our brains love to make strong pathways, these secondary emotions can feel automatic and guide so much of how we respond to others. Thus, we are left feeling isolated, guarded, and defensive. However, when we can compassionately observe our true, primary feelings and share them vulnerably with trusted others, we can be heard, empathized with, and feel truly connected.