It may sound crazy - because we are always trying to control our emotions - but emotions are the key to getting your needs met.
How can this be? We dismiss them as not important or too irrational. We learn from an early age that some emotions are just not OK. Males in our culture commonly learn to squelch emotions in the interest of "manning up." Kids get confusing messages, such as "everything is OK" when asking an adult why he or she was crying. Some learn that expressing certain emotions give them their way. We've all seen a parent cave in to their raging child's temper tantrum! These judgments and messages about emotions can really give the impression that emotions need to be managed and changed somehow, but in doing so you are gypping yourself out of some advantageous information. These emotions that you work so hard to manage and control are what actually propel you to do the things you do. Sure, you can think you are making things better, but the original emotion is still under there, unacknowledged. And what does this unacknowledged emotion do? It runs the show from the background. You will continue just doing what you do - you know what they say about if you keep doing the same thing over and over, you get the same results, right? Instead, if you tune in to it, you can get helpful information about what is going on with you.
To better understand emotions, know the difference between primary emotions and secondary emotions. This distinction helped me understand my own emotional reactions better and also those of my loved ones and clients. Once you understand the difference, you will have an important tool at your disposal to help you assess what your needs are and get them met. It is also one of the key ideas behind the highly effective Emotionally Focused Therapy used to help relationships, so you can begin to turn around some of the negativity in relationships, too.
Primary Emotion and Secondary Emotion
Primary emotion actually happens before thought. It is an evolutionary adaptation that reacts directly to whatever is happening in the moment. It consists of a physiological reactions stemming from data store in our brains and bodies and propels us toward getting our needs met. But cultural messaging has confused this process, and in many situations, primary emotion get covered over by secondary emotion. Secondary emotion is really just a learned strategy for dealing with primary emotion.
For an example, let's say that a husband decided he would like to go out with his guy friends on a night his wife was particularly looking forward to relaxing at home with him. Let's also say she had a crappy day, wasn't feeling well, and has "trust" issues from a previous relationship. When she hears that her husband is planning to go out rather than come home as she planned, she may start to feel panicky due to her underlying trust issues. This panicky fear would be her primary emotion. However, rather than communicate this to her husband, she may tell herself that he's "just like" the other one and is "never there" for her. She gets angry at him, here, a secondary emotion. Now, if she yells at him out of anger, do you think her husband has any idea what is really going on for her? If she were more aware of her panicky primary emotion and could tell him, they would have a much different outcome than if she gets mad and he leaves!
Different thoughts lead to different secondary emotions. For example, she might feel guilty because she doesn’t think she "should" be so "needy" or because she tells herself that her needs are "not that important." She could also feel embarrassed or ashamed because she tells herself "it is pathetic" for her let someone else have this kind of sway over her. As you can imagine, all of these secondary emotions look very different from the original panicky fear that she was really feeling down inside.
Secondary Emotions Distort How You Really Feel
As you saw in the example, primary emotion can get hidden under secondary emotion. It's as if the primary emotion goes underground, and the secondary emotion takes over and sends out faulty messages. When you're not in touch with your primary emotion, it can't be used to guide you toward a more favorable outcome.
Secondary Emotions are Destructive in Relationships When The Primary Emotion Remains Hidden
The above example clearly shows how secondary emotions lead to fights and emotional distance in relationships. Instead of saying, “I'm having a really bad day and I was really looking forward to you coming home. Would you mind skipping it or just going for a short while?" she would say something more like, "You're never home. You always go out with them. They are more important to you. I don't deserve to be treated this way." Or worse. Without recognizing what's really going on inside, she got caught up in blaming and fighting - moving her farther from getting her needs met.
Try it yourself. Tune in more to emotions, especially your own. See if you can detect other emotions besides what is presenting itself. As you develop your emotional awareness, don't be surprised if things start to work out better for you.
If you have tried this, have any questions, or are interested in working with me, let me know! I can be reached at (954) 951-8295 or fill out my "Let's Connect" form on the right side of this page. I look forward to hearing from you!
When we begin to understand our own emotional reactions better, we are well on the way to making our emotions work for us rather than against us. Now we can use our emotions much more effectively as guides to what we really need. Our ability to talk about our underlying primary emotions make it more likely that we will actually be able to get our needs met.