Difficult Emotions

In 1884, William James wrote an article, What is an Emotion? Scientists are still debating the question today. The Oxford Dictionary defines an emotion as “a strong feeling deriving from one’s circumstances, mood, or relationships with others,” adding it is an “instinctive or intuitive feeling as distinguished from reasoning or knowledge.”

Jesus experienced emotion (although the word had not yet been coined). He expressed his emotions in behaviors, thoughts and body sensations. Consider these examples.

Jesus entered the temple courts and drove out all who were buying and selling there. He overturned the tables of the money changers and the benches of those selling doves. Matthew 21:12

Jesus wept … John 11:35

About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”)  Matthew 27:46

“My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death. Stay here and keep watch with me.” Matthew 26:38

He took Peter, James and John along with him, and he began to be deeply distressed and troubled. Mark 14:33

And being in anguish, he prayed more earnestly, and his sweat was like drops of blood falling to the ground. Luke 22:44 

Two Types of Emotions

We divide emotions into two types: primary and secondary emotions. We experience primary emotions in the present moment. An emotion comes to us in response to some internal or external trigger and we feel it in our body and think it in our mind. Primary emotions pass quickly although they can come in waves over time. While scientists do not all agree, primary emotions include fear, anger, sadness, happiness, disgust, surprise, guilt and interest (e.g., love, passion, forgiveness, etc).

A secondary emotion emerges when we think about our emotions. We choose — either consciously or more often we automatically react — to rehash what caused the situation or worry about what might happen if the situation arises again. The more we think about the emotion the more overwhelming the emotion becomes. A secondary emotion lasts as long as the thoughts persist and cause us nothing but misery. There is no Biblical evidence Jesus thought about his primary emotions.

An example illustrates the difference. I’m at the grocery store. Someone runs into me with their cart. I have a flash of anger. My face flushes. My heart pounds. That’s a primary emotion. Now, I have a choice. When I’m on autopilot, I start thinking about what happened — why wasn’t he paying attention? Maybe he did it on purpose. He didn’t even care that he hurt me. I hold on to those thoughts for the rest of the day, each thought leading to the next. My anger not only stays with me but it escalates. By bedtime, I’m so worked up I can’t sleep for all the negative thoughts. Those are secondary emotions fueled by my negative thoughts and stories.

Now, I could have intentionally chosen not to think about my anger if I had been present enough to notice where my thoughts were taking me. Then, I could have chosen among several options.

  • I could mindfully distract myself and do something to take my mind off what happened. (Mindless distraction only postpones the secondary emotion.)
  • I could do the opposite action and go workout or change the channel on my thoughts to think about something else
  • I could be curious (without judgment) about my flash of anger with the goal of learning what the incident triggered in me to get so angry.

Comparing Primary and Secondary Emotions

So let’s look at the characteristics of primary and secondary emotions in greater detail. Researchers generally agree that a facial expressions for primary emotion is universal across cultures. Most researchers (not all) agree that facial expressions for fear, anger, sadness, happiness, surprise, disgust and guilt fall into this category. Some researchers also add interest, which includes love, passion, compassion, empathy and so on. To complicate matters, however, these emotions can start out as primary emotions and become secondary emotions later. So what’s the difference between primary and secondary emotions?

  • We experience primary emotions in the present moment. Secondary emotions are thoughts about a primary emotion that focus on past or future.
  • We do not choose primary emotions. They come to us unbidden. We have an urge to think about our primary emotions. The urge gives a moment to choose to think about them – either consciously (e.g., venting to a friend) or unconsciously on autopilot.
  • Primary emotions are fleeting although they may come in waves. Secondary emotions last as long as our thoughts persist, ranging from hours to weeks and months to years. The more we think about the primary emotion, the strong the secondary emotion gets.
  • Unwanted primary emotions are most likely to generate secondary emotions.
  • Facial expressions for primary emotions are the same across cultures while secondary emotions are culturally influenced.
  • There is a place for curious, nonjudgmental thoughts about our primary emotions with the goal of learning after we have allowed ourselves to feel them and sit in acceptance with our feelings. Thoughts associated with secondary emotions are typically judgmental, blaming, defending, convincing, sarcastic, vindictive, contemptuous or some other negative thought. The only function these negative thoughts serve is to make us miserable.


Primary emotions are valid simply because we feel them. They are an instinctive state of mind.  It’s important to allow ourselves to feel our feelings. If we avoid primary emotions, they pile up and come out later as depression, anger, anxiety or physical illness. “Numbing the pain for awhile will only make it worse when you feel it.” writes J.K. Rowling, Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire.

Secondary emotions are thoughts about a primary emotion. It’s important to let go of these thoughts, to detach from them; otherwise they make us miserable and we may take our misery out on others. The more we think about our emotions the more miserable we get, which also can lead to depression, anger, anxiety or physical illness or problems with relationships, school or work or motivation to get things done at home..  

For example, you wake up feeling lonely, wondering if anyone anywhere cares about you.  Assuming you notice the emotion, be curious. Ask yourself is this a primary or secondary emotion? Your clue is wondering whether anyone cares. Those are thoughts. Loneliness is a secondary emotion. Next be curious about what the primary emotion from which loneliness arose. The most likely primary emotion is fear of being alone. Sit with the fear for a few minutes. Let it be without judging or ruminating on it.

Before You Pray

Before you pray, check the facts.  Make a list of friends and family who care about you.  If you are able, use the opposite emotion skill, transforming loneliness into feeling loved. Now you pray, you might visualize (ala Ignatian spirituality) yourself with Jesus, walking beside him, basking in the love that emanates from him. Feel the emotions you might have felt — joy, peace, calm. You might use mental prayer (ala Teresa of Avila) and have a conversation with Jesus but don’t think it — have a conversation where you not only talk but you listen for that still small voice. Finally, you might simply rest in God’s love (ala Merton), breathing silently, drawing God’s love in with each in-breath and sending love out with each out-breath.

When your thoughts of loneliness are calmed, you may have some ideas about how to move forward. You might problem solve, calling someone to chat or invite them out for coffee. You might discover you’ve been making yourself too busy — working too many hours, spending too much time on Facebook, reading and watching TV to excess. So use your problem solving skills to develop a plan. You might decide to text a friend about having lunch or call your brother. You might go to a MeetUp or join a neighborhood association to meet people. But remember, you’re not looking for a warm body. You’re looking for genuine connection.

If the secondary emotion you’re feeling is anger toward your brother. You take opposite action. You forgive. If the secondary emotion is unreasonable fear, you face your fear and take the feared action.

Window of Tolerance

If you don’t notice sliding into the rabbit hole of thought, your emotions may become overwhelming. When emotions overwhelm, they can become too big for you to cope. Without coping skills, you go into crisis to avoid the big emotions. You may shut down or get numb (hypo-arousal) or start thinking in circles, have a panic attack, cry yourself into sleep, go into a rage or obsess (hyper-arousal). We call this going out of your window of tolerance, that is the range of emotional discomfort in which you cope effectively (see below).

When you go out of your window of tolerance, your prefrontal cortex — the executive center of your brain — goes off line and a more primitive part of your brain — the emotional center — takes over. Once your prefrontal cortex goes off line, cold water, paced breathing, progressive relaxation and intense exercise will lower your heart rate and bring you back into your window of tolerance. Use the technique that works best for you.

Window of Tolerance

Is Your Emotional Response Proportional to the Trigger?

Checking the facts helps you decide whether your emotional response is proportional to the situation. When a loved one dies, you feel overwhelming sadness that comes in waves. This is a primary emotion. It becomes a secondary emotion if you dwell on what will become of me? How will I manage? or despair that you won’t be able to live without your loved one.You check the facts and decide the emotional response is proportional and ride the waves of grief.

Other times, the intensity of the emotion is greater than the trigger warrants (e.g., a child spills a glass of milk and mom goes into a rage). In this case, mom’s out-of-proportion emotional response is probably conditioned or habitual based on long-held secondary emotions based in the past (e.g., negative thoughts about her childhood) or future (e.g., what if my child grows up to be irresponsible?). When mom returns to her window of tolerance, she checks the facts and realizes her response was out of proportion to the trigger. She decides to explore what really triggered her rage with curious non-judgment and she apologizes to her son.

Turn to Prayer When Emotions Overwhelm

To the extent possible, you want to stay within your window of tolerance, noticing as you move to the upper or lower limits and skillfully assessing what you need to do.

Turning your emotions over to God through meditation or contemplative prayer can help immensely. When you are so upset, words fail. Remember, In the same way, the Spirit also helps us in our weakness, since we do not know how to pray as we should. But the Spirit intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words, Romans 8:26 (NRSV).

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