In my work and life, I encounter a lot of people, and the richness and complexity of the individual experience constantly fascinates me. People are just so, so different. Therapy often brings up emotions, and the way clients feel and express emotions is extraordinarily varied.
This interests me because popular research shows (Dael et al., 2012; Maroda, 2010) that there are only a limited number of primary emotions. I’ve written about Eckman’s Atlas of Emotion before, which categorises 5 primary emotions, but I recently found a list which adds 3 more. Here is the list (the first five are the same as Eckman’s):
Research shows (Keltner et al., 2019; Ekman et al., 2011) that we are born with these hard-wired into us – they are bodily. This means that we experience them somatically, viscerally. Body temperature rises or falls. Pupils widen or contract. We experience these states, feel them.
What’s fascinating is that just like mixing primary colours on the colour wheel, there are dozens if not scores of secondary emotions which come from mixing these innate eight. These are learned responses, utterly individual, dependant on the lived experience of family, society, culture. They are emotional reactions to emotions.
An example might be feeling fear when you get angry because in the past you’ve been punished or judged for expressing anger. Feeling disgust when you feel joy because you’ve been led to believe that pleasure is sinful.
This is where the emotional landscape becomes fraught and difficult to navigate because these ‘shades of eight’ are so unique to you. You’re the only person who knows the ‘combination’, and that combination may be repressed, ignored, or numbed.
When we have a secondary emotion, the key is to figure out what the primary emotion is so that we can respond in a way which is most helpful. It’s often the action caused by the emotion that causes the problem, not the emotion itself. Getting angry isn’t a problem – but losing your cool and shouting at your partner is. Sadness is an impermanent state, but drowning your sorrows isn’t going to do you much good.
Emotions are intrinsic, our birthright. Developing a better understanding of them increases our resilience and knowledge of self. Unpacking emotional states is part of the work in therapy, and befriending and facing up to our emotions is the way we grow and become more real to ourselves.
Please don’t hesitate to make contact if this article resonates with you in light of your own situation and experience.
Dael, N., Mortillaro, M., & Scherer, K. R. (2012). Emotion expression in body action and posture. Emotion (Washington, D.C.), 12(5), 1085-1101.
Ekman, Paul, & Cordaro, Daniel. (2011). What is Meant by Calling Emotions Basic. Emotion Review, 3(4), 364-370.
Keltner, D, Sauter, D, Tracy, J, & Cowen, A. (2019). Emotional Expression: Advances in Basic Emotion Theory. Journal of Nonverbal Behavior, 43(2), 133-160.
Maroda, K. (2010). Psychodynamic techniques : Working with emotion in the therapeutic relationship. New York: Guilford Press.