Even though everyone experiences emotions every day, understanding them can still be tricky.  For instance, a person may have an initial feeling over a situation, only to discover more emotions underneath the first one.  These are initial and subsequent emotions, and understanding what they are can improve your emotional awareness, which can ultimately improve your mental health.

 

Initial Emotions

 

         As the name implies, initial emotions are the feelings that you experience first.  These emotions are instant and are the ones that you first recognize. Additionally, initial emotions tend to take the form of anger, sadness, happiness, and fear.  Once again, these emotions tend to be clear-cut and easy to name. Here’s an example to make matters concrete.

 

Situation: Your partner cancels the dinner plans for tomorrow.

Your Initial Emotion: Anger

 

In the above example, you may be mad that your partner suddenly cancelled tomorrow’s date night.  If so, anger would be your initial emotion.  Though initial emotions are somewhat clear-cut, subsequent emotions are a little trickier.  

 

Subsequent Emotions

 

         Subsequent emotions occur after your initial emotion.  Specifically, subsequent emotions are the feelings that you have regarding your feelings.  These emotions tend to be more complex and harder to recognize. Guilt, embarrassment, shame, hurt, and disgust are all examples of subsequent emotions.  Subsequent emotions can be an abstract topic, so let’s use the earlier example to make things clearer.

 

Situation: Your partner cancels the dinner plans for tomorrow.

 

Your Initial Emotion: Anger

Your Subsequent Emotion: Shame

 

In this example, though the person initially felt anger, they may later feel ashamed for holding that emotion.  They may feel as though it’s wrong to be mad at someone, and perhaps, that they’re even a bad person for doing so.  Often, the messages one received as a child shapes subsequent emotions. If your parents constantly told you that expressing anger is bad, it only makes sense to feel shame when you express anger as an adult.  The same can be said for other initial emotions. If a person grew up in a society that denigrated the expression of fear, that same person could have embarrassment as their subsequent emotion.

 

Why Distinguishing Your Emotions Matter

         Distinguishing your initial and subsequent emotions can be a challenge, but also worth the effort.  When trying to solve a math problem, you first need to know the full equation. Emotions are somewhat similar.  If you’re trying to improve your mood, it is important to first know what you are feeling. After all, trying to manage guilt will likely require a different route than trying to manage embarrassment.  Another way to understand this is through the lens of Cognitive Behavioral Therapy (CBT).

         A core tenet of CBT is the interconnection of thoughts, feelings, and behaviors.  By changing one part of the trio, the rest follow suit. This is especially useful due to how difficult it is to simply change a feeling (e.g., “Just be happy!”).  However, according to CBT, you can indirectly change a feeling by shifting your thoughts or behaviors. By knowing what your initial and subsequent emotions are, you can determine how to properly shift your thoughts and behaviors.  Here’s an example.

 

Situation: Your partner cancels the dinner plans for tomorrow.

Your Initial Emotion: Anger

Your Subsequent Emotion: Shame

Your Shifted Thought: “Feeling angry is a valid emotion within moderation.”

Your Shifted Behavior: Expressing your dissatisfaction to your partner in a calm, healthy way.


All in all, being aware of your emotions is the first step in changing them to what you desire.  That being said, here is a way to help you distinguish primary and secondary emotions.

 

How to Distinguish Initial and Subsequent Emotions

 

         When you find yourself having emotions over a situation, take some time to reflect on what you felt.  Specifically, grab a sheet a paper and pen, and draw an iceberg. It doesn’t have to be anything fancy; simply create an upside down “v’ with 10% of it being above water.  On the top half, write down the emotion that you first felt. This is likely your initial emotion, especially if you wrote down anger, sadness, happiness, or fear. Following that, take a moment to reflect how that emotion makes you feel.  Here are some questions to help with the process.

 

·         How comfortable am I with this emotion?

·         What is underneath this emotion?

·         Is it okay to feel this emotion?

·         What do I want to do with this emotion?

·         How does sitting with this emotion feel?

 

As you answer these questions, explore which emotions come up.  Those feelings are likely your subsequent emotions. Next, write down all of those emotions in the “water” section of your iceberg.  Here’s how it can all look.

After you have identified your initial and subsequent emotions, you can change your thoughts and behaviors to move towards your desired feeling.  To use the above example, let’s say that the person wants to challenge their shame and discomfort with anger. They can then explore their thoughts regarding being upset.  For instance, what makes anger a bad emotion, and where did they learn that message? The person could also explore what healthy thoughts would be regarding anger. To do that, they can focus on what is realistic and fair.  To make things easier, they could also refer to people whom they know who have a healthy relationship with anger. For behaviors, the person can reflect on the actions that would either encourage or discourage a healthy expression of anger.  Journaling, venting to friends, and holding honest conversations could all lessen the shame of expressing anger. Meanwhile, bottling the anger inside, denying any anger, and constantly apologizing for feeling angry would likely persist the shame of having the emotion.  Ultimately, recognizing your initial and subsequent emotions allows you to be more in control of what you feel. If all of this still seems too confusing or daunting, individual therapy could be a big help. Schedule an appointment online at The Center for Growth

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