Select Page

Anger is a Secondary Emotion, but What Does That Mean?


anger is a secondary emotion

In the family of human emotions, anger is like the black sheep that is always misunderstood. It has such good intentions, but it gets a bad rep. Why? Because it’s such a powerful emotion that it can easily get out of control when not managed well.


Primary and Secondary Emotions


Evolutionarily, emotions are an important part of the human experience because their role is to keep us safe as well as to move us towards things that are good for us and away from things that are bad for us. They are shaped by our personal experiences and are out of our conscious control, meaning we don’t choose to turn them on or off. They just happen automatically.


There are 2 kinds of human emotions: primary and secondary. Primary emotions are also called Universal emotions, identified by Paul Ekman’s research, and visually represented in the Atlas of Emotions. Anger is one of these 5 basic core emotions, along with disgust, fear, sadness, and happiness.


Secondary emotions are felt after the experience of a primary emotion, in reaction to it, and are often habitual or learned responses to deal with uncomfortable emotions by numbing or lowering the intensity of feelings, when they feel hard to understand or to hold. The main difference between both is that primary emotions are the first emotion you feel for any given situation. And secondary emotions are reactions to how we feel.


The Purpose of Anger


Anger is the emotion that gets activated when we are being treated unfairly or when we are being blocked from pursuing a goal. The main message that anger screams is: “This is not okay!” and its purpose is to create change and transformation, to make things right. The sensation of anger in the body feels like a surge of energy, feeling hot, sweating, muscle tension and clenching of the jaw and/or fists.


Anger is often referred to as sacred rage because it brings transformation. It activates the fight impulse in the Fight/ Flight/ Freeze spectrum of stress responses. In community spaces, anger is the drive behind protests and social justice. In romantic relationships, rage is the marker for boundary setting and updating roles and agreements. In our personal life, anger is the feedback that shows us something doesn’t feel fair, right, or sustainable for us.


Because the main function of anger is to protect us, it can be overused as a defense mechanism when a situation feels too vulnerable or confusing to confront. For example, after a fight with a partner, a person might feel sadness from not feeling like a priority to their significant other however the way they respond automatically is by embracing feeling angry and going on the defensive.


A useful way to know if you are just feeling angry, or if you are feeling something else too is the Anger Iceberg tool. Most of the iceberg is not visible, as it’s hidden below the surface of the water. Similarly, when anger is a secondary emotion it often is still the loudest expression, therefore making it harder to identify other feelings. As yourself: “Am I feeling sadness? Fear? Surprise? Loneliness? Hope?”


What these questions do is make space for more states to coexist with anger. Learning to feel anger as a basic core emotion is so validating! And it’s even more powerful to recognize that rage can sometimes be a protector of more complex vulnerable feelings, such as embarrassment, shame, grief, or even a combination of all the above. Getting individual support in processing anger this way is incredibly healing as it helps a person make sense of their inner world so they can shift the way they show up in response to triggers, have better communication and feel more grounded in relationship to others and themselves.


5 Healthy Ways to Express Anger


Move Your Body


Do a dance party to music that represents your feelings. Go for a run or a faster paced walk.


Use Your Voice


Belt out a song that makes you feel powerful or scream at the top of your lungs (just give anyone around a fair warning!) Play loud music in your car and sing along or meet up with a trusted friend that will listen to you vent.


Write A Letter


Dumping thoughts on paper can help when the mind is spiraling with angry thoughts. Journal freely, this exercise will be for you alone.


High Intensity Workout


This really lets the energy move through you. Better yet if it’s something that gets you kicking, punching (safely) and tires you out.


Change Your Surroundings


Go into another room, step outside, or change location. This helps reset your perspective.


Feeling angry is not a bad thing. Throwing our anger in someone’s face is what gets us in trouble but ignoring it will be equally as bad! When we try to downplay anger, it gets pent up and ends up exploding in the most inconvenient ways. Finding healthy outlets to express and process rage is the way to go.

Modern Intimacy is a group therapy practice, founded by renowned Psychologist and Sex Therapist, Dr. Kate Balestrieri. This inclusive blog is designed to provide a wealth of information and resources for mental health, relationships, and sexuality. Subscribe today to get the latest information from our expert contributors from all around the world.


Author Bio

Gaby Balsells is a Clinical Psychologist, Licensed in Guatemala, and a Relationship and Intimacy Coach with almost a decade of experience guiding couples to understand each other and become a true team. Gaby is currently accepting coaching clients worldwide, and therapy clients from Guatemala.



Subscribe to our Newsletter

You’ll get weekly sex and relationship tips, news, updates, podcast rundowns, and more!
You’ll also receive our 82-page e-book + journal for FREE!

You May Also Like…


Submit a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *