October 5, 2020

Understanding Emotions: Recognizing the Purpose of Emotions 

Written by Rachel Eddins

Understanding Emotions black woman very happy smiling

Why Are Emotions Important? 

Being aware of and understanding our emotions helps us in making decisions, resolving problems, and responding to situations and events. Our emotions are important.

What is the Purpose of Our Emotions? 

  • Emotions motivate our behavior. For example, if you are crossing the street and you see a car run a red light in your direction, you will likely perceive danger, get anxious, and run to get out of the way.
  • Emotions help us communicate with people. If you feel a boundary is being violated, your feeling of anger may prompt you to say no.
  • Emotions also help us to recognize what others are feeling.
  • Emotions communicate to us what we like and do not like. This includes a variety of information such as hobbies, people, work, interests, food, how we prefer to be treated, our values, etc.

Is there an emotion you struggle with that frequently moves you away from what matters to you?

Understanding & Distinguishing Primary and Secondary Emotions

Understanding emotions includes recognizing and distinguishing primary emotions from secondary emotions. Emotions often come in multiples. 

Primary emotions come first and are most connected to what you actually need in the moment. 

Secondary emotions are a response to your primary emotions. In essence, they are, “how you feel about what you feel.”

Our primary emotions can also be secondary, so it’s important to check in and identify what you are really feeling.

Secondary emotions mask your true emotion and make it difficult to get what you really need.

For example, if you are afraid and needing comfort, yet you respond with anger (secondary), you are unlikely to get your need for support met.

If you judge your feelings as “bad”, feelings of guilt are the result. and you can get stuck in negative thoughts vs addressing your underlying need.

When identifying emotions, try and identify the primary emotion.

In order to regain control over your feelings, don’t judge your emotions. Emotions aren’t “good” or “bad”, but rather pleasant or unpleasant.



Recognizing & Understanding the Purpose of Emotions

Understanding emotions includes recognizing them and identifying the function or purpose of that emotion. Each emotion has information it is conveying to you so that you can take appropriate action.

Recognizing your emotions includes identifying related thoughts, physical sensations, and common ways of describing them. Once you have identified your emotion, you can begin to understand the emotion.

  • What is it trying to communicate to you?
  • How can you use that information to make a decision, meet a need or take action?

The following list provides examples for common primary and secondary emotions to help you understand your emotions.

You can also use this feelings list and needs list to identify what you are feeling and what you might need.

Once you gain some practice in understanding emotions, you can begin to take action to meet your needs.


Fear, like all feelings, is important because it gives us information with which to keep us safe and healthy.

Primary emotion.

Function: to protect us from immediate danger

Synonyms: fright, panic, uneasiness, terror

Typical prompting events: facing a threat; performing before others; facing a new situation; danger is in the present time

Typical accompanying thoughts: “I can’t handle this”; “I’m going to fail”; “I’m in danger.”

Common body sensations: racing heart, unsettled stomach, nausea, lump in the throat, breathlessness, jumpiness, fight or flight response

Common actions related to fear: running, freezing up, screaming, crying, seeking safety

Understanding Anxiety

Anxiety is a secondary emotion. Secondary to a more vulnerable emotion that is difficult to express. Anxiety alerts you to perceived danger, but the key word here is perceived.

As you can see in the description, anxiety can stem from unhelpful thinking and commonly leads to behaviors that reinforce anxiety. The purpose of anxiety is listed here. However, if you experience anxiety, try to dig deeper to understand emotions that might be triggering anxiety.

Ask yourself:

  • What am I afraid of?
  • What do I not want to feel?
  • Am I hurt, sad, ashamed, or scared?

The answers to these questions can help you identify your primary emotion and meet your true need. Doing so will commonly alleviate worry as well.

However, you may find that your primary emotion is fear. If so, anxiety can signal an avoidance of fear.


Secondary emotion.

Function: to protect us from future danger

Synonyms: nervousness, worry, stress, overwhelm

Typical prompting event: thinking about or imagining a future feared situation, anticipating a future event that may or may not occur

Typical accompanying thoughts: “I won’t be able to handle this”; “He’ll leave me”; “What if?”

Common body sensations: difficulty relaxing, tension and muscle tightness, sleeplessness, difficulty concentrating, racing heart, queasy stomach, jitteriness

Common actions related to anxiety: avoiding people or places that engender fear; seeking reassurance from others

understanding emotions anger


Anger assists us in creating healthy boundaries. Healthy anger can assist us in saying “No” to things that are not in our best interest. True healthy anger doesn’t injure anyone including the person feeling it.

Healthy anger doesn’t blame, abuse, or attack others.

Moving anger in healthy ways allows the energy to come all the way up and through the body enabling the person to give voice to their experience and to create something different.

Anger is commonly a reactive or repressed emotion. Instead, consider anger as informative and identify what need or action you need to express instead.

Primary emotion (though it can also be secondary).

Function: to allow us to respond to a violation, to protect ourselves

Synonyms: annoyed, irritated, upset, offended

Typical prompting events: feeling threatened; not getting what you want; experiencing physical or emotional pain

Typical accompanying thoughts: “I don’t deserve this”; “I will not tolerate this”; “It’s not fair.”

Common body sensations: body and facial tension, flushed face, clenching fists, tightness in jaw

Common actions related to anger: defending, threatening, yelling, withdrawing




Primary emotion.

Function: to slow us down, allowing us to cope with the loss of a person or a desired goal

Synonyms: unhappiness, hurt, misery, sorrow

Typical prompting events: experiencing loss or rejection; feeling powerless

Typical associated thoughts: “This is a big loss”; “There’s no hope.”

Common body sensations: loss of energy, urge to cry, heaviness in the stomach, difficulty concentrating


To experience Joy fully it’s imperative to cultivate the ability to move all of the emotions through completely, because they are all connected.

If you want to feel Joy, you need to be willing to also feel your fear, and your sadness, anger and sexual feelings.

If you are stuffing one or more of the more “painful” emotions, then you’ll also be stuffing your joy.

Primary emotion.

Function: to prompt us to celebrate something we value

Synonyms: happiness, excitement, delight, enjoyment, gladness

Typical prompting events: feeling successful; receiving love or praise

Typical accompanying thoughts: “This is wonderful”; “I’m so lucky”

Common body sensations: smiling, relaxed body, feeling energized

Common actions related to joy: continuing activities engendering joy, celebrating, acting silly

why are emotions important



Secondary emotion.

Function: to prompt us to correct behavior that violates social norms

Synonyms: embarrassment, remorse

Prompting event: disobeying a rule in your community

Typical accompanying thought: “I hope no one finds out.”

Typical body sensations: blushing, racing heart

Common actions related to guilt: apologizing, reflecting, changing behavior


Primary emotion.

Function: to permit us to live according to our personal values

Synonyms: remorse, responsibility

Typical prompting event: doing something you believe is wrong

Typical accompanying thoughts: “I did something bad.” (May believe, “I am bad.”)

Common body sensations: queasy stomach, difficulty relaxing, muscle tension

Common actions related to shame: hiding, attempting to repair the damage

what is the purpose of emotions



Secondary emotion.

Function: to prompt us to move away from something or someone contaminating

Synonyms: revulsion, aversion

Typical prompting event: facing something harmful

Typical accompanying thoughts: “This will make me sick”; “I need to get away.”

Common body sensations: nausea, uneasiness

Common actions related to disgust: pushing away, avoiding, expressing concern

Coping with Emotions

Becoming aware of and understanding emotions, what they feel like and what they mean, is the first step in coping with and regulating them.

If you need additional support, a therapist can help you build skills to cope with difficult emotions.

A DBT therapy group can also teach you skills in regulating and coping with difficult emotions. Learn more about DBT therapy. 

Contact us for support at 832-559-2622, or book a free consultation or appointment here. 

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