I used my left arm to stop the tears from rolling off my cheeks and onto the lotus root. Had I known that Act One of episode 597 of This American Life would make me cry to the point that I would have to wipe the snot from my nose multiple times with my arm, I wouldn’t have listened to it while making a lotus root salad for a party.
People warned me that my grief about my mother’s death would continue to fluctuate with time. It had been many months since I last cried; how was I to know that learning about the wind telephone in Japan would induce such a reaction?
Perhaps my grief wasn’t my own. My father’s older brother recently died.
“I’m glad I could help with the funeral arrangements for him,” my father murmured to me. “I went through all that just three years ago, so I knew what to do.”
I nodded. He sighed.
“He was my older brother. It was still a shock.”
I looked away. He didn’t need to see his daughter trying to hide the sadness from her face.
I first learned about “primary” and “secondary” emotions while learning dialectical behavior therapy. Marsha Linehan points out that there is
a distinction between primary or “authentic” emotions and secondary or “learned” emotions. The latter are reactions to primary cognitive appraisals and emotional responses; they are the end products of chains of feelings and thoughts. Dysfunctional and maladaptive emotions, according to Greenberg and Safran, are usually secondary emotions that block the experience and expression of primary emotions.
Some (corny) examples are helpful here:
Primary emotion: “All right! I did well on that test! I feel happy about my performance!”
Secondary emotion: “But wait! I still missed some items on the test. I feel ashamed that I felt so happy about how I did. It’s not like I got a perfect score.”
Primary emotion: “I can’t believe she did that! Who does things like that, anyway? I feel angry.”
Secondary emotion: “Maybe I’m overreacting about her. I don’t want people to think I’m a b!tch. I’m disappointed that I can’t control my moods better.”
Not much time has to pass between the primary and secondary emotions. In fact, sometimes people experience only the secondary emotion. The experience of the primary emotion gets lost, even though the primary emotion reveals useful information about the situation and how the person relates to it.
Infants and children experience and express primary emotions. We become acquainted with secondary emotions as we age.
Primary emotion: I feel sad about the death of my mother. I witnessed how her death affected my father, who lost his companion of forty years. There are things that only my father and I understand; we can’t talk about those things with anyone else because they just won’t get it. I feel sad that he is at that age where multiple loved ones are dying because their time has run out. I feel sad when I consider the loneliness he must feel at least some of the time.
Secondary emotion: God willing my father dies before I do: No father should outlive both his spouse and child. Of course I will feel grief when he dies. Will it be worse than the grief I felt when my mother died? What if it’s too much grief? What if I don’t have the mettle to tolerate it?
What will I do when my only option is to use a wind telephone?