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April 1, 2022

Defining The 8 Primary Emotions

My “Why” 

I’m starting this blog to organize my thoughts and experiences as a clinical psychologist. Over the years, I’ve noticed common themes in my practice. I currently treat clients ages 14 and up, and I feel these themes likely occur for most people starting in childhood and recur cyclically well into adult years. We’re always growing and changing, and as we go through similar events (or experience a shift in perspective as we age) we carry these threads through our lives. 

I’ve been in psychology since the late 90s and in private practice since 2014. There’s a wealth of knowledge that I’ve gained through my experience, and I believe by sharing these insights, readers may gain a greater sense of self and a deeper understanding of who they are. 

Now that we all know why we’re here, let’s start with the basics.  

You Should Have Learned This In Grade School 

You should have, but you probably didn’t. 

It’s ludicrous that we don’t learn about emotional intelligence during elementary school. Think back to 5th grade. You were probably learning about long division, the scientific method, how to structure a story, and the birds and the bees. But did anyone teach you the difference between shame and guilt? How about fear and anxiety? 

It’s okay. You’re not alone. There is no national student curriculum in the United States. And although states determine their own standards, emotional intelligence education is not part of a typical public school curriculum. 

As a psychologist, I can tell you our emotional education is just as crucial as learning the fundamentals of math, science and literature. Interestingly enough, maintaining good mental health starts with a vocabulary lesson. 

Emotional Definitions: The Elite Eight 

In order to ensure that I’m always on the same page with a client, we need to use the same language. 

I usually start the first three sessions discussing definitions and the components of emotion. I call the ones listed below The Elite Eight. These are the main emotions in which you can jump to 1,000+ other emotional adjectives: 

1. Anxiety 

Anxiety is the anticipation of something happening. So by definition, most feelings of anxiety are about something that has not happened *yet*.

2. Fear

Feeling fear means it’s happening right now. Ie. there’s a bear in the room, a global pandemic, an earthquake or hurricane, etc. 

Anxiety Vs. Fear:

Fear is when it is happening. Anxiety is when it is not *yet* happening. 

3. Shame 

Shame is either the real or perceived rejection from others or yourself. I’m a true believer that you can reject yourself — I see it every day. 

4. Guilt 

Guilt is when you do something that is inconsistent with your values. The funny thing is most people don’t have conversations with themselves or others about their values. Sometimes clients come to me with tension within themselves and together we discover that they did something inconsistent with their values.

Shame Vs. Guilt:

Shame is rejection from yourself or others. Guilt is a thought or action inconsistent with your values. 

5. Envy 

You feel envy when someone has something you want. Envy is silent and sly. We don’t use the word “envy,” we use “hate” or “hating on.” 

6. Jealousy 

Jealousy means you already have something that is threatened to be taken away. Because there’s a threat, jealousy feels like crap in your body and is quick to anger.

Envy Vs. Jealousy: 

Envy means someone has something you want. Jealousy is when you already have something that you’re worried will be taken away by someone else. 

7. Sadness 

For the purpose of the Elite Eight, I am referring to sadness as “the blues”, a situation that sucks, or feeling bummed. There are several layers to sadness with various qualities like depression, loneliness, disappointment, etc. that I’ll discuss in another blog.

8. Contentment 

Contentment is my goal in therapy, not happiness. I know, I know — let me explain. Happiness comes and goes, like any other emotion, and it’s usually only with you for a short while. Ie. having a great birthday, purchasing an item on sale, enjoying a delicious meal with good company. Being happy all the time is unrealistic. Contentment is being flexible with the ebbs and flows of life. It’s when we understand that life isn't perfect (there will always be ups and downs) but you’re open to these imperfections — you let go of the small stuff, you create opportunities to learn when needed, and you become easy-mannered. Feeling content in your life will make it a good one. 

0. Anger 

Notice anger is not in The Elite Eight. By and large, there’s a debate in the psychology community on whether anger is a primary emotion or a secondary emotion. Most would say it’s a secondary emotion, meaning that another emotion in The Elite Eight is felt first (even if just for a moment) before anger takes over. The problem is that displaying anger in public is more socially acceptable and common than showing you’re ashamed or guilty. This reinforces anger. 

A Little Homework

My job is to help clients access their primary emotions by first learning how to define them. Once we understand these emotions and what they really mean, we can manage them more effectively. So in time, instead of resorting to anger as a default when upset, clients will be able to uncover the emotion that’s creating discontentment in their lives.

If you, reader, are looking to add more contentment to your life, examine these definitions, think back on your experiences when anger was your reaction, and see if you can uncover that primary emotion and why you felt it.  

About Dr. Doctolero

Dr. Clara Doctolero has worked professionally in the world of psychology since the late 1990s, and has been in private practice since 2014. This blog explores common threads and themes that she’s guided clients through during her years as a clinical psychologist. She hopes these ideas can help readers better understand themselves so they can lead more content lives.