Last weekend my boyfriend and I decided to go on a casual hike in the Gorge. I have never been an outdoorsy type of person, but since starting a new job a month ago I’ve been cooped up more than I’m used to and I’ve noticed some changes in my mood. I’ve found that getting outdoors helps me to stay centered by connecting with nature, while also allowing me to take some time away from everyday obligations. We started our hike around 2:00 pm with not much food except some celery, carrots and water. We figured we would be hiking for only a couple hours and a few miles at most, so we didn’t think we’d need to bring extra supplies. Or so we thought…
The hike started out beautiful, even magical. We were exploring various waterfalls in the Gorge, and I was so enthralled with being outside in such beautiful surroundings, away from my everyday routine, that I wanted to keep going and going. About 3 hours in, my boyfriend suggested we turn back, because we’d originally planned to take a looping route, and it didn’t seem like the trail was looping back around. Being very stubborn, as per usual, I insisted that the trail would loop around eventually and we just had to wait for it. When it became clear to us that there would be no loop back, we decided it was time to turn around. At that point it was a little past 4:00 pm and we estimated we had about an hour of daylight left at most—and at least 3.5 miles to walk back.
Sure enough, by the time we were within a mile of the trailhead, we were walking in complete darkness and heavy rain. At this point we both started to panic a little; we hadn’t eaten much, we were tired, and feeling a little frightened. Although neither of us voiced this directly at the time, it was apparent that our anxiety was turning into tension and anger at the other.
In psychological terms, this was a case of a primary emotion generating a secondary emotion. A secondary emotion, put simply, is just a reaction or response to the initial, primary emotion. In other words, it’s an emotion about an emotion. When we realized we were hiking in the dark, unsure of how much further we had to go or how much longer we’d be stuck out there, the primary emotion was fear (and/or anxiety), Obviously, fear was justified in this instance. We were in a potentially dangerous situation, so fear fit the facts pretty accurately. The emotion that actually manifested, however, wasn’t necessarily fear; rather, it was the secondary emotion to our fear—anger at the other person.
As often happens in these kinds of situations, fear ends up being expressed as if it were something else. When adults find themselves afraid, the secondary emotion they experience is most commonly anger. As counterintuitive as it may sound, it’s often easier and more comfortable for adults to feel anger than it is to feel genuine fear and real vulnerability. For us fear is so uncomfortable—so scary—that we unconsciously try to subvert it by coming up with explanations, i.e. by finding someone to blame for the situation so we can feel something other than fear. In our case this was all too true: My boyfriend later confided in me that he found himself thinking that had I not been so adamant about going further—had I heeded his suggestion to turn around sooner—we wouldn’t have gotten stuck in the dark and rain in the first place.
While being angry might help us feel less afraid in the moment, and placing blame on someone might seem to provide a rational explanation for the problem, it’s really not much of a rational process at all. In fact, it’s completely irrational, not to mention downright ineffective, because it doesn’t really bring you any closer to a solution. (An effective reaction would, of course, help you solve your problem or at least ensure your safety.) Trying to place blame for the situation we were in wasn’t going to get us to the car any faster, make the rain stop, or bring the sun back up. If anything it was just distracting us from being mindful and focusing on the issue at hand––getting to the car safely.
Thankfully, we eventually made it back to the car; but it got me thinking: How often are we preoccupied with a secondary emotion without even realizing it? I recognized that our situation in the woods made this more obvious. Getting out in nature isn’t just a nice break from city life, and a welcome change in our external environment; it’s also incredibly valuable because it tells us a lot about our internal environment. Nature made our situation very cut and dry; what was and wasn’t in our control was very clear: No explanation for it was going to change the fact that the sun went down, or how hard it was raining. Nature really doesn’t care about the explanations you come up with, no matter how good or well-articulated they are. It also showed us in no uncertain terms how unproductive our secondary anger was.
In most everyday situations, however, this distinction isn’t always so clear, and you can easily find yourself confusing explanations with solutions––and confusing primary and secondary emotions. There are many typical situations in which your emotional discomfort might actually be fear-based, even when it doesn’t seem that way. When you’re stuck in heavy traffic, are you actually angry at all the other drivers on the road or are you afraid of being late for work or an important appointment? When you’re running out of money before your next paycheck, are you really upset with a friend or family member you recently loaned some money to? Or are you afraid about having to pinch pennies and cut corners to make your bills that month, or that you won’t be able to make ends meet?
What I learned on that hike was not only the importance of being prepared for the unexpected, but also that secondary emotions are usually a distraction from the situation at hand. More often than not, there’s a primary emotion hiding under the emotion we actually believe we’re feeling, and identifying and resolving that primary emotion may be far more effective, productive, relieving, and ultimately healthier.