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Primary and Secondary Emotions

Last week, I was reading a portion of Dr. Marsha Linehan’s book “Cognitive Behavior Treatment Of Borderline Personality Disorder” and stumbled upon a reference that I had never noticed before. It reads:

Emotional validation strategies contrast with approaches that focus on the overreactivity of emotions or the distorted basis of their generation. Thus, they are more like the approach of Greenberg and Safran (1987), who make a distinction between primary or “authentic” emotions and secondary of “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. These authors go on to suggest that “all primary affective emotions provides adaptive motivational information to the organism” (1987, p. 176). The important point here is the suggestion that dysfunctional and maladaptive responses to events are often connected or interwoven with “authentic” or valid responses to these events. Finding and amplifying these primary responses constitute the essence of emotional validation. The honesty of the therapist in applying these strategies cannot be overstressed. If emotional validation strategies are used as change strategies – that is, if lip service is given to validation in order to simply to calm the patient down for the “real work” – the therapist can expect the therapy to backfire. Such honesty, in turn, depends on the therapist’s belief that there is a substantial validity to be found, and that searching for it is therapeutically useful.

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Cognitive-Behavioral Treatment of Borderline Personality Disorder

This idea is an important one for loved ones of those with BPD because it touches on several points:

  • It acknowledges that emotional validation focuses on “normal” emotional reactions, not “the overreactivity of emotions or the distorted basis of their generation.” That is the way of emotional invalidation, i.e. “You’re overreacting to something trivial. Look at what really happened.” I see that expression from Non-BPs all the time.
  • It points out the differences between primary and secondary emotions. This distinction is extreme useful for Non-BPs. Why? Because most often the anger and rage are secondary emotions (not always) and that is typically what Nons focus on. If the emotional validation is used for secondary emotions, then I interpret this as not therapeutic, because you are “validating the invalid.”
  • Probing (gently and compassionately) for the primary emotions seems to be a more effective strategy and those are the emotions that can be validated effectively.
  • One has to approach emotional validation as a tool unto itself – without using it as a “change strategy.” That is, “it is ok to feel that, but you have to change the way you feel to be ‘normal’.” That is, bound to backfire.
  • If this distinction of primary and secondary emotions – the first being true and “authentic”, the second being dysfunctional and maladaptive – is applied to the concept of mentalization, then the idea within mentalization to use emotional validation to probe for further feelings begins to make more sense. One has to help the BP locate the primary emotion.
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When Hope is Not Enough
Get the Non-BPD book that is designed
for staying and working on the relationship

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