Core Emotions Primer

While not strictly a part of DBT skills training, I have found that introducing the concept of Core (or Primary) Emotions helps people recognize and communicate about their emotions more effectively. When we are faced with stressful situations that trigger strong emotions, it can be difficult to identify our emotional state and even more difficult to respond effectively. Thinking of emotions in terms of categories and ranges of intensity can help.

Nearly every emotion can be placed in one of four categories:

Each category can range in intensity from mild to excruciating. Imagine a category on a number scale from 0 to 10. Zero equals very mild and ten equals the most intense you’ve ever experienced. For those of you who experience chronic pain, this scale will be very familiar. What doctors ask you to determine with regard to physical pain, I will now ask you to do with emotional pain.


Take a look at the chart below. These are just some examples of the range of intensity for each of the core emotions. Actually, there is an infinite range for each category. There are not enough words in any language to express the range of emotions we can experience. That’s why we sometimes struggle to identify our emotions. Using categories makes it easier to communicate our feelings.


At this point, someone will realize that a few things are missing and start asking questions.

What about love?

ID-10057687Love is not actually an emotion. When most people say “I’m in love” what they are actually experiencing is a type of joy known as euphoria. True love is a choice, a commitment, not a feeling. True love lasts when the feelings fade.

Where does anger fit in?

ID-10057689Anger is not a Core Emotion, however it certainly is a real emotion. Anger is not a Core Emotion because it is so often a smokescreen for another Core Emotion. The next time you are angry, ask yourself what other emotion is present.

That brings me to my next point.

Everyone of us have unwanted emotional responses. Attempting to disguise theses emotions is human nature. The expressions of this attempt result in Secondary Emotions. Secondary emotions are the manifestation of how we feel about our experience of the Core Emotion.

For example, I may be afraid to ride a roller coaster and also embarrassed that I am so afraid. So my outward response is avoidance. I change the subject or make excuses to conceal my true feeling of fear. If pressured to ride the roller coaster, I might become angry or verbally attack the person trying to convince me.

To be truly healthy, we must learn how to identify, experience, and express our Core Emotions.  In doing so, we share our authentic self with others.   Here is an illustration that might help explain how this is done.

Core Emotions sm

Feel free to download a PDF copy of the accompanying
PowerPoint presentation to share with family and friends. 
Click here to download Core Emotions

One thought on “Core Emotions Primer

  1. I am a client of mental health. I struggle daily with not being able to stay in my core emotions. I’m all over the place emotionally and I was at my wits end and ready to lay down and die but then I decided to look online one more time for some self help, as I haven’t had good experiences with therapy. Then I found your information here and brend to study this. I refuse to give up yet. Thank you for publishing this online for idiots like me who can’t control my emotions.
    Thank you,

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