Is it always easy to go and stay in a centered, compassionate mode?

No, it surely isn’t.

In this blog post I will address another reason why we don’t go into compassion mode. Actually, why we don’t choose ANY of the three approaches (sympathy, empathy, compassion).

That reason is: the difference between primary and secondary emotions.

Primary Emotions

Primary emotions are a direct reaction to an event from the outside. A characteristic of these real, direct emotions is that outsiders who are confronted with it, are touched. Intense human grief may touch your heart and invokes compassion. When someone is overwhelmed by anger, you are affected by it. And if someone feels pure joy, that is contagious, even if you are not directly involved.

Primary emotions are short in duration. They are short and intense. You can’t prolong them or cherish them.

Secondary Emotions

Secondary emotions are supplementary emotions that camouflage the real feeling because one feels that that’s not acceptable. Instead of following the direct, primary impulse and for example react angrily at a rude comment, one retreats insulted.

Contrary to primary emotions, secondary emotions evoke very different reactions. They annoy, bore and unnerve people because they feel that are not seeing what is really going on. They feel abused. Contrary to primary emotions, secondary emotions have the tendency to last for a long time.

Also, when practical solutions are put in place in order to accommodate the one with the secondary emotions, most of the time that doesn’t help. For example, when someone shows angry behavior because he has to put the garbage out, doing it yourself won’t help much. Another topic will come up where he will attach his anger to.

In other words, one of the reasons people don’t show compassion – and also not sympathy or empathy – is that they unconsciously feel that it is about secondary emotions. Most of the times secondary emotions and victimhood are interconnected.

What to do?

My invitation: the next time you feel like you don’t want to be compassionate when someone is (talking about their) suffering or the tensions they perceive, ask yourself: am I picking up primary or secondary emotions?

If you are picking up secondary emotions, I invite you not to turn your back to the other person, but ask from a compassionate state what they really are suffering from.

In other words: consider the secondary emotions pointers to the root or cause of the suffering or tension. See them as helpful instead of being turned off by them. Switch your perspective.

From my own experience I can testify that this can solve tensions that were below the surface for ages and dramatically improve relationships in a very short period of time.

What are your experiences regarding primary and secondary emotions? Feel free to share them below.

If you are interested in Compassionate Leadership, then download the free New Guide for Business Owners & Managers to Increase Ownership without Worrying about Results, the free e-book “5 Most Overlooked Dynamics that Impact Agile, Self-Organizing and Traditional Teams” or join the free Compassionate Leader Community.