Emotion Response Types

This blog is related to the previous blog: “Why is emotion important and what is Emotion Focused Therapy?”.

In therapy it can be helpful to reflect deeper upon what emotions we are experiencing in response to a certain situation.

Emotion responses can be categorized into four broad types:

•  Primary adaptive emotion responses
This is an unlearned, spontaneous and direct emotional response that is beneficial/adaptive and fits/matches the current situation. For example:
When there is a violation or an attack on ourselves or loved ones (situation), we will feel anger (emotion), and we will want to protect/assert/defend (adaptive action).

• Maladaptive emotion responses
This is a learned, direct emotional response that fits your deeper emotional experience but that is not beneficial and got triggered by a past experience and does not match the current situation. For example:
Someone in your environment offers genuine caring or concern (situation), my perception of caring or concern = potential threat because this is what used to happen in the past (activation patterns due to past experiences), we will feel anger (emotion), and respond on that – for example we might break contact with that person (even though there is no violation or threat in this current situation) (maladaptive action). So the emotional response anger is understandable if we look at the past experience, even though it is not helpful for this person in this current situation.

• Secondary reactive emotion responses
This is an emotion about another emotion which is not beneficial and does not match the current situation and your actual deeper emotional experience. For example: When someone experiences a loss (situation), that person can feel sad (primary emotion), which can be followed by anger that we feel sadness (secondary reactive emotion), and we will react with attack or punishment to ourselves or others (maladaptive action).

• Instrumental emotion responses
This is a strategic emotional response to get what you want, but doesn’t fit your true deeper emotional experience. This can be consciously intended but can also be unconsciously learned. For example:
When you are not getting what you want (situation), but you want attention or your way (intention), you show sadness “crocodile tears” to get what you want (instrumental emotion display).

Written by:
Flo Westendorp, Registered Clinical Psychologist
Extended Health Care Psychologist Certificate, MSc & BSc (Clinical Health Care Psychology)