Vulnerable Emotions: The Key to Compassionate Disagreement

Whenever one of my clients tells me they feel angry—or, more commonly, acts out anger by raising their voice, using a harsh tone, speaking fast, talking over their partner, rolling their eyes, criticizing, accusing, name-calling—I always ask the same question: “What emotion is underneath the anger?”

I am usually met with either confusion or resistance, at least at first. Same goes for any other version of anger: irritation, annoyance, frustration, blame, resentment, fury, etc. This type of emotions, which are known as secondary emotions, tend to be very apparent to ourselves and others; we know what they look like and what they feel like, and for many of us, we feel them and see them a lot.

However, as the name implies, secondary emotions are not the full story. They are, instead, our psyches way of either manifesting—or protecting us from having to manifest—primary emotions. Primary emotions, or vulnerable emotions, as I like to call them, are just that: vulnerable, raw, and often more subtle than secondary emotions in how they present if they present at all. Vulnerable emotions are painful where secondary emotions are aggressive. They are often not very obvious to others, nor even wholly apparent to the person experiencing them.

But identifying and constructively expressing vulnerable emotions can open new doors in both individual and relational therapy by increasing self-awareness, cultivating curiosity and compassion, and diminishing hostility. A conversation that begins with a statement of vulnerable emotion, e.g. “I am feeling scared,” will likely progress very differently than a conversation that begins with a statement made in anger, e.g. “you messed [blank] up” or “I cannot stand the way you do [blank].”

There is a vast spectrum of vulnerable emotions, and luckily English has many helpful words to denote their variety and nuance. However, to help with the initial confusion or resistance, I like to offer everyone a short list of the most common vulnerable emotions (along with a few applicable synonyms) as a starting point:

FEAR

SHAME [or INADEQUACY]

SADNESS

GRIEF [or DISAPPOINTMENT]

GUILT

NEGLECT [or UNWORTHINESS]

ABANDONMENT [or LONELINESS]

For many of us, admitting we have these emotions at all can be a challenge: they are often associated with weakness or immaturity. Feeling judged for sharing vulnerability is unfortunately an experience many of us have, and it is a valid concern; however, ignoring or repressing these emotions is no solution, either.

Emotions—both secondary and primary—are mostly involuntary physiological phenomena: they are physically felt, and they will find a way to be expressed whether we want them there or not. For many people, particularly couples who struggle with conflict or individuals who struggle with anger management, vulnerable emotions manifest as aggressive/defensive words and behavior—or occasionally indifference and withdrawal. Rather than remaining in these dissatisfying patterns, I propose we take a different tack: reclaim some agency—and ultimately find some relief—by owning our vulnerable emotions and expressing them in a way that helps us feel heard.

Any time anger or other secondary emotions are present, a vulnerable emotion is present as well. Far from useless or destructive, anger and other secondary emotions can act as an essential alarm system, alerting us to the fact that we are experiencing a painful, vulnerable emotion; once we are aware of both the anger and the vulnerable emotions underneath it, we can make thoughtful, adaptive decisions about how to regulate and express them.

To constructively express vulnerable emotions, one must begin by identifying the emotion. Having the above list handy can be a massive benefit in this process. I often recommend clients not only to write down this list, but to give it a place of honor and visibility: make it their cellphone background, put it on a post-it note on their fridge or bathroom mirror, frame it and hang it above the mantle—anywhere they will see it often and can easily reference it.

Constructive expression also requires careful attention to pace, tone, and volume of speech. Vulnerable emotions are best verbalized using a calm, patient, or gentle tone, intentionally low volume, and slow pace of speech. Ideally, choose a time to verbalize vulnerable emotions in a calm moment when both you and the audience—partner, family member, etc.—are fed, rested, sober, and generally free from immediate stressors.

Lastly, I recommend anyone expressing a vulnerable emotion to separate the emotion from whatever practical problem or circumstance triggered it. Certainly, practical problems need to be addressed, negotiated, compromised about, etc. However, the emotional pain needs to be dealt with first. The majority of conflicts I witness between couples happen because partners are trying to solve emotional pain by discussing their practical disagreement. But emotional pain and practical disagreement are different problems that require different solutions.

Therefore, rather than beginning conversations something like “I feel lonely because you didn’t pick up the laundry like you said you would,” try instead simply “I feel lonely.” This will increase the likelihood that your feelings are met with compassionate acknowledgement, and decrease the likelihood that they are ignored or met with defensiveness about the laundry. In my next installment, I will explain more a) how to respond to statements of vulnerable emotions in other, and b) how to transition a conversation from dealing with emotional pain to dealing with practical problems.

Janine Joly-DeMars, MS, LCMFT provides couple, family, and individual therapy in our downtown Bethesda, MD office and virtually to clients located in the State of Maryland. Call or email today to set up your first appointment or a complimentary consultation with Janine.