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How to use the emotion wheel to get to know yourself

April 20, 2022 - 17 min read

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How does an emotion wheel work?

Benefits of the emotion wheel

How to put the emotion wheel into practice

Feelings are complicated. As we learned from the classic treatise on psychology, Inside Out, it is possible to feel two things at once. But it’s also possible to not understand how we’re feeling or what to do about it.

That makes sense — after all, human beings can experience over 34,000 different emotions. That’s a lot to keep track of, and it’s certainly a lot to feel. More conservative estimates identify 27 distinct emotional states — but even that is a lot to sift through. Even the most dedicated journaler would have trouble sorting that out.

To understand what’s happening beneath the surface, psychologist Robert Plutchik, Ph.D., simplified the range of human feeling into the emotion wheel. It depicts 8 core emotions that are at the heart of our experiences, reactions, and sensations.

You can use this wheel as a starting point to dissect why you feel the way you feel, what your feelings are trying to tell you, and what to do about it.

How does an emotion wheel work?

wheel-of-emotions-positive-psychology

(Image source)

Emotion wheels are usually shaped like colorful flowers. In the center are our basic emotions: sadness, disgust, anger, anticipation, joy, fear, surprise, and trust. Radiating toward the outer edges are less intense variants of these core emotions. For example, when you feel irritation, it’s a milder form of anger.

Here’s a detailed look at primary and secondary emotions:

Sadness: includes grief, pensiveness, regret, hurt, rejection, melancholy, discouragement, and depressed

Disgust: includes hatred, disinterest, disapproval, revulsion, dismissiveness, repulsion, and critical

Anger: includes rage, irritation, frustration, insulted, bitterness, mocked, violated, jealous, offended, and provoked

Anticipation: includes interest, vigilance, excitement, awareness, impatience, expectant, harried, and cautious

Joy: includes happiness, ecstasy, elation, pleasure, triumph, satisfaction, contentment, pride, and serenity

Fear: includes terror, caution, apprehension, concern, worry, anxiety, stressed, and nervous

Surprise: includes amazement, distraction, wonder, awe, amusement, shock, speechlessness, and disbelief

Trust: includes safety, vulnerability, hopeful, positive, secure, supported, comfortable, and relaxed

In everyday interactions, we naturally make use of these distinctions to pinpoint our feelings.

Have you ever had a conversation with someone that sounded like this:

Person: “You must be really sad that it didn’t turn out the way you wanted.”

You: “No — I’m not really sad, just disappointed.”

In some ways, what you’re expressing here is the nuance of the emotion wheel. You are saying that your emotion isn’t intense enough to be sadness (a core/primary emotion). Instead, you’re on the outer edges of the core feeling, or maybe feeling a blend of one or more emotions.

Opposite emotions

If you look at the above images, you’ll see that each of the core emotions is directly across from its polar opposite.

The core emotions pair up in the following ways:

  • joy and sadness/ecstasy and grief
  • trust and disgust/admiration and loathing
  • anger and terror/rage and fear
  • anticipation and surprise/vigilance and amazement 

Seeing these opposites represented visually can also help us understand our feelings and reactions to others better. The opposite emotions don't tend to cancel each other out so much as intensify the feeling or the interaction.

For instance, if you are experiencing a core emotion like grief and encounter someone in the midst of ecstasy, it can deepen your feeling of grief and be disorienting. When you deeply admire someone and encounter a person who loathes everything you admire, you might react strongly, defensively. In either case, you push away from the other. In emotions, opposites don't seem to attract.

 

Some versions of the emotion wheel show our feelings in much more detail. For example, this version of the emotion wheel shows only six core emotions — only negative ones — but far more secondary emotions. You might notice that “small” appears as a subset of both shame and sadness.

Emotion-Wheel-human-systems

(Image source)

Feeling wheel versus emotion wheel

While many researchers and therapists have adapted the wheel for their own uses, the original version of the feeling wheel (with its six core feelings) was created by Dr. Gloria Willcox in 1982.

According to many sources, Plutchik’s wheel of emotions was first proposed in 1980. The two models are similar, with the main difference being the number of core emotions in the center. Strictly speaking, Willcox’s model is the feeling wheel and Plutchik’s model is the emotion wheel.

Benefits of the emotion wheel

When used as a way to check in with yourself, emotion wheels are useful tools for building self-awareness. There are two main ways that this develops emotional literacy.

The first is that it makes it easier to understand and express how you’re feeling. There are times when our emotions are fairly straightforward. For example, we might feel gratitude when someone does something nice for us.

In those cases, a feelings wheel may be of limited use. You probably already know what the emotion is reflecting and how it impacts your behavior.

Human emotions, however, aren’t just that mysterious force that makes us cry at car commercials. They — like most things that we experience — have been refined through evolution as a survival mechanism. According to Plutchik, when we experience a feeling it’s because a particular stimulus has triggered the urge to engage in specific behaviors.

We’re familiar with this idea. Think about the fight-or-flight response. Originally meant to protect us from predators, we could think of it as part of an emotion-driven chain reaction. We become aware of a threat, we feel fear or anger, and as a result we decide to attack or run away.

This is the second primary benefit of the emotion wheel — the understanding of emotion as a way of triggering survival-oriented behavior. When we think of emotions as an uncontrollable nuisance, we can’t do much about them.

But when we understand what they’re trying to say, we can address the real need under the surface.

emotion-wheel-person-looking-at-phone-shocked

How to put the emotion wheel into practice

To understand how feelings work, it’s helpful to understand the theory of constructed emotion.

Outlined by best-selling psychology professor and neuroscientist Dr. Lisa Feldman Barrett in the book How Emotions Are Made, the theory of constructed emotions explains that our feelings aren’t just “reactions.” Instead, they are the ways that our brains make sense of the information around us and our physical sensations. 

In some ways, her work runs counter to Plutchik’s theory. But they both agree that our emotions — and the way we interpret them, have a lot to teach us.

When our brain sees something we need to respond to, we have a physical response. Many of us think of those physical responses as the emotions themselves. However, they are the brain sending the impulse for the likely action that follows.

For example, when we feel stressed, our heartbeat quickens. The context and our prior experience will influence whether we interpret the sensation as fear, anger, or attraction.

Using a tool like the emotion wheel can help you get more granular in your understanding of how you feel. That puts you in the position to respond, not react.

Plutchik referred to these as behavioral adaptations. Here’s his model of how the eight basic emotions correspond to adaptive behaviors:

Prototype Adaptation

Hypothesized Emotion

Protection:

Withdrawal, retreat, contraction

Fear, terror

Destruction:

Elimination of barriers to the satisfaction

of needs

Anger, rage

Incorporation:

Ingesting nourishment

Acceptance

Rejection:

Riddance response to harmful material

Disgust

Reproduction:

Approach, contact, genetic exchanges

Joy, pleasure

Reintegration:

Reaction to loss of a nutrient object

Sadness, grief

Exploration:

Investigation of one’s environment

Curiosity, play

Orientation:

Reaction to contact with a strange object

Surprise

(Table source)


emotion-wheel-person-disgusted-by-rotting-fruit

Here are 6 ways you can use the emotion wheel to develop your relationship with yourself and those around you:

Relationship with self

1. As a tool for labeling

Labeling is a powerful tool for stopping emotional spirals in their tracks. But instead of pushing the feeling away, it can help you make sense of it.

Emotions and logical thought occur in two different parts of the brain. Labeling pulls you out of the emotion circuit and into the prefrontal cortex. This part of the brain helps you reason and problem-solve.

Try using the emotion wheel when you notice that you’re feeling something — positive or negative. The more you practice labeling your feelings, the more you’ll be able to choose how to respond to them. 

2. As a tool for self-awareness

When we begin paying attention to our feelings, whether through journaling, coaching, or other types of Inner Work®, we develop self-awareness. The feeling wheel can help us with developing a broader emotional vocabulary.

For example, you’re feeling burned out, and it’s making it difficult to stay interested and engaged at work. You could look up “interest” on the emotion wheel — which is a mix of joy and anticipation. 

Or you could look at the feelings wheel. The feeling of “helplessness” is a type of fear, while the feeling of “discouragement” falls under sadness.

Knowing the primary emotion under your surface feelings can help you understand what’s triggering your emotional response.  

3. As a tool for emotional regulation

Emotional regulation is the ability to stay calm, collected, and centered through stress. When people have strong emotional regulation skills, they are more resilient, have better team performance, are more agile, and score higher on other markers associated with peak performance.

Unfortunately, most of us feel the first stirrings of discomfort, and we shut down. Instead of responding to stress by trying to minimize it, we can use the emotion wheel to look for the emotional need.

emotion-wheel-people-hugging-feeling-emotional

Relationships with others

4. As a communication tool

If you have trouble explaining how you feel to others, an emotion wheel can help open up conversations. I think understanding how secondary feelings are a blend of two primary emotions is a good way to start. 

For example, if you’re feeling remorse, Plutchik’s wheel categorizes that as disgust plus sadness. From there, you can begin to talk about what’s causing each emotion.

5. As a tool to understand others

Not everyone has an easy time, or feels safe, expressing their emotions. Sometimes, when someone says something, we can tell that there's more going on beneath the surface. However, you may not know exactly what it is.

What might come across loud and clear is the primary emotion — like a top note. This often happens with anger and sadness.

When you understand that the nuance of secondary emotions can be overpowered by primary emotions, it's easier to understand people’s behavior. For example, if you have a co-worker who always seems irritated, you may find that her hostility is masking feelings of being left out or overwhelmed.

We don't recommend psychoanalyzing all of your coworkers. But understanding how emotions provide insight into people's behavior can help develop emotional intelligence on your team.

6. As a learning tool with children

Kids tend to be emotionally aware. But although they're in tune with how they're feeling, they often don't have the emotional vocabulary to express it. If you practice mindful parenting techniques or just want a tool to understand your children better, an emotion wheel can be helpful.

Kids will enjoy the range of feelings they have to pick from, instead of feeling limited to just a few main ones.

Final thoughts

When we stop and listen to our feelings, we develop the emotional awareness to understand what they're telling us. Feelings and emotions aren't something to suppress. Part of emotional well-being is using our feelings to identify where we are out of alignment with our needs and values. 

When we develop the ability to understand and express our emotions, we benefit in many ways. We can manage our stress better, communicate with others, and develop self-compassion. 

If you’re stuck on how to use the emotion wheel, try sharing it with your therapist or BetterUp coach. They can ask you the right questions to find out what your feelings are really trying to say.

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Published April 20, 2022

Allaya Cooks-Campbell

BetterUp Staff Writer

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