Emotions Wheel

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Emotions play an integral yet often overlooked role in our lives. Being able to identify, understand, and express our emotions in a healthy way leads to greater self-awareness and stronger relationships with others. This is where the emotions wheel can serve as a valuable tool.

What is the emotions wheel?

The emotions wheel was originally developed in the 1970s by psychologist Robert Plutchik. It consists of a color-coded circular diagram dividing emotions into eight primary categories including joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anger, and anticipation. Each of these core emotions has nuanced secondary emotions that flow from it. For example, trust branches into acceptance, admiration, and sentimentality.

Using the emotive vocabulary provided by the wheel, we can precisely name the wide spectrum of human emotions. This helps us move beyond just feeling “good” or “bad” and allows for greater specificity and understanding of our inner landscape. Instead of being overwhelmed by difficult emotions, we can use the wheel to drill down into their underlying components and express them in a more constructive way.

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3 things the emotions wheel teaches us

Emotions come and go

Emotions are dynamic and can be influenced by various factors, including our thoughts, experiences, and the environment. Recognizing the impermanence of emotions can be beneficial in navigating challenging moments. It highlights the idea that even intense feelings, whether positive or negative, will likely evolve and change over time.

This awareness can help individuals manage their emotional reactions more effectively. When facing difficult emotions, understanding that they are temporary can provide a sense of perspective, allowing for a more measured response. It also emphasizes the importance of not making impulsive decisions based solely on intense emotions in the moment. The intensity of emotions often tends to ebb and flow over time. What may have felt like an overwhelming 10 out of 10 anxiety yesterday morning might naturally subside to an 8 out of 10 or even lower today. This is the temporal nature of emotions.

Understanding this natural fluctuation in emotional intensity can be empowering. It encourages us to give ourselves the time and space needed to process emotions without necessarily reacting impulsively. It underscores the importance of patience and self-reflection in navigating the complex landscape of human emotions.

Cultivating emotional resilience involves acknowledging emotions without being overwhelmed by them and developing healthy coping mechanisms to navigate the ebb and flow of emotional experiences.

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Mixed emotions are common

A common misconception is that we only experience one emotion at a time. In reality, our inner emotional landscape is far more complex. Looking at the emotions wheel reveals two important truths about the multidimensionality of human feeling:

Firstly, we regularly experience blended emotions rather than pure singular states. The wheel’s segmentation of affects actually depicts their interconnectedness. Significant life events elicit particularly complex mixes, like feeling simultaneously happy and sad at graduations, weddings, or funerals. There is often excitement about the road ahead alongside grief for what is left behind.

Secondly, the emotions we identify can seem contradictory or oppositional. It’s not unusual to feel both anxious and excited about an upcoming trip or presentation. These seeming paradoxes simply reflect the multiple aspects at play in any situation. For example, starting a new job may produce nervousness around learning the ropes along with eagerness for fresh challenges and opportunities.

Far from being a flaw, the capacity to hold nuanced blends and contradictions of feeling reflects the incredible intricacy of human emotion. The emotions wheel validates that our experiences elicit complex psychological reactions. There are always emotional layers to unpack. By embracing the messiness and multidimensionality of our inner world, we move towards greater self-understanding and emotional intelligence.

Emotions, even the "negative" ones, are universal

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The emotions wheel depicts the full spectrum of human feeling, even those we might label as negative. This illustrates that no emotion exists in isolation. We all experience anger, fear, sadness – even jealousy and disgust have their place. Though culture and family may influence how emotions are expressed, the core feelings are universal.

Seeing the interconnection validates that all our emotions are sending us important messages about inner needs. Anger signals violated boundaries, fear – a need for safety, jealousy – a desire for security in relationships. Listening to their wisdom without judgment allows us to respond constructively. No feeling is inherently ugly if honored mindfully.

Through embracing the universality of emotion, we cultivate greater self-compassion and empathy for others. The wheel reminds us we all share this inner landscape. While the situations eliciting them may differ, in the end we want the same things – love, acceptance, fulfillment. Our feelings connect us in this common humanity.

6 Step to using the emotions wheel for introspection (with examples)

1. Identify Current Emotions

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Take a moment to reflect on your current emotional state. Use the emotions wheel to pinpoint specific emotions you are experiencing. This step helps you label and acknowledge your feelings.

Exploring the Inner Ring: Begin by glancing at the inner ring, where primary emotions like joy, anger, sadness, and fear reside. Identify the one that resonates most with your current state. Once you’ve identified a core emotion from the inner ring, take a moment to label it. Acknowledge its presence within you. This simple act of recognition lays the groundwork for a more in-depth understanding of your emotional landscape.

In instances where the core emotions in the inner ring don’t quite capture your feelings, shift your focus to the outer ring. Here, you’ll find a more detailed breakdown of emotions. Perhaps you’re not just feeling “joy,” but a specific shade like contentment or exhilaration. Use the outer ring to pinpoint the nuances that align more closely with your experience.

Starting with the Outer Ring: Starting with the outer ring can be particularly beneficial when your emotions feel intricate or layered. It allows for a more fine-tuned exploration, ensuring that your emotional vocabulary accurately reflects the subtleties of your inner world.

2. Explore Underlying Emotions

If you started with the inner ring, move to the outer ring. The outer ring breaks down broad emotions into more specific ones.

If you already identified some emotions, take a look at the other primary emotions and ask yourself if there is any part of you that also feels these other emotions. 

For example, if you were to break down anger into sub-emotions or related emotions that contribute to the overall feeling. You can look at other emotions like fear, sadness, or frustration and ask yourself the following:

  1. Fear: Are there underlying fears that are contributing to your anger? Fear of loss, rejection, or threat?
  2. Sadness: Is there a sense of loss, disappointment, or unmet expectations that accompany your anger?
  3. Frustration: Are there obstacles, challenges, or unmet needs that contribute to your frustration?

3. Examine Physical Sensations

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Our emotions resonate deeply within us, not just in our minds, but also in our bodies. Examining physical sensations when using the emotion wheel adds another layer to emotional understanding.

Emotions manifest not just mentally but physically within the body. When you identify an emotion using the wheel, also take time to notice any related physical sensations. Does anger tighten your stomach or make your face feel hot? Does sadness seem to dwell in your chest or throat? Mindfully observing the physical expression gives tangible evidence that emotions permeate our entire being.

Learning to interpret these signals helps us become attuned to under-the-surface emotional stirrings before they erupt, like noticing tension building in the forehead before anger overflows. The emotions wheel maps feeling states mentally while your body maps them physically.

Used in tandem, these tools illuminate a more holistic awareness of your inner emotional landscape. Noticing where and how emotions register physically grounds them and makes them easier to process constructively. Our bodies and minds combine to reveal integral connections between sensation and feeling.

4. Understand Cognitive Aspects of Each Feeling

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Reflect on the thoughts and cognitions associated with each emotion. What thoughts or beliefs are present when you feel each emotion? Approach this exploration with curiosity and self-compassion. There are no right or wrong answers, and the goal is to gain a better understanding of your inner world.

Here are some examples: 

Anger:

  • What do I think the other person is trying to do?
  • What am I afraid will happen if I don’t express my anger?
  • What am I hoping to achieve by getting angry?
  • Is there a more constructive way to communicate my needs?

Sadness:

  • What am I losing or missing out on?
  • What does this sadness tell me about my values and priorities?
  • Is there anything I can do to change the situation or find some silver lining?
  • Can I offer myself some compassion and self-care right now?

Fear:

  • What is the worst thing that could happen?
  • How likely is it that this worst-case scenario will actually happen?
  • What resources do I have to cope with this situation?
  • Can I take any steps to reduce my sense of fear or uncertainty?

Joy:

  • What is making me feel this way?
  • What can I do to savor this feeling and create more experiences like it?
  • How can I share this joy with others?
  • What does this happy feeling tell me about what matters most to me?

Frustration:

  • What obstacles are blocking my progress?
  • What am I lacking in terms of skills or resources?
  • What alternative approaches can I try to overcome this challenge?
  • Can I accept that some things are beyond my control and focus on what I can influence?

5. Reflect on past experiences to add depth to your understanding

Direct your attention to each emotion and reflect on any past experiences or memories associated with them. Consider instances in your life where you’ve felt a similar or related emotion.

For example, when you feel an emotion like anger, explore your memories associated with that feeling. When did you last feel similar anger? What was the context?

Seeing parallels between past and present can reveal important triggers and patterns. For example, anger tied to childhood experiences of feeling unheard may be resurfacing in new situations. Consider exploring memories attached to the component emotions too. Does the sadness you feel within your anger connect to grief over past losses or disappointments?

Unpacking Connections: Once you identify potential triggers, delve deeper. How do these past experiences influence your present response? Do they amplify the intensity of the sub-emotion? Do they color your interpretation of the current situation? Understanding the connection can help you manage the present more effectively.

Acknowledge that past experiences can hold emotional weight. Be kind to yourself as you explore these connections. It’s about gaining understanding and learning from the past.

6. Use the emotions wheel to get in touch with your needs

Once you’ve identified your feelings and the nuances of each feeling, you can begin connecting your feelings to your needs. 

Start by asking the “Why?” behind your emotions. Don’t just stop at the name of the emotion. Explore the reason behind it. For example, are you feeling angry because you feel unheard, disrespected, or unfairly treated? Are you feeling sad because you feel lonely, unsupported, or lacking connection?

Emotions often serve as signals, indicating areas where our needs may not be adequately addressed. Every emotion stems from an underlying need. For example, anger might point to a need for respect, fairness, or autonomy. Sadness might indicate a need for connection, support, or love.

Get specific about your needs: Don’t just say “I need love.” Delve deeper. Do you need physical affection, words of affirmation, or quality time? Do you need emotional support, a listening ear, or someone to validate your feelings?

Use the clarity gained from the emotions wheel to articulate your needs. Whether it’s a need for connection, validation, security, or personal space, expressing your needs becomes more precise when grounded in an understanding of your emotions.

Based on your identified needs, plan actionable steps to address them. Whether it involves setting boundaries, seeking support, or engaging in self-care, having a clear understanding of your needs empowers you to take intentional and meaningful actions.

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Here are some examples:

Situation: You feel frustrated after working hard on a project, but your colleague takes credit for it.

Emotions: Frustration, resentment, lack of recognition

Needs: Appreciation, fair treatment, acknowledgment of your contribution

Action: Instead of bottling up your frustration, you could have a conversation with your colleague, saying something like: “I felt frustrated when you took credit for the project. I put a lot of work into it, and I would appreciate it if you could acknowledge my contribution.”

 

Situation: You feel anxious before a big presentation.

Emotions: Anxiety, nervousness, self-doubt

Needs: Feeling prepared, confident, supported

Action: You could address your anxiety by practicing your presentation beforehand, doing some relaxation techniques, or asking a trusted friend for encouragement.

 

Situation: You feel sad after a fight with your partner.

Emotions: Sadness, hurt, loneliness

Needs: Connection, understanding, love

Action: You could initiate a conversation with your partner about your feelings, saying something like: “I feel sad after our argument. I need to feel loved and understood by you.”

 

Situation: You feel angry after someone criticizes you unfairly.

Emotions: Anger, hurt, feeling disrespected

Needs: Respect, fair treatment, understanding

Action: You could calmly express your disapproval of the criticism, saying something like: “I don’t appreciate being criticized like that. I would like to be treated with respect.”

By practicing translating your emotions into needs, you can develop healthier communication skills and build stronger relationships with yourself and others.

When to use the emotions wheel

Routine use to develop emotional intelligence

Consistent practice contributes to the development of emotional intelligence by honing your ability to identify and articulate various feelings. Make checking in with the wheel part of your daily or weekly routine. 

This builds the emotional awareness “muscle memory”. Over time, you’ll become fluent in your feeling states. Regular tracking also helps you notice patterns and progress, and subtle shifts in your emotional state can become apparent. This prevents emotions from building up into crises and gives a broad baseline understanding of your emotional landscape.

Use in moments of heightened emotions

In heated emotional moments, use the wheel to identify and articulate what you’re feeling. When emotions are intense, naming the emotion can help them feel less intense By using the wheel in intense moments, you can avoid impulsive reactions and make decisions based on a clearer understanding of your feelings.

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Using the emotions wheel to connect with others

Expressing Your Own Emotions:

Finding the Words: Sometimes, naming our emotions accurately can be a struggle. The wheel provides a structured vocabulary, allowing you to pinpoint the exact shades of your feelings – from simmering frustration to joyful elation. This precise language lays the foundation for clear and authentic communication.

Beyond “Fine”: Ditching the generic “fine” and using the wheel’s terminology opens doors to deeper exploration. Sharing that you’re feeling “nervous anticipation” about a presentation gives your listener more context than simply saying “anxious.” This specificity invites further conversation and understanding.

Owning Your Feelings: By pinpointing your emotions on the wheel, you take ownership of them. Phrases like “I’m feeling a bit disappointed” or “I’m experiencing a mix of excitement and apprehension” assert your emotional experience without blaming or attacking others.

Understanding Others’ Emotions:

Decoding the Message: Just as the wheel helps you express yourself, it can also help you decipher the unspoken language of others. Listen to their words, observe their body language, and see if you can map their expressions onto the wheel. Is their voice laced with fear? Are their eyes sparkling with joy?

Empathy in Action: Recognizing the emotions underlying their words allows you to respond with genuine empathy. Instead of dismissing someone’s frustration as anger, you can say, “I understand why you’re feeling frustrated; that situation sounds unfair.” This validates their experience and fosters deeper connection.

Active Listening: When you use the wheel as a listening tool, you become more engaged and present in the conversation. You ask clarifying questions, offer thoughtful responses, and create a safe space for open and honest communication.

Using the emotions wheel to navigate conflicts

Calming Conflict: Strong emotions can quickly derail constructive dialogue. Identifying and acknowledging the core emotions driving the conflict (anger, sadness, fear) on the wheel can help de-escalate the situation. Taking a pause and naming your feelings before responding prevents impulsive reactions and allows for calmer discourse.

Finding Common Ground: The wheel isn’t just about individual emotions; it also reveals connections. Look for overlapping emotions on the wheel, even if they are expressed differently. Recognizing shared sadness or underlying fear can be a starting point for finding common ground and moving towards resolution.

Focus on Needs, not Blame: By understanding the emotions beneath the surface, you can shift the focus from blaming each other to understanding underlying needs. For example, recognizing insecurity driving someone’s anger can open the door to addressing that insecurity and building trust.

The emotions wheel as a parenting tool

As a parent, the emotions wheel can be invaluable for fostering emotional intelligence in children. Have a copy readily accessible when your child is experiencing big feelings. Gently ask them to point to the picture that matches how they feel inside. Provide vocabulary to help label their affective state. “It seems like you might be feeling disappointed and a little sad right now. Does that sound right?” This validates their internal experience and builds emotional awareness. With time, they will be able to articulate feelings like “anger” and “remorse” instead of simply saying they feel “bad.” Your willingness to explore the nuances of emotion creates safety and connection.

When your child demonstrates intense emotions, avoid immediately reacting. First, use the wheel to tune into what they might be feeling beneath the surface. Anger often masks hurt or fear. If you can empathize with the underlying emotion, you can address the true need. Say, “I know you feel really upset right now. I think this change makes you feel scared. Let’s talk about it.” This models emotional intelligence and prevents you from responding harshly to surface-level behaviors. Meet your child where they are at on the wheel. With time, they will learn to skillfully navigate their own emotions, guided by your modeling.

Different variations of the emotions wheel

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Priscilla is a therapist, psychoanalyst, and the practice owner of Imagine Emotional Wellness, a culturally responsive online therapy practice in New York, New Jersey, and Washington DC. 

Prioritize your mental health and self-care from the comfort of your home.

Schedule a phone consult here. We’ll chat about any questions you might have, and it’ll be an opportunity for us to learn more about you and what you’re going through.

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