Complicated and overwhelming feelings can come into play when you are going through something new or tough in life. If there's a lot going on internally, it can be hard to figure out exactly what you're feeling and even harder to know the appropriate reaction to have. If you're someone looking to develop emotional literacy and better navigate difficult emotions, look no further than the emotion wheel.
What is the emotion wheel?
"The emotion wheel is a psychological tool that helps individuals identify and verbalize their complex emotions," therapist Genesis Espinoza, LMFT, explains. The wheel identifies eight primary human emotions and tiers of related, more nuanced versions of those primary emotions.
"Primary emotions are basic emotions that humans are born with that have been wired into our brains," Espinoza says. "Along the outer edges of the emotion wheel, you'll find low-intensity emotions such as acceptance, distraction, boredom, and so on. As you move toward the center, the color on the emotion wheel deepens and milder emotions become your basic emotions."
The tool has many variations (also known as the Junto, Geneva, or feelings wheel), but the wheel's overall goal is to clarify what's happening in our inner world, home in on the specific nuances of that emotional state, and understand the depth and purpose behind those emotions.
Psychologist Robert Plutchik, Ph.D., created one of the most popular versions of the emotion wheel, a flower-shaped diagram to visually illustrate our emotions and their various, adjacent relationships to each other. He believed that while humans have the capacity to experience over 34,000 unique emotions, there are eight primary, primordial emotions that serve as the foundation for other feelings, in all of their degrees and intensities, to exist and take place.
To make it easier to recognize and describe our feelings, the wheel was gridded out in a way to demonstrate emotions in its various states, dyads, constructs, combinations, similarities, and dissimilarities. Instead of casting emotions aside as too mysterious or vague for our interpretation, he wanted to understand their biological basis and the connections between them. Through his psychoevolutionary approach, he asserted that our basic emotions play a role in human survival and can be patterned out to reveal common emotional elements that we all go through.
8 primary emotions.
"The eight primary emotions in the emotion wheel are sadness, anger, disgust, joy, trust, fear, surprise, and anticipation," Espinoza explains. "Humans also have secondary emotions, which are emotional reactions to an emotion such as the feeling of shame when angry or feeling fear as a result of anger."
According to research by psychologist David L. Robinson, it's important to respond to your emotions authentically to connect to your truest self. If the primary emotion is not felt, you can lose connection to that feeling and instead identify with the secondary emotion, which almost functions as a red herring to what's really happening.
On the emotion wheel, the primary emotions are also grouped together in the center based on likeness and placed in direct opposition to its actual counter on the wheel to form its polar opposite. "Emotions exist along a spectrum of intensity," psychotherapist and trauma coach Dylesia Hampton Barner, LCSW, explains. "Polar opposite emotions serve the purpose of capturing the emotional states leading to the most heightened intensity within a particular emotion and provide guidance for what can happen when unwanted emotions go unaddressed. For instance, annoyance can become rage."
Below are the descriptions, causes, and reactions of the foundational, primary emotions used in Robinson's emotional experience research:
- Sadness: Includes feelings of sorrow, discontentment, depression, apathy, hopelessness, loneliness, and lethargy. It may bring distressing emotions like weeping. For survival, the origin is rooted in infant "separation distress" and indicates the need for emotional support. In Plutchik's emotion wheel, the contrasting emotion is joy.
- Anger: Refers to a subjectively unpleasant mental experience evoked by the real or imagined harm done to an individual or what an individual values. Feelings of hostility, rage, aggression, and dissatisfaction may be prevalent and bring aggressive behavior like fighting. It's a genetically programmed defense of territory. The contrasting emotion is fear.
- Disgust: Signs of disgust refer to feelings of aversion, revulsion, and a rejection of contact or seeking contact. Disgust's biological significance is to promote reproductive success and avoid life-threatening objects and environments. The contrasting emotion is trust.
- Joy: An emotion that deals with elation, euphoria, triumph, jubilation, and a deep sense of contentment. It's a life-sustaining behavior that affirms the continuation of repetitive successful behaviors. The contrasting emotion is sadness.
- Trust: An abstract feeling of hopefulness, positivity, safety, belief in others. It's the first stage of psychosocial development and affects their view of the world. The contrasting emotion is disgust.
- Fear: A primitive emotion that may manifest in frankness, apprehension, nervousness, worry, anxiety, uncertainty, terror. Biologically, it helps avoid dangers signaled by prior associative learning. The contrasting emotion is anger.
- Surprise: Emotions of surprise are a mismatch between the experience expected and the experience that occurs; it may create feelings such as amusement, shock, wonderment, disbelief, speechlessness. It stimulates interest but may also induce caution to allow time for cognitive appraisal. Its contrasting emotion is anticipation.
- Anticipation: Involving excitement, enthusiasm, irritation, pleasure, expectations, uncertainty, awaiting some event. Anticipatory feelings are associated with a state of awareness and an adaptation to future events. Its contrasting emotion is surprise.
Similar to the color wheel, emotions can be mixed with one another to articulate different types of emotions. Depending on the complexity of what you're feeling, emotions can change shape as it's expressed in varying shades of intensities. For example, fear can be mixed with surprise to bring alarm or mixed with trust to bring submission.
How to use the emotion wheel.
The wheel can make it easier for you to grapple with your true feelings, make an informed decision that best serves you, and find a satisfying resolution. If you're struggling to pinpoint something you can't quite put your finger on, Espinoza recommends taking out the emotion wheel to identify the triggering event/situation/person affecting you and naming what you might be feeling until it resonates.
"Notice what you are feeling. Allow yourself to feel your feelings. Notice the physical sensations in your body (i.e., pressure on chest, stomachache, headache). Then identify whether you are experiencing a primary or secondary emotion," she advises. Start with the basic emotions and then keep going until you find the word that closely describes your emotional experience.
There isn't really a right or wrong way to use the wheel. What matters more is having a vocabulary that you can lean on when you need to add more detail to your emotions beyond the basic feeling of just feeling good or bad and not knowing why. By attuning to your body and paying attention to the external and internal factors that may be contributing to your feelings, this will help you slow down and co-regulate.
"People use the emotion wheel to get in touch with their feelings by helping them visualize their emotions and helping them understand which combinations of emotions created a certain outcome or behavior. It helps individuals become more self-aware...Individuals can also benefit from seeing the opposite emotion that can help strengthen their emotional intelligence," Espinoza explains.
The components of emotion.
When you are feeling an emotion, it's not an instantaneous or isolated phenomenon that exists within a vacuum. It happens in a mental sequence before cascading down to a physiological reaction to engage the entire body. Research indicates there are dynamic components1 that are all simultaneously going into our emotional processing that ultimately influence what we do next.
To understand emotions and see how they play an important role in our life, it's essential to break down their various components. Barner shares a quick primer of what these components look like in action:
"An emotion is an instinctive feeling directed at a person, place, or experience," Barner defines. At this early stage, it's simply picking up on environmental cues and/or external stimuli that there's something happening that you might need to react to.
Action tendency component
"Associated with each emotion is an urge to act or express oneself, referred to as action tendency," she says. The action tendency motivates you into movement. There's a desire to spring into action and attend to the emotion by exerting some level of bodily feedback in the situation.
However, Barner says there may be atypical action responses referred to as trauma responses (flight, fight, freeze, or fawn), which are reactionary behaviors to stress, which can be adopted by those who have experienced abuse and/or threat. Thus, it can trigger an unconscious fight-or-flight response for trauma survivors if they find themselves in similar situations. This is important to note because that means they won't be able to process certain emotions clearly if it's been linked to trauma in the past.
"The four trauma responses may be expressed even in positive scenarios due to suspicion of danger many trauma survivors experience at all times," she adds.
As the body gets incorporated into our emotional response, it then moves into the appraisal phase as you scan the environment to look for context, cues, actions, stimuli, or people that may be arousing the emotion. There's an assessment taking place as you attempt to determine your mental and physical response.
"Because our emotional expressions and how we subsequently act is linked to how we appraise circumstances, survivors of trauma are more likely to interpret situations based on their traumatic experiences in an effort to protect themselves," Barner adds.
The motor activity of our emotions kicks off the expressive components, which is when our facial expressions come in and we express what we are feeling, which may include states such as crying, smiling, frowning. At this phase, our motor information passes through the thalamus for further processing.
Lastly, "motor and physiological responses to emotion can make it easy for onlookers to tell how we are feeling, based on involuntary body reactions such as sweaty palms," says Barner. These physiological responses may look like shallow breathing, racing heartbeat, blood flow, and digestion responses.
Benefits of the emotion wheel:
Knowing yourself helps avoid downward spirals and overthinking.
"A few benefits of the emotion wheel is that it helps individuals to visualize different ranges of emotions," says Espinoza. The easy-to-understand emotion wheel simplifies what you are going through, increasing self-expression and self-compassion for yourself.
Fostering empathy connects you deeper to yourself and others.
"The emotion wheel helps individuals communicate effectively," notes Espinoza. "It can also help to name and identify what they are feeling in a healthy and effective manner, which in turn reduces emotional intensity, i.e., anger, stress, sadness."
Gaining emotional maturity to manage conflict.
With that in mind, Barner adds another benefit of the emotion wheel is assisting with conflict resolution as well. "The emotion wheel is a beneficial tool for helping people become better at understanding, managing, and communicating their emotions, which leads to emotional maturity and a reduction in emotional impulsivity and destructiveness."
Recognizing that all emotions provide important context.
Most importantly, understanding your emotions helps you realize there isn't something wrong with you; it's just something you are going through, which relieves a sense of helplessness.
"We can look at the imbalances in our jobs, relationships, and environments from a unique perspective. Instead of thinking there is something 'wrong' with us, we can ask, 'What emotional needs are not being met?'" life coach William Barker writes at mbg.
"Emotional needs are feelings or conditions we need to feel happy, fulfilled, or at peace. Without them, we may feel frustrated, hurt, or dissatisfied. Some examples of emotional needs might include feeling appreciated, feeling accomplished, feeling safe, or feeling part of a community. As humans, we seek emotional nourishment as much as food and water. It is your birthright to be emotionally nourished," he says.
Situations where the wheel can be helpful.
"Some situations where the emotion wheel could come in handy are in situations when the individual doesn't know what she or he is feeling," Espinoza says. It doesn't sound challenging to begin there, but it can be hard to do if you're used to emotional avoidance. Emotions can be difficult in the moment, but ironically enough, leaving feelings unaddressed can often make things feel worse. It's more empowering to identify what you are feeling to validate your experience and go from there.
Other situations where it can be helpful is "where there is frequent misunderstanding or miscommunication between partners, when they're having a hard time understanding the emotions and behaviors of their friends or family, or when they want to become more assertive and expressive of their emotions and needs," she says. By getting in touch with your real needs and becoming comfortable with your emotions, the good and the bad, it will feel less overwhelming over time.
When you experience distressing and confusing sensations, you can stop to physically trace out your emotions on the wheel and check in with yourself to ask:
- Where is that feeling coming from?
- What just happened in my environment that is making me react like this?
- Why am I feeling this way?
For example, perhaps you're looking to try something new, like a work opportunity or relationship. But whenever you think about it, there's a wall of nerves and fear that makes it difficult to feel anything else. Taking the time to pause and round out your emotional experience will help you to notice the little bits of other feelings that are present too.
To do this, Barner recommends paying attention to the factors that led to your emotional shift to identify and articulate those emotions. Over time, your response time will improve as you feel safer with your inner world.
If you're finding it's hard to move past certain blocks on your own, Barner suggests approaching the wheel from a trauma-informed perspective to look out for any unknowns that may be preventing you from fully exploring your emotions. "With my clients, I guide them in exploring where else they've felt that way in their life, which provides context to identify the traumatic root of unwanted emotional states and atypical action tendencies."
If there's a history of trauma, it can be helpful to work with a trained professional for help through this process.
In a group.
Barner says people can also use the wheel among friends and partners to help facilitate more healthy and honest communication. "As they become more direct about how they feel, their capacity to express their emotional needs increases, and they experience higher relationship satisfaction, even if that means detaching from those who cannot fulfill their needs."
Espinoza goes on to recommend using "I" statements to convey to the other person what you are feeling. "I feel ________ when you ________. This will help convey effective communication. Make sure there is proper eye contact and neutral body language to avoid misunderstandings."
The bottom line.
The emotion wheel is a useful tool to consult as you expand toward being more open, honest, curious, and mindful about yourself. As you continue developing emotional self-awareness, you will feel more clear-minded and confident. Learning and tapping into your emotions will provide insight into any of your triggers and go a long way toward maintaining the positive, uplifting relationships in your life through enhanced communication. The good news is that everyone can attune to their emotions, but it will take some practice.
Take it from Espinoza: "It is imperative to name our emotions and know what we are feeling in order to prevent an intensification of emotions, which can result when we don't deal with or confront our emotions. The emotion wheel is a helpful tool that helps one identify their feelings and become comfortable in sitting and feeling their emotions."
Julie Nguyen is a writer, certified relationship coach, Enneagram educator, and former matchmaker based in Brooklyn, New York. She has a degree in Communication and Public Relations from Purdue University. She previously worked as a matchmaker at LastFirst Matchmaking and the Modern Love Club, and she is currently training with the Family Constellations and Somatic Healing Institute in trauma-informed facilitation.