If you grew up not understanding your emotions, you might wonder what to do with all these indefinable feelings that seem to get in the way of everything. Learn how to understand your emotions using the emotion wheel deeply.
What is the Emotion Wheel?
The emotion wheel is a theory that uses 8 primary emotions to help individuals better understand their feelings and how they can self-regulate.
When psychologist Robert Plutchik developed the emotion wheel in the 1980s, he shocked some psychoanalysts by proposing behavior is not the starting point; emotions are. Plutchik believed emotions cause behavior and are not “outside the realm of science.”
Translation: Emotions aren’t irrational and subjective, and yes, yes, we can study them. So, after studying a wide range of our animal friends, he discovered a universal set of 8 emotions. From these conclusions, he developed the Plutchik Wheel of Emotions—a simple yet intricate model to help you gain control of your emotions.
But before we dive into the wheel, we need a better understanding of how Plutchik viewed emotions.
How The Emotion Wheel Works
Plutchik found that emotions are not solitary or arbitrary. Emotions start with a stimulus and end in a behavior.
Stimulus → perception → feelings → physiological change → impulse → action/reaction → behavior.
For example, you’re in a work meeting presenting a project you’ve worked on all month. At the end of your presentation, your boss says, “I was expecting something more compelling.” Your first response is anger, your pulse quickens, and your face flushes. Fight or flight kicks in, and you assess how to respond. Your impulse is to lash out, but you must choose between aggression and avoidance. You choose avoidance (self-preservation) and sit down silently.
Stimulus: Criticism from your boss
Perception: Danger (Rejection or disapproval from a boss heightens your sense of danger. Even if you don’t consciously fear losing your job, the power dynamic makes this a real possibility. You also feel a sense of danger when publicly humiliated or put down. Again, the power dynamic between coworkers can make this feel dangerous.)
Feelings: Anger (Feelings of danger often create a response of anger. You feel helpless, out of control, or a sense of injustice. This creates a reaction of anger and a desire to protect or defend yourself.)
Physiological Change: Racing pulse and increased blood flow preparing for fight or flight
Impulse: Lashing out/self-protection
Action: Sitting down (This act of self-preservation overrides your need for justice. You know there could be negative consequences if you lash out verbally against your boss. Your brain has conducted a risk/rewards analysis and has found that sitting down is the safest response.)
But emotions aren’t that straightforward, are they?
You likely felt other emotions in this work situation—perhaps shame, fear, surprise, or loathing.
You’ll notice that the impulse to behavior wasn’t the actual behavior you exhibited. Identifying your impulses aids in self-understanding.
Let’s jump into using the emotion wheel, so you can increase your emotional intelligence and expand your ability to assess and experience the world around you.
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How to Use the Emotion Wheel
Plutchik identified 8 universal emotions: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust.
These 8 emotions are considered the primary emotions. They are an automatic physiological response to an outside stimulus, which means you don’t have control over them.
As you look at the wheel, you will notice the emotions that make up a flat lotus flower.
Who knew emotions could be so pretty? The elegance of Plutchik’s model expands the more time you spend with it. As you look, you’ll see each emotion has a more intense and less intense emotion.
For example, if you look at the red petal, you’ll see the primary emotion of anger; when intensified, it becomes rage. The more ambiguous, less intense feeling is an annoyance. This means that, sometimes, annoyance precedes anger.
The first step in using the wheel is simply finding the primary emotion you are feeling. The middle circle contains the primary emotions. Once you identify the emotion of anger, ask yourself whether you are also feeling rage or if the deeper and more complex identified emotion started with annoyance.
Let’s keep going.
Learn To Identify Complex Emotions
You can also use the emotion wheel to find more complex emotions.
This seemingly simple flower follows the concept of a color wheel: colors are complementary and can blend to create new colors. For example:
- Feelings of boredom and annoyance combine to make contempt.
- Joy and acceptance create love.
- Disgust and anger create hatred or hostility.
In this video, Mel Robbins, an author and motivational speaker, uses a variation of the emotion wheel to help identify complex emotions and some of the roots causing rage. This straightforward and eye-opening example of using the emotion wheel can demonstrate your amazing potential.
You probably noticed that Mel’s emotion wheel looks different from the Plutchik Wheel of Emotions. That’s because there are many variations of the emotion wheel! While we’re providing you with a guide on Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions, look for an emotion wheel that resonates with you. You might even like to use different wheels in different situations.
Types of Emotion Wheels:
Do Your Emotions Cause You to Withdraw or Move Forward?
Just as complementary colors create a visual push and pull, complementary emotions also produce a push and pull. Literally. Each emotion stimulates a moving towards or withdrawal from the stimulus.
Amazement and surprise (on the light blue quadrant) create an automatic response of withdrawing from the stimulus. Imagine your older brother sneaks up behind you to startle you. You jump AWAY from him in surprise.
In contrast, the opposite quadrant (orange) of vigilance and anticipation generates a movement towards the stimulus. Now imagine that your friend is telling you a riveting story. As you wait to discover what happens, you lean forward with anticipation.
If someone is withdrawing from a conversation because they are distracted, as an effective communicator, your goal is to elicit interest or anticipation. When you can do this, you stimulate engagement instead of withdrawal.
Labeling Emotions is Self-Regulation
Now, let’s imagine you’re feeling boredom and annoyance at work.
Maybe you think you’re carrying the heaviest workload out of all your team members (annoyance), and your work is monotonous (boredom). You find that as time passes, your emotions become more intense. Annoyance expands into anger, and boredom grows into disgust.
The combination of anger and disgust creates contempt, an emotion you didn’t expect to feel towards your boss and coworkers.
In this state of anger and contempt, a tiny but powerful part of your brain kicks in.
Introducing the amygdala.
Your amygdala is the part of the brain that process emotions. When you get flooded with feelings of anger and contempt, your amygdala dumps stress hormones into your body as a survival mechanism.
That’s all well and good when it’s an eminently dangerous situation. However, if you’re body dumps stress hormones day after day when you’re sitting in a cubicle, over time, this takes a significant toll on the body.
The bottom line: When your amygdala gets stuck in overdrive, your body pays the price.
Great news—you don’t have to be a victim to your brain’s responses; the emotion wheel can help. When you label an emotion, it immediately helps regulate your overactive amygdala.
What Makes the Emotion Wheel So Powerful?
The power of the emotion wheel is two-fold:
- Identifying and naming emotions helps you self-regulate, even increasing your emotional intelligence.
- Looking at complementary and analogous emotions can help you regain control and redirect your behavior.
Using the above example, start to regulate your less intense emotion of boredom by becoming curious. Look at the complimentary emotion of acceptance. Ask yourself: how can I practice acceptance?
Perhaps you can come to a place of accepting that, for now, your work is monotonous. Then ask yourself: what is this emotion telling me?
As you notice annoyance, you’ll see that the complementary emotion of apprehension is unhelpful in this situation. This is true for some of the other complementary emotions. When that’s the case, look to the analogous feeling instead of the complementary feeling. For annoyance, this is the feeling of interest and anticipation. How can you shift from a place of annoyance to anticipation?
Annoyance and interest create aggression, which might sound like a dangerous combination. Harness this powerful combination to stimulate positive action in a situation where you may feel a sense of helplessness.
Instead of viewing your coworkers with annoyance, take an interest in what may be causing their behavior. What could shift in your environment to make things better? Press into a sense of anticipation, and you’ll foster a mindset that elicits change rather than triggers anger, which often results in self-defeating behavior.
Learn to be Present and Sit With Your Emotions
You may envision yourself gallantly naming your emotions and then sitting in silence with the practiced ease of a spiritual guru, embracing the range and depth of your emotions with total abandon. As you embrace your emotions, everyone in your office recognizes the error of their ways and asks how they, too, can experience this revolution of emotions.
Or, more likely… Not.
Trust us—when it comes to emotions, you might want to start small. Strong emotions—even good ones—can quickly feel overwhelming. If you find yourself shutting down or moving away from emotion, start building your tolerance to sit in those feelings.
Start with naming the emotion. Just calling the emotion is a big step. Celebrate that you’ve taken the first step, and then build a habit of putting into words what you’ve struggled to define in the past.
Be present and breathe. Once you’re comfortable naming the emotions, don’t immediately switch off or distract yourself. Be present and take a moment to breathe calmly and deeply.
Build tolerance. Slowly build your tolerance by sitting longer. You can also increase your tolerance by journaling. Start by writing down the emotions you’ve identified. Then, write down what was happening when you felt those emotions. If you know what triggered you, write that down too. As you write, your thoughts will begin to flow, and the intensity of emotion decreases typically.
Journaling is a great way to be present with emotions while not becoming overwhelmed. Plus, you’ll have a record of your emotions, so you can begin to identify the patterns of what triggers you and how you respond.
Identify emotions sooner. It’s easier to name something like rage because it’s a big and overt emotion. Part of your goal is to begin identifying emotions before they get out of control and understand the subtleties and nuances of what you feel.
This builds emotional intelligence and helps you be more in control of how you feel and the impact those emotions have on your life. That way, you aren’t waiting until you explode or implode.
What are the Different Emotions and What Do They Mean?
Joy signals to your body that something is good and desirable. As a result, when you feel joy, it elicits a movement towards the stimulus. Whether it’s a puppy, sunshine, or a loved one, you want to be closer to whatever feels good and right.
The emotion of trust occurs when you feel a sense of safety and security. This can be about a person, an object, or expectations that people around you will uphold specific values or norms.
When faced with a loss of control or confronted with something you don’t understand, you feel fear. You may feel helpless (often from a sense of danger) and unable to protect yourself, a loved one, or something you care about (even a value or ideal).
This emotion is an immediate response when something unexpected confronts you. Surprise causes sudden freezing, and then you move on to assimilate the new information or experience in an attempt to make sense of it.
You feel sadness when you experience a loss. This can be an actual physical loss, such as separation from a loved one, or the loss associated with the future, such as not getting a job or someone you love letting you down.
When you are waiting for something, you feel the anticipation. It can be both positive and negative, ranging from fear to excitement.
Anger is the emotion you feel when something is blocking you. This could be a block to meeting your needs, accomplishing goals and expectations, or even a deterrent to your sense of safety.
Anger can be a decoy emotion that prevents you from recognizing the real emotions that you are experiencing.
Disgust alerts you to something wrong. Whether it’s rotten food or hateful behavior, your body responds with disgust to repel or reject something that could pose a threat (real or perceived) to your well-being.
Learn more about the science of emotions and how to regulate them with our Ultimate List of Emotions.
Questions to ask yourself:
- What is this emotion telling me?
- What can this emotion teach me?
- Where do I feel this emotion in my body?
- How can this emotion help me?
- Is this the genuine emotion, or are there deeper emotions?
- When do I often feel this emotion/What triggers this emotion in me?
The Emotion Wheel for Kids
Using an emotion wheel with your kids (or students) teaches them emotions aren’t destructive and that it’s safe to talk to you about how they feel. Starting this early will provide a healthy foundation as they grow older and emotions become even more intense. The Early Childhood Learning Center advocates building emotional literacy as an intervention model and cites studies that have found it promotes social and emotional competence.
When to Use the Wheel With Kids
- Process their time at school or other experiences from the day.
- If something negative or positive has recently happened.
- To give them the vocabulary to talk about their experiences.
- To help regulate big emotions.
- When they don’t want to talk about what they are experiencing.
How to Use the Wheel With Kids
- Use a simplified version. There are a lot of variations of emotion, and you can even make your own. This wheel from Mentally Healthy Schools in the UK is fun because you can cut out an arrow to attach to the wheel.
- Model first. When you model how to use the wheel, you’re setting up a framework for kids to understand and implement the skill you are asking them to learn.
- Identify the emotion. Their first step is to find their emotion on the wheel.
- Talk about other emotions they may be feeling. Take it further and help them find other emotions they may be experiencing.
- Ask them to draw a picture of how that emotion makes them feel. Regardless of their age (you can do this too!), processing through drawing helps them to connect with and better understand what they are experiencing.
Pro Tip: It doesn’t have to be a wheel! When you’re talking to children about emotions, it can be helpful to show pictures of what emotion looks like. This helps them identify the emotion more easily. This can also be a teaching tool for children who struggle to read facial expressions. Feel free to print out this feelings page or make your own!
Emotion Wheel FAQ
Psychologist Robert Plutchik developed the Plutchik Wheel of Emotions to help demonstrate and identify how emotions trigger behavior.
The feelings wheel is a variation of the Plutchik wheel created by Geoffrey Roberts. This is the most common version of the emotion wheel that you will find online. It expands the 8 emotions into 130 emotions and primarily focuses on negative emotions.
The eight core emotions are joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust.
Plutchik and Geneva differ in the number of emotions and how they view emotions. Geneva presents all the emotions as equal, while Plutchik presents them as opposites.
The University of Geneva created the Geneva Wheel. They identified emotions based on the level of control you have. For example, they determine that you have a high level of control over anger and a low level of control over the emotion of surprise. They identify 20 emotions and also include the option of feeling no emotion.
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