The Emotion Wheel [Images + How to Use It]

In this article, you’ll learn a new way in which you can identify your emotions. It’s called the Emotion Wheel. This uses different dimensions to describe emotions that we feel at any given time. The Emotion Wheel, like other diagrams related to emotions, is not perfect. But it’s a great reference point as we explore and understand what we are feeling.

What Is the Emotion Wheel?

The Emotion Wheel was created by Robert Plutchik to help patients identify and describe the 8 core emotions: Joy, Sadness, Fear, Anger, Anticipation, Surprise, Disgust, and Trust. It was part of his overarching Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotion. 

The Emotion Wheel

Robert Plutchik, an American psychologist, created the Emotion Wheel in 1980. His theory of emotion expanded on previous theories, some of which had labeled six primary emotions that all human beings feel. Plutchik believed that humans experience eight primary emotions, and each of these emotions has a polar opposite that is also included on the wheel:

  • Joy, and its opposing emotion, sadness.
  • Fear, and its opposing emotion, anger.
  • Anticipation, and its opposing emotion, surprise.
  • Disgust, and its opposing emotion, trust.

Already, this wheel begins to resemble a color wheel. But there is more to the Emotion Wheel than just eight primary emotions.

Combinations

You have probably found yourself in between two emotions. You feel joy, but you also feel anticipation. Maybe you’re waiting for a check in the mail or are particularly excited about the year to come. Plutchik covered these emotions, too. In between each emotion is an emotion that combines two adjoining emotions:

  • Anticipation and joy: optimism
  • Anger and anticipation: aggressiveness
  • Joy and trust: love
  • Trust and fear: submission
  • Fear and surprise: awe
  • Surprise and sadness: disapproval
  • Sadness and disgust: remorse
  • Disgust and anger: contempt

But we’re not done quite yet.

Degrees

Saying that you feel “joy” doesn’t always feel like enough to cover the full spectrum of that one emotion. Some days, you’re jumping out of your set with joy! Other days, you are simply feeling calm and happy. On either side of the primary emotions, Plutchik listed “degrees” in which these emotions can be felt.

These spectrums look like this:

  • Anger: annoyance to rage
  • Anticipation: interest to vigilance
  • Disgust: boredom to loathing
  • Fear: apprehension to terror
  • Joy: serenity to ecstasy
  • Sadness: pensiveness to grief
  • Surprise: distraction to amazement
  • Trust: acceptance to admiration

Plutchik has used both two-dimensional and three-dimensional models to show the relationship between primary emotions, the spectrum in which they sit, and the combination of emotions that we may experience at once.

Emotions and Survival

Plutchik did not just create the Emotion Wheel so we could explore and identify our emotions. He was interested in the ways that emotions allow us to engage and learn basic survival mechanisms. His Psychoevolutionary Theory of Emotions included The Sequential Model of Emotions and the Place of Cognitions, which showed how this process took place. Each survival mechanism, from fight or flight to mapping out new territory, is linked to one of the eight primary emotions.

When we encounter a threat, for example, we need to do something in order to escape that threat and survive. Plutchik called the encounter of a threat a “stimulus event.” The inferred cognition that occurs in response to this stimulus is “danger.” The emotion that we feel is fear, ranging from apprehension to terror. Fear engages our “fight or flight mode,” and we end up fighting off the threat or fleeing the situation. That is our behavior, in response to our emotions. The desired effect of our behavior is some form of survival. In this case, it’s protection from the threat. This sequence of events helps to explain the purpose and use of “fight or flight,” one of our most well-known defense mechanisms.

Evolution and Emotions

The Emotion Wheel, and other insights from Plutchik, remind us that we experience emotions for a reason. We may feel silly after having an emotional response to our ice cream falling on the ground or getting ghosted by a potential mate. But these emotions are traced back to basic survival mechanisms that kept us alive when things weren’t so convenient.

Back in more primitive times, we needed fight or flight to help us address threats, like wild animals or an enemy tribe. Threats nowadays, like a D on a test or not getting a promotion, are not exactly as serious. Yet, our mind may still register them as threats, and the sequence engages our fight or flight response.

As we learn to identify our emotions, we can control them and prevent the use of inappropriate defense or survival mechanisms. Not all threats require us to fight or flight. By understanding where our emotional responses are coming from, we can better assess our behaviors and when it’s time to truly take action.

How to Identify Your Emotions

How are you feeling today?

Sometimes, you might find that this simple question has a simple answer. You are happy. Content. Sad. Excited. Other times, this simple question doesn’t have a simple answer. You are nervous, but you can’t tell if it’s a “good nervous” or a “bad nervous.” You are happy, but that happiness is mixed in with a twinge of guilt that prevents you from truly feeling happy.

Identifying emotions is not an easy process, but it is crucial to understanding the way that people think and behave. There are various cognitive theories about how emotion plays into our cognitive process and the decisions that we make. So it makes sense that psychologists want to get a good grip on how we identify emotions and how they play into our behaviors and attitudes.

With tools like The Emotion Wheel, we can put words to our feelings. Here are some other ways to identify your emotions and properly manage them more effectively:

With tools like The Emotion Wheel, we can put words to our feelings. Here are some other ways to identify your emotions and  manage them more effectively:

Sit with yourself.

Take a moment to sit in a silent place and observe your body and mind. (Guided meditations on apps like Insight Timer can help you do this, too.) Do you feel tension anywhere in your body? Are your thoughts positive, negative, hopeful, etc.? Be patient and honest with yourself. Take 5-10 minutes to go through this process.

Refer to The Emotion Wheel afterward. Do your thoughts reflect a feeling of anxiety? Contentment? Embarrassment? Start from the innermost circle and move outward if you have to.

Keep a journal nearby.

We can’t always process our emotions by thinking the same thoughts over and over in our heads. Take time to write out the events of the day and how you feel as you reflect. Regularly committing to a journal will not only reveal your emotions to you but also the sources of those emotions.

Accept all emotions.

Your emotions are valid. We often do not want to admit to experiencing feelings like shame, sadness, or disappointment. Know that these feelings are completely normal. We all experience certain feelings, even when we have not done anything to “deserve” them. The sooner you can admit your feelings, the sooner you can manage them.

The Importance of Emotional Intelligence

Identifying your emotions, through the use of the Emotion Wheel or otherwise, builds EQ. EQ, or emotional intelligence, is the ability to identify and use emotions effectively.

Emotional intelligence looks like:

  • Managing emotions before they turn into impulse behavior 
  • Picking up on emotional cues and responding appropriately 
  • Clearly communicating your goals and emotions to your partner, colleagues, or friends 
  • Adapting to changing situations with ease 
  • Remaining calm, even in scary or tense situations
  • Identifying strengths and weaknesses 
  • Connecting thought patterns and physical responses with certain emotions
  • Knowing what events or topics may trigger strong emotions and preparing appropriately 

Example of Using the Emotion Wheel To Gain Emotional Intelligence

Darren is not feeling good. When he sits down to work, he gets distracted by everything else on his to-do list. He thinks about his mother, who is sick in the hospital. He thinks about his wife, who has been feeling stressed out lately. And he thinks about his boss, who may or may not be disappointed in the lack of work that Darren has been able to accomplish.

Darren doesn’t know how to explain his feelings. Left unchecked, his stress affects his sleep, ability to work out, and focus. It’s not until he sees an article about The Emotion Wheel that he decides to take stock of his emotions.

He listens to a meditation on YouTube about identifying his emotions. The meditation instructs him to notice different parts of his body and mind. Darren realizes his chest is tight. His thoughts are moving very quickly. After the meditation, he Googles his symptoms and realizes he is experiencing anxiety.

This is new to Darren, but he has the Emotion Wheel to help him. He looks at the area that says, “Anxious.” In the innermost circle, he sees “fearful” encompassing “anxious”. Darren would not usually be a person to say that he is afraid, but he has an open mind. What could he be afraid of? Maybe he’s afraid that his mother won’t recover from her illness, or that his wife will become ill because she is so stressed. 

He looks at the outermost circles on the Emotion Wheel: overwhelmed and worried. While both of those emotions seem to fit his current feelings, the sheer number of worries in his life is overwhelming him. 

Darren decides to look up what to do when he’s overwhelmed, and talks to a friend and shares his overwhelm. Through this process, he realizes that he has too much time on his plate and has little time to devote to self-care and spending time with the people he loves. By focusing more of his energy on this, Darren finds that his symptoms of anxiety affect him far less often than before.

Emotional Intelligence and Behavior 

Of course, emotional intelligence doesn’t end when you do something to resolve your feelings. Emotional intelligence can also help you if you find yourself acting out due to your emotions. Let’s say Darren’s boss tends to be critical of Darren whenever she is angry. She may not be angry at Darren, but her anger comes out through that behavior. When she learns about the Emotion Wheel, she sees the tie between criticism and anger. 

The next time she finds herself getting angry, she takes some time to pause. How can she bring herself into the present moment and look for solutions? What is the best way to communicate her thoughts with Darren while reassuring him that he’s doing a good job? As she navigates the answers to these questions, she starts to communicate more effectively with Darren and he finds that he becomes less anxious at work, too. 

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Theodore T.

Theodore is a professional psychology educator with over 10 years of experience creating educational content on the internet. PracticalPsychology started as a helpful collection of psychological articles to help other students, which has expanded to a Youtube channel with over 2,000,000 subscribers and an online website with 500+ posts.