What is the Emotional Wheel: Your Guide to Understanding Your Emotions and Using It

Emotions dictate our lives. Every event, every person we meet, every situation we find ourselves in, our emotions play a massive role in how we live each moment. 

But sometimes, it can be hard to truly understand what we are feeling. With over 34,000 emotions existing that human beings can feel, it can be hard to understand our interactions and feelings towards the world around us.

And if we want to find a way to improve our mental health and have more control in our actions when we feel heightened emotions such as fear, sadness, or anger, we need to gain real insight into how our emotions work and what makes us feel the way we do. And that’s where the Emotional Wheel chart, sometimes referred to as the mood wheel, comes into play.

Survival instincts that rule emotions

Before we explore the wonderful world of emotions, it’s probably a good idea to understand why we have them in the first place. After all, as great as the positive emotions are, the negative emotions can be heart-breaking. Moreover, they can cause us not just mental but also physical health problems. So, why do we have this capacity to feel so deeply? 

Well, it all goes back to the beginning of humanity, back when predators were a constant threat, and we didn’t have Google to help us out when we needed information. 

Our brains are programmed to help us survive and keep the species going.

Now, luckily for us, we no longer have to worry about life-threatening wild predators that can strike at any second. But evolution takes a long time to happen, and our brains haven’t fully developed to understand this yet. As such, our brains can’t help but react in the same intensity to non-life-threatening stimuli such as work stress. And, so the best tool we have to combat this is to learn to understand our personal relationship with our emotions to gain better control over our behaviours.

Dr Plutchik’s model of emotion (more on this later) theorises that emotion triggers eight different survival instincts. This then tells us how we should act in order to survive the situation. After all, the human brain is wired to keep us alive above all else. 

1. Protection

The need to stay safe by either withdrawing or removing yourself from a situation.

2. Destruction

Removing obstacles that keep you from happiness and satisfaction.

3. Incorporation

Adding something to your life as a result of your emotion (i.e. accepting something).

4. Rejection

Getting rid of something potentially harmful or unpleasant.

5. Reproduction

Wanting more of an experience; sexual reproduction.

6. Reintegration 

Reacting to loss and trying to navigate the “new normal.”

7. Exploration

Investigating the world around you

8. Orientation

Reacting to unfamiliar experiences and getting used to them and the role you play in them. 


How emotions guide us

It’s widely believed that emotions have five core components that dictate our actions in any given situation or interaction. They are:

1. Emotion Component

This is when you first experience and become aware that you are having an emotional reaction

2. Action Tendency Component

Once you have identified the emotion you are feeling, you move towards acting on it (for example, by leaning into it or avoiding it).

3. Appraisal Component

Our brains don’t like to have unexplained emotions, which is why we tend to analyse our circumstances to come up with a trigger or stimulus that has caused the emotion(s) to occur.

4. Motor Component

When we have an emotion, we express it, whether we mean to or not. So, for example, when we feel embarrassed, we might scrunch our face as if in pain. 

5. Physiological Component

When we feel an emotion, a chemical reaction occurs simultaneously in the body that helps the other components work. 

While everyone will experience these five core components during an emotion, the level of intensity they are experienced in varies from person to person, creating such a wide diversity in emotion among human beings.

The below video shows a TedX talk, where Alan Watkins explains that understanding our emotions and feelings is a vital part of human development. Watkins goes on to explain that after understanding our emotions, we are then able to control them in a beneficial way to us and for others. This ultimately leads to success, fulfilment, and happiness.

The core foundations of emotion

Dr Robert Plutchik is the brain behind the original emotion wheel chart. His theory states that there are eight fundamental emotions that can then be combined to make those 34,000 emotions we mentioned earlier.

The eight core emotions, according to Plutchik, are:

-   Joy

-   Sadness

-   Acceptance

-   Disgust

-   Fear

-   Anger

-   Surprise

-   Anticipation.

You might have noticed something interesting about this list of emotions. Each one can be paired as polar opposites. So, for example, joy is the opposite of sadness, acceptance is the opposite of disgust, fear is the opposite of anger, and surprise is the opposite of anticipation. 

It’s important to recognise this as it highlights the idea Dr Plutchik’s theory is making – that emotion exists on a spectrum. Once you accept this idea, it can become easier to start to delve deeper into your own personal emotional profile.


How to read the wheels of emotion

Let’s start with the original wheel chart by Dr Plutchik.

wheel of emotion chart

Dr Plutchik’s Emotional Wheel (1980)

There are a few key components to take note of here.

Firstly, as stated earlier, you’ll notice that the opposite emotions are situated opposite each other on the wheel to drive the idea of emotions as a spectrum. Not only that, but you can see in the spaces in-between examples of emotions that occur when two emotions mix (much like mixing two primary colours to make a new one).

The second thing to notice is the colours on the wheel. Each of the eight primary emotions has its own colour, and depending on the direction you move on the wheel, the colour either intensifies or softens. 

Finally, the wheel works in layers. The second ring represents the primary emotions. As you move to the centre of the wheel, the emotion intensifies, and as you move outwards in the wheel, the emotion softens. In this way, you are able to see the evolution and effect of intensity on the outcome of an emotion experienced. 

Ok, so we know that Dr Plutchik created the original Emotional Wheel, but his is not the only one in existence.

While the wheel does an incredible job at showing the nuances between emotions and their intersectionality, it’s not as comprehensive as it could be.

Therefore, in 2005, psychologist Klaus Scherer created his own version of the wheel called the “Geneva Emotional Wheel.”

The Geneva Emotional Wheel (2005) 

This wheel is slightly more comprehensive as there are 20 core emotions to choose from and more levels of intensity to relate to. Also, unlike other wheels available, there are no primary emotions. Instead, all 20 emotions are of equal weighting, and it’s up to the individual to decide how intense each one feels in any given circumstance.

This tool is especially good for beginners who feel completely lost when it comes to understanding how their emotions play with each other. It allows you to get more specific with individual emotions you may be experiencing simultaneously.

Finally, we have the Junto Emotional Wheel created by the Junto Institute.

The Junto Emotional Wheel (2016)

As you can see, the Junto Emotional Wheel focuses a lot more on labelling different emotions and gives a much more comprehensive selection of emotions to relate to. In fact, there are a staggering 108 emotions to choose from!

This wheel works by placing six core emotions at the centre – joy, love, fear, anger, sadness, and surprise. Then, the next circle gets more specific about the emotions experienced, and the outer circle even more so. In this way, you can identify your exact emotion as well as the core emotion it stems from, allowing you to better understand where your feelings are coming from.  

How to use the Emotional Wheel

Now that we know why understanding our emotions is so important, why we even have emotions in the first place, and how to read each of the three emotional wheels, it’s time to talk about how you can incorporate them into your own life. So choose the wheel you think will work best for you, grab your favourite journal, and let’s get cracking!

Label your emotions 

Have you ever felt a visceral emotion that knocks you off your feet but had no idea what it was you just felt? The first step to using your wheel of emotions is to pinpoint the emotion (or emotions) you are feeling by finding a label.

Start by finding the general emotional category that feels most appropriate (e.g. joy, sadness, fear etc.) and work your way from there. Is it more or less intense than the primary emotion? Is it a mixture of two emotions? Is there a word on the wheel that better explains what you are feeling?

It can help you to Google lists of emotions based on your wheel of choice to give you access to more descriptors of your feelings.

Once you’ve successfully labelled your emotion (and don’t worry if it takes a long time, it’s a difficult craft to master), we can move on with our self-analysis.

Find your triggers 

Although emotions can occur just because (especially when in the throes of mental health issues such as anxiety or depression), we often find there are patterns and stimuli that set off our reactions, even if we don’t actively notice them in our daily activities. 

So, once you’re in the moment and you have your emotion labelled, think about the circumstances under which they occurred. Try and write down where you are, what you were doing, what time it is, your mood right before your emotion, your tiredness level, your hunger, and who you were with. Be as detailed and open as you can.

After doing this many times, you’ll start to spot patterns. You’ll also come to realise that some emotions are stimulated by external situations, such as where you are or the people you are with. Still, some strong, seemingly unrelated emotions can be triggered by physiological symptoms from not sleeping enough, being hungry, or hormonal changes (such as throughout your period or in menopause). 

Understanding your triggers then gives you the power to manage your reactions. 

Managing your reactions

Ok, so we know what we feel and why we feel it; now it’s time to dig even deeper. What are the thoughts and feelings going on in your head as you are experiencing this feeling? How are your instincts telling you to react? Is this a helpful thought/reaction? Is it based on fact?

Taking this beat to dig into the usually subconscious process that goes on in your mind when you feel an emotion allows you to stop reacting impulsively and start to think rationally. You can then employ some cognitive therapy skills on yourself by considering how you can change your thoughts or actions to help your emotional response. 

For example, if you feel insecure and realise this happens whenever you work with a specific team at work, your thoughts might be that you aren’t good enough to be on that team and so you avoid working with them as much as possible. But, if you try and find facts to support this idea, the truth is, you probably won’t be able to. It’s just a thought you have inferred from your emotion. And by avoiding them, you are convincing your brain that it’s right to think that way.

In this way, you can challenge your thoughts and learn to act with more compassion towards yourself.


Communicate your feelings better

Finally, by being able to label your emotions and understand what drives them, you’ll be able to explain how you feel to others better.

So whether it’s your partner, a family member, a friend, or a colleague, you’ll have the words to create a more understanding, in-depth conversation surrounding your feelings about various situations. 

Final thoughts on the Emotional Wheel

Understanding your feelings gives you the freedom to take control of your life and be kinder to yourself.

It can be challenging to analyse your mind in-depth like this, so have compassion and patience with yourself as you go through the process, and if you need extra help, never be afraid to reach out to a therapist.

We’re interested to know: which wheel was your favourite and how has it helped you in your life?

What is the Emotional Wheel: Your Guide to Understanding Your Emotions and Using It 

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