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Key Takeaways:

  • Identifying emotions can be difficult for many people, especially if they are made up of several complex feelings.
  • Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions is a model that allows individuals to identify primary emotions with varying intensities and combinations.
  • There are several models that are useful in identifying emotions.

Putting a name to our emotions can be difficult. Sometimes the things we feel are so complex and overwhelming that it is almost impossible to describe them. There are even instances wherein we feel several emotions all at once, making it even more complicated to clearly identify each one.

With our capacity to feel so much, it can be challenging not to get lost or feel overwhelmed. Fortunately, there are some ways for us to organize these emotions to better understand them. One such method is by using what is called a wheel of emotions, which we’ll go into detail here.

What is Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions?

The wheel of emotions — also known as the emotion wheel or specifically, Plutchik’s wheel of emotions — is a circular diagram that is divided into different areas and subsections to identify various emotions. This helps the user of the wheel navigate their emotional experience at any given time based on their circumstances.

This method of organizing emotions was developed by psychologist Robert Plutchik. He based it on the psycho-evolutionary theory of emotion, arguing that primary emotions are an evolutionary development that helps humans respond accordingly and survive.

The Wheel of Emotions

As he advanced his theory, Plutchik developed the wheel of emotions. It comes in two designs: two dimensional and three dimensional, the latter being called the cone-shaped model of emotion. These models use color to represent more nuanced emotions as well as combinations of emotions. Gradients are also used to show intensity.

The 8 Primary Emotions

Plutchik stated that there are 8 primary emotions that vary in their intensity. Each of these emotions is represented by a primary color.

Anger - Anger is typically accompanied by strong and heated sensations, often with a feeling of antagonism towards something or someone. It is an indicator that there is an obstacle or barrier in the way that must be overcome.

Disgust - Disgust is a sign that rules have been violated in some sense, resulting in bitter and unwanted sensations. It helps people notice that something is wrong or unsafe.

Fear - Fear causes agitation and tells us that something we care about is at risk (including ourselves). Feeling the emotion of fear can help drive one to action, whether it’s avoiding the source of the fear or confronting it.

Sadness - Sadness usually makes people feel heavy. It often indicates that something we care about is leaving our lives, either temporarily or permanently. Sadness can encourage people to focus on what’s important to them.

Anticipation - Anticipation is an emotion that comes with sensations of alertness and expectation. It is often felt when circumstances are changing, especially when one looks forward to what may be coming.

Joy - Joy is experienced in moments where there is plenty of positive energy. It is a sign that life is going well, and it allows people to act with creativity, connection, and energy.

Surprise - Surprise is often felt when something new has happened. This can be something positive or negative. This is usually accompanied by an elevated heart rate and high energy.

Trust - Trust is an emotion that comes with sensations of warmth and feelings of safety. It allows us to be more open with others and build meaningful connections.

Basic Emotional Combinations

Plutchik organized the primary emotions into pairs that reflected polar opposites. These are based on the physiological reaction the specific emotion elicits in humans.

Sadness is the opposite of joy, allowing us to either withdraw or connect.

Anger is the opposite of fear, which results in trying to appear bigger and be louder or making oneself smaller to hide.

Surprise is the opposite of anticipation, and the physiological reaction is either to take a step back or examine closely.

Trust is the opposite of disgust, leading to embracing others or rejecting them.

Other Emotional Combinations

There are various combinations that can be made using the color wheel of emotions.

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

What is Wheel of Emotions Used For?

Plutchik’s diagram can be used as a sort of emotion wheel chart to pinpoint what a person is feeling, where the emotion is coming from, and why they feel that way. It is an effective way to bring clarity to one’s emotional state, especially during confusing or turbulent times.

The wheel of emotions also shows that each of us is capable of having emotional depth. Apart from explaining how we feel, it can also make us realize that our emotions are valid. By helping us put complex emotions into words, it makes the experience more concrete. A sense of clarity is achieved, making emotions easier to process and act on. This allows us to broaden our understanding and perspectives.

How to Use the Wheel of Emotions

Start with a broad feeling

It helps to start with a broader category of feelings. From there, you can narrow it down to a specific emotion. For instance, feeling upset can lead to more specific emotions of anger, annoyance, or even contempt.

Survey the entire chart

Simply looking at the chart and going through each emotion can also help you identify what you are feeling. Looking at its placement on the chart and listing down the different combinations is also useful.

When doing this, some people may notice that they gravitate towards one or two specific words when pinpointing their emotions. Exploring other areas of the chart will allow you to be more accurate with naming your emotions, which is extremely useful when it comes to expressing and discussing them with friends and family. It helps to have something that you can refer to every day, like a feelings list poster, to get a better grasp of your emotions.

Balance the positives and negatives

When using the wheel of emotions, it is important to recognize both positive and negative feelings. Expressing one’s true emotions through methods like feelings check-ins results in increased self-awareness, improved self-regulation, and better social empathy. This in turn helps us know what we need and want to build better relationships and resolve conflicts with more insight.

What’s the Difference Between Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions and the Geneva Emotion Wheel?

Plutchik’s wheel of emotions is not the only one of its kind. There are other emotion wheels with the same objective, such as the Geneva Emotion Wheel (GEW).

Both emotion wheels focus on combinations of emotions and their intensities. However, the GEW does not start with primary emotions. It presents a set of 20 emotions that are specified by valence (describes whether a situation is enjoyable or unpleasant) and control (describes how much power the individual has over the situation).

The intensity of emotions is also represented differently in the GEW. While Plutchik’s model has the most intense emotions closer to the middle of the circle, the GEW placed these emotions in the outer layers.

The GEW has some emotions, such as pride and shame, that are not included in the Plutchik model.

Despite their differences, they are both good models to use for identifying complex emotions and different combinations of these feelings.

The Bottom Line

For many people, identifying simple or complex feelings is important for self-development and interpersonal relationships. Recognizing and labeling your feelings is just one small part of the equation, an important starting point. Discussing and processing these emotions and acting on them is the next step.

Consulting a mental health professional is best to help you delve deeper into figuring out your emotions and how they impact your life.