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Wheel of Emotions: How It Can Help Your Relationships
plutchik's wheel of emotions

Wheel of Emotions: How It Can Help Your Relationships

When American psychologist Dr. Robert Plutchik devised the wheel of emotions, he provided a tool to dissect our emotions and understand them better.

"Tell me what’s wrong."

I don’t know.

Have you ever been left without words to explain your feelings? If you answered yes, then there is a chance that this difficulty in describing your feelings comes not from a lack of wanting or trying, but from not knowing and harnessing the power behind American psychologist Robert Plutchik’s wheel of emotions

When we do not have the vocabulary to fully express our basic emotions in the moment, it can leave room for misunderstanding where everyone ends up feeling short-changed. However, having the right words and a deeper understanding of the emotion wheel (sometimes called the feeling wheel) can greatly enhance self-awareness and emotional intelligence. 

You can use the emotion wheel to develop a stronger and more compassionate bond with yourself and others. When you are no longer fighting yourself to figure out how you feel and what it means, you begin to attract a higher vibration of energy. 

So how can you use Plutchik’s wheel of emotions to improve your inner self relationship and your connection to others? First things first, we need to see ourselves in the wheel of emotions and begin identifying our eight core emotions.

Plutchik’s Emotion Wheel

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According to psychologist Robert Plutchik, we are capable of experiencing around 34,000 emotions, and unfortunately, there are more negative emotions than positive. Can you imagine trying to name, identify, and understand the meaning or message behind all of them? In Plutchick’s model, you don’t have to. 

Rather, you can begin by focusing first on eight primary emotions, or the human emotions that Plutchik sees as forming all other emotions mammals are capable of experiencing. In short, you can’t have the other 33,992 emotions without these eight.

The eight core emotions are described are:

  • Trust
  • Fear
  • Surprise
  • Sadness
  • Disgust
  • Anger
  • Anticipation 
  • Joy

The Power of Primary Emotions

Once you feel comfortable recognizing these formative emotions from the emotion wheel in your own body and mind, you can move into understanding how these emotions influence others and our physical reactions. 

Like blending primary colors to make a rainbow of new hues, these eight emotions can be combined to create what’s known as secondary emotions. Plutchik’s wheel of emotions also offers insight into the physical reactions that tend to accompany emotional pairings. You will see these reactions placed outside the wheel of emotions in between the petals. 

Combining Basic Emotions 

Life is full of many pleasant and unpleasant feelings, and emotions differ greatly partly because they are the result of what Plutchik calls emotion blending, in which two types of primary emotion combine to create secondary emotions.

Here are a few examples: 

  • Anger + Anticipation : Aggressiveness
  • Anticipation + Joy: Optimism
  • Disgust + Anger: Contempt
  • Fear + Surprise: Awe
  • Joy + Trust: Love
  • Sadness + Disgust: Remorse
  • Surprise + Sadness: Disapproval
  • Trust + Fear: Submission

Each emotion on Plutchick’s wheel of emotions is also presented across from its opposing emotion so you can visualize where certain feelings sit on the spectrum. Seeing emotions presented with their polars on the emotion wheel gives us greater insight into how our feelings are related.

If you are struggling to identify a certain emotion, it can be helpful to examine the opposites to get a clearer idea of what an emotion is and is not.  

Opposite emotions examples include:

  • Fear and Anger Physiology: Get small and hide vs get big and loud.
  • Anticipation and Surprise   Physiology: Examine closely vs jump back.
  • Disgust and Trust Physiology: Reject vs embrace.
  • Joy and Sadness Physiology: Connect vs withdraw.

Beyond binary emotions such as disgust / fear or anger / surprise, the wheel of emotions shows us the varying degrees or intensity level possible with each core emotion. 

It can be helpful here to visualize the wheel of emotions as a wheel of daisy flower petals. Each petal stems from the epicenter and flows outward much like our emotions stem from primary base emotions and can flow into other secondary emotions. 

The feelings closest to the flower’s center are by nature the most intense degree of emotional expression of the base emotions. For example, if we look at the emotion “anger,” we see it sandwiched between its associated lesser intense emotion and more intense emotion of annoyance and rage, respectively. Rage sits in the center and annoyance on the outermost petal tip.

This means rage and annoyance are seen in Plutchik’s model as degrees of the base emotion of anger. Knowing this highlights the importance of owning and controlling our primary and secondary emotions to prevent escalation to more intense expressions. 

The Feelings Wheel Compared With The Emotion Wheel 

Truth be told, there are several versions of Plutchick’s emotion wheel and you can use whichever one you want to develop a deeper understanding about your emotions and even your mental health. 

The most important thing in picking a wheel to work with is that it resonates with you and is designed in a way that holds your attention. For now, it can be useful to print out or make your own copy of your wheel and keep it somewhere visible.

There are a few different designs of the feelings wheel that can help you understand what’s happening beneath and influencing the eight basic emotions. Examples of other variants that can benefit your understanding of how emotions combine include:

The Feelings Wheel (slightly different from the emotional wheel) is said to be originally designed by Gloria Willcox and adapted by Australian pastor Geoffrey Roberts, among many others. It is not as complex as Plutchik’s model, and perhaps this is where its popularity on social media stems from.

Wehell feeling 1024x576

In this design, there are three circles contained within and arranged by the following:

  • Various primary emotions
  • Secondary emotions
  • Tertiary emotions

In Roberts’ feelings wheel, there are seven primary emotions:

  • Bad
  • Sad
  • Happy
  • Disgusted
  • Fearful
  • Surprised

You’ll notice that while there is some overlap in emotions (e.g. disgust, sadness, fear, and surprise) but there are also noticeable differences. Roberts’ feelings wheel does not include joy, acceptance, or anticipation in its definition of core emotions. It does, however, offer a total of 130 emotions, and has been designed with a focus on negative emotions in order to help you recognize them and take back your power. 

Using Your Understanding of Basic Emotions

You can use the feelings wheel to further your understanding of how core emotions influence other emotions. For example, the core emotion “bad,” as in, “I feel bad,” begs you to look beyond the first circle and into the associated secondary emotions and tertiary emotions. 

Such an exercise can help to narrow down what’s wrong and can give you invaluable insight into what created the “bad” emotion and your reaction. This can be particularly useful in child-guardian relationships, as well as with teaching children emotional literacy. 

For example, if a child is exhibiting anger through screaming, hitting, or stomping, after a moment of pause, it’s useful to show them the wheel and help them (and yourself) see why they were angry in the first place. Did the anger stem from being tired, busy, bored, stressed? 

Asking these questions is a great starting point for a better understanding of your own emotional states, and is part of walking the path to personal and relationship growth.

Emotions Are Necessary For Survival 

Plutchick’s model proposes emotions are, “basic adaptations needed by all organisms in the struggle for individual survival.”

In healthy individuals in nurturing environments, acknowledging your emotions means getting needs met (ie. being comforted, fed, put to bed for a nap, etc.). This is a positive reinforcement that helps us learn the meaning behind our emotions and the cause and effect of expressing emotions to trusted persons. 

Unfortunately, though, this is not the same situation for everyone. For those who have experienced trauma (abuse, neglect, gaslighting, etc.), you may have learned it’s a safer survival strategy to silence your emotions because expressing them never leads to relief. Perhaps in some cases expressing your emotions has even led to consequences so you’ve adapted by disconnecting from your emotions as a survival strategy. 

While this has served you so far, deep down you know denying your feelings is only further hurting yourself and impairing your relationships with others. You may be surviving, but you are far from thriving. 

The Benefits of Owning Your Emotions (And What’s Stopping You)

If you feel weird checking in with your emotions and asking yourself how you’re feeling, this is a sign you have never been fully supported in expressing your true self and your full emotional spectrum. It takes some work to mindshift toward self-awareness and acceptance, but the rewards are nothing less than a new lease on life. 

Benefits may include:

  • Moving from self-denial to self-acceptance
  • Understanding past actions
  • Preventing escalation of emotions (especially during stressful times and interpersonal conflict)
  • Being able to explain your full self to someone else and increasing their capacity for knowing who you truly are (this creates next-level connections)
  • Attracting other people with higher emotional intelligence
  • Stopping or slowing your reactivity to emotional triggers 
  • Enhancing your capacity to understand where other people are coming from
  • Being able to teach others (particularly adolescents) about emotional intelligence
  • Detaching from the power of any one emotion
  • Addressing your personal needs and speaking up for yourself

The Power of Naming Negative Emotions

One of the greatest benefits of the emotion wheel is its ability to help you identify negative or unwanted emotions. Research has shown that naming negative feelings (labeling emotions) can help people take control and de-escalate their emotional state. 

This is a powerful revelation in the way many of us think about our emotions or feelings. Too many times, without the right words for how we are feeling, we are left without knowing how to communicate (and therefore cope) in a healthy way. 

Instead of naming our emotions, we may unintentionally fall victim to the mentality that we have lost control of our emotional state (ie. we are an emotional “wreck” or are emotionally “broken”). We may even feel we have no idea how we really feel about people, places, and things. This is akin to being lost, and it can be extremely discomforting.

In this negative emotional state, we will understandably try anything to avoid dealing with the unknown feelings spreading their influence on our actions and relationship with others. This is what we have learned to do for self-protection, but it is actually self-abandoning. Every time you deny, refute, hide, or repress an emotional state, you’re abandoning the inner child within who needs your help. 

Pay attention to common ways people try to avoid feeling emotions:*

  • Scrolling on social media
  • Cleaning house
  • Having sex
  • Smoking mind-altering substances
  • Drinking intoxicating substances like alcohol
  • Binge-watching television
  • Playing online games 
  • Shopping without a purpose 
  • Mindlessly eating or binge-eating and purging
  • Self-harming behaviors including risky driving 

Remember the degrees of emotional intensity: Delaying or avoiding feeling all the feelings can actually make matters worse in your inner and outer worlds. 

How do you know if you’re doing this? Listen to the way others speak of you. The following phrases are all red flags that you’re emotionally disconnected and it’s hurting your relationships with others. 

Has anyone ever said these things to you?

  • I feel like you’re a million miles away.
  • You’re always on your phone.
  • It feels like I’m talking to a wall.
  • Can you get off your phone? 
  • I feel disconnected.
  • You’re always distracted.
  • I don’t even know who you are anymore.
  • You never let me in.

In other words, you can try to avoid your emotions, but all that does is signal to yourself and others that your feelings don’t matter. Denying your emotions or ignoring their true meaning (which can be discovered with help of Plutchik’s model) is like leaving your flower wheel without water, sun, and fertilizer. 

With enough negative reinforcement, some petals of emotions will begin to wilt and dry, becoming fragile to the slightest touch. This means if an external or internal stimuli triggers that long-denied emotion, you could be left completely defenseless and likely to crumble under the slightest pressure.

Obviously this is not what you want.

When you acknowledge your feelings and emotions, let yourself truly feel your feelings and emotions, and embrace your entire spectrum of feelings and emotions, you open your universe to higher emotional intelligence and the kind of radical self acceptance we all deserve. 

How to Use Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions to Benefit Your Relationships

Using Plutchik’s wheel of emotions means making an investment in your emotional literacy. The benefits of such a pursuit will spread to every relationship you have in life. 

Emotional Wheel + You

The most important relationship is the one you have with yourself. Here is where you should focus the deepest because internal conflicts (ie. not knowing how you feel or why) create inner turmoil that seeps into every aspect of life.

Ask yourself: “How am I feeling right now?”

Start checking-in with yourself on a regular basis so you can begin identifying your personal spectrum of emotions in real-time. Check the wheel: Locate your emotion and its degrees.

Pick an emotion on the wheel that feels the most accurate. Be patient with yourself because it can be a guessing game in the beginning if you’re new to thinking about your emotions. Then, check out the entire petal to assess where you are intensity-wise or see what other emotions are related to how you’re feeling. 

Did you let things escalate or did you check-in before that happened? Remember that simply naming your feelings helps disarm their potential to escalate.

Strengthen your inner voice: Listen to what the wheel is saying and act accordingly. 

It takes some practice, but when you acknowledge your true emotions instead of denying or repressing them, you are able to practice greater self-forgiveness and self-compassion, as well as actually learn from your emotionally-driven mistakes. 

If you’re not sure where to begin, start by doing a mindful body scan exercise where you check-in with the different parts of your body. If you are spiritual, you can also scan your spirit self or your chakras and heart mind. If you have a nagging feeling you don’t have a word for how you feel, you can take a look at the wheel of emotions or feeling wheel to get some insight. 

Engaging in this exercise works your emotional intelligence muscles. This means you are less likely to self-destruct or follow a path that was never meant for you, and you are more likely to practice self-control and calm in the midst of chaos and conflict.  

Emotional Wheel + Others

You can use the emotion wheel or feeling wheel to strengthen your relationships with other people including your children and relatives, romantic and platonic partner(s), co-workers, and literal strangers. 

Remember the emotion wheel: Accept that other people’s emotions are complex

Don’t make the mistake of thinking because you know about the emotion wheel that you can identify emotions in other people. This is a recipe for relationship breakdown (and a waste of your energy). 

Both the emotion wheel and the feeling wheel teach us:

  • Emotions are not isolated entities (they influence other emotions and actions)
  • Emotions are not static (they can vary in intensity)
  • Emotions are vast (you may not have even experienced certain emotions that are influencing others and vice versus)

It is best to use the emotion wheel or feeling wheel to develop your own communication skills so you can better navigate interpersonal relationships. Do not use the wheel in an attempt to decode someone else’s emotions or tell them how you think they feel and why. This strategy is not likely to help your relationship in the long run. 

Focus on yourself, listening to your own emotions, and developing your own emotional literacy and just watch how your relationships start changing as a result.

Before You Go

You already have everything you need within you to begin your journey to greater emotional vibrations and deeper emotional bonds with other people. You really can change the way you relate to your emotional self and the role emotions play in your relationships. 

This has the power to transform your connections and open new avenues in your path and all you need to do is begin by learning the language of emotions from the feeling wheel or emotion wheel.

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