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How Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions Will Guide Your Emotional Intelligence

Do you ever feel lost in a whirlwind of emotions? Are you unsure what triggers your reactions? Do you sometimes struggle to connect with others on a deeper level—even your spouse?

If so, emotional intelligence (or EQ for emotional quotient) might seem out of reach or feel daunting. However, emotional literacy is the first step to understanding your feelings, and the Wheel of Emotions is a simple tool that can help you get acquainted with your feelings and guide you to a calmer self.

Estimated reading: 7 minutes

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Blog Contents
What Are Emotions?
Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions: a Roadmap to Guide You
Illustration of the Plutchik Wheel of Emotions
Our Emotions Spectrum: the Eight Core Emotions
How to Read and Understand the Feeling Wheel
Origin, Development, and Applications of Plutchik Wheel
Unlock the Key to Your Emotional Health Using Plutchik's Emotion Wheel
Increasing Emotional Intelligence  with the Wheel of Emotion
Closing Thoughts

Not Just a List of Emotions!

The feeling wheel is not just a list of feelings. This visual map, created by Psychologist Robert Plutchik, is a framework for understanding our emotions, but also, their relationships with each other and varying intensities. Think of the wheel like a compass as you navigate your emotional landscape.

Imagine if you could:

  • Easily identify what you’re feeling and why.
  • Recognize what you need more quickly and accurately.
  • Effectively regulate your feelings.
  • Calm yourself to respond instead of reacting.
  • Empathize with others, helping them feel heard and valued
  • Anticipate frustration and prevent unnecessary conflicts.

Your life would be dramatically different, right?

These emotional intelligence abilities are foundational in living a happier, more meaningful life.

Ready to learn more?

Then, let's explore emotions as a foundation for your understanding of emotional intelligence.

What Are Emotions?

Most everyone knows that they have emotions (even if ignored or stuffed), and many times, they're downright inconvenient when they show up, aren't they!?

Have you ever been taken off guard by an unexpected emotional response? Yup, me too! 

That's why most people keep them at arm's length. However, when we don't understand our emotions, they remain mysterious. And we shun what we don't understand so that's often what makes emotions unpredictable.  

But what if you were to befriend your emotions and value them as vital information?

Would that change things for you?

Let's begin with the facts about emotions to unpack their mystery.

Science shows us that emotions are physical molecules, electrochemical signals coursing through our bodies continually. You've probably heard the saying, "Emotions are energy in motion." This phrase sums up a fact: emotions are always moving through you!

They are an intricate part of human biology and it's the way our brain processes our experiences.

Make sense?

Emotions help us interpret what happens in our lives. They assist us in understanding how we perceive our experiences, either positively or negatively, and what is meaningful to us—or not. IF we decode them!—that's why the feeling wheel is so helpful!

Think of positive and negative emotions simply as you would electricity with positive and negative charges.

Emotions are neutral. They are simply information.

Even though we may prefer joy over sadness, or laughter over grief, each emotion has a purpose to guide us.

Most importantly, our emotions ensure that we survive.
For instance, the disgust we feel at a poisonous berry that tastes awful; we spit it out! Or the fear we feel when seeing a rattlesnake; the snake's rattle and our natural fear tells us to move away from it. These emotions instruct us to protect ourselves.

Secondly, emotions guide us to thrive.
They point us to people, goals, pursuits, interests, and hobbies that bring us enjoyment or bring out the best in us. These emotions point us to our full potential, or to thriving.

The trick is learning how to pay attention to our emotions, to work with them, and not to resist them. That's where the feeling wheel comes in really handy.

Two colleagues laughing in office lobby.

Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions: a Roadmap to Guide You

Plutchik’s tool lays out a spectrum of human emotions, from primary feelings to their interconnections and opposites. It provides a clear map for understanding and navigating one's emotional world.

With this wheel, you'll gain insights into how emotions influence your thoughts, actions, and relationships, empowering you to articulate and manage your feelings better.

The eight core emotions and their opposites form the essence of the emotion wheel: joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust, each paired with its opposite. The opposite emotions are isolated but connected across the wheel. Opposite emotions tend to balance each other, while adjacent emotions can blend or intensify each other.

Here’s how the opposites pair:

  • Joy vs. Sadness: These emotions represent happiness and sorrow. Joy fosters contentment and satisfaction, while sadness encompasses grief and disappointment.
  • Trust vs. Disgust: Trust means feeling safe and reliable in others; something or someone can be trusted. Disgust is a reaction to unpleasantness or revulsion, not to be trusted.
  • Fear vs. Anger: Fear involves a threat response, leading to anxiousness or apprehension, opposite to anger, which arises from frustration or perceived wrongs.
  • Surprise vs. Anticipation: Surprise is the unexpected, whereas anticipation is looking forward to a future event, sometimes with eagerness or anxiety.

Emotions get stronger in toward the center of the wheel and less intense at the outer petals. For instance, in the red section, the primary emotion is anger. The less intense feeling is annoyance, but in the same family. One level in the other direction toward the center, is a more intense emotion: rage. 

See the feeling wheel below.


Machine Elf 1735, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

This visual representation above enriches emotional literacy, enabling you to understand what you’re feeling. Once you know what you're feeling and listen to its guidance, you can express your feelings appropriately in the relationship and according to the situation.

By using Plutchik's wheel for self-reflection and analysis, you can develop a deeper awareness of your emotions and befriend them to improve your emotional literacy, self-management, and well-being.

Our Emotional Spectrum: the Eight Core Emotions

Our emotions are complex and guide our interactions. Plutchik distilled human emotions to eight in the middle (second ring) of his Wheel of Emotions.

Let's explore the eight core emotions, their meanings, and nuances:

  1. Joy: Signaling something beneficial, joy draws us towards the source, be it a warm embrace, a playful pup, or a sunny day. Think of it as a beacon guiding us toward what feels good and right. More intense joy manifests as ecstasy, while its calmer counterpart is serenity.
  2. Trust: Signifies safety and security, fostering reliance on individuals, objects, or expected behavior. It forms the foundation for secure relationships. Admiration represents its intense form, while acceptance reflects a milder degree.
  3. Fear: Fear emerges as a protective mechanism when faced with uncertainty or potential danger. It prompts us to avoid threats, feelings of helplessness and a desire to safeguard ourselves or what we hold dear. Terror represents its most intense state, while apprehension reflects a milder level of cautiousness.
  4. Surprise: This immediate reaction to the unexpected jolts us, causing a momentary freeze, followed by processing new information. Whether we encounter a hidden friend or receive shocking news, surprise disrupts our routine, pushing us to adapt and integrate the unique experience. While amazement embodies its more intense form, distraction reflects a milder, fleeting surprise.
  5. Sadness: Physical or symbolic loss triggers feelings of sadness. This state reflects the emotional response to what is missing, whether a loved one, a missed opportunity, or unfulfilled hopes. Grief captures intense sadness, while pensiveness reflects a milder sorrow.
  6. Anticipation: This emotion arises when we wait for something joyful or dreaded. It encompasses a spectrum of feelings, from nervous excitement to anxious apprehension. Vigilance embodies its intense form, while interest reflects a milder state of expectation.
  7. Anger: Frustration, blocked goals, or violated boundaries trigger anger, a signal for change. Rage is anger’s most intense form, while annoyance is milder. Research suggests anger can mask deeper emotions.
  8. Disgust: This emotion is a protective mechanism that alerts us to potential threats, such as spoiled food or harmful behavior. It prompts us to reject or avoid things we perceive as detrimental. Loathing is its intense form, while boredom reflects a milder aversion. Studies indicate that disgust can even influence our moral judgments.

Woah! ...that’s a lot of information!

So let's break it down for you.

Below, we'll review the structure and how to read the wheel.

How to Read and Understand the Feeling Wheel

Here’s a broader look at the meaning and function of the wheel. 

  • The Edges: Here, milder emotions reside. Feeling drained or uninspired? Perhaps boredom or distraction is at play. Content and serene? Maybe acceptance or peace is at play.
  • Delving Deeper: As we move inwards, the colors intensify, reflecting more prominent emotions. Do you sense unease or cautious anticipation? That could be apprehension. Are you feeling a connection and trust toward someone? Perhaps admiration is blossoming.
  • The Core: Potent emotions are at the heart of the wheel. If you feel overwhelmed by joy, you might be experiencing ecstasy. If you struggle with loss, you might be navigating grief.
  • Beyond the Basics: Emotions rarely exist in isolation. Fascinating combinations exist between the spokes. Feeling disgusted by someone's actions but drawn to them? That might be contempt, a mix of anger and disgust.
  • Putting It Into Practice: Now, imagine feeling discontent. Look at the wheel and explore its edges. Do any resonate? You might find a blend of boredom and apprehension, maybe from a lack of clear direction.

Using the Emotion Wheel as a guide, you can move beyond vague notions and embrace your extraordinary emotional complexity.

The more you explore, the better you understand yourself and connect with others.

Being able to decipher core emotions and their nuances enhances self-awareness and gives us valuable insights into our interactions. Self-awareness turns on the lights to help you navigate emotional turbulence, to guide you back to sanity, to 

As Plutchik emphasizes in his work, recognizing and acknowledging our feelings empowers us to manage them effectively, leading to higher EQ.

Brain maze with a light bulb indicating understanding.If you love historical background, read this next section.

If you just want the practical “how to,” skip it!

Origin, Development, and Applications of the Plutchik Wheel

The Wheel of Emotions originated in the 1980s when Psychologist Robert Plutchik developed it as part of psycho-evolutionary theory. Influenced by Charles Darwin's insights into emotions and their adaptive functions, the wheel categorizes emotions into eight primary categories and their varying intensities.

Plutchik's work revolutionized dynamic psychology by offering a structured emotional analysis and interpretation framework, advancing the field significantly.

The use of the Feeling Wheel has also extended to sociology and art. Sociologists use it to organize their studies on emotions, especially during the 'emotional turn' in social science, highlighting the role of emotions in social and cultural contexts.

In art, Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions inspires and provides information for creative works and analyzes the emotional content of art pieces. For example, Mani Takwani's art is influenced by Plutchik's model. They use color and form to depict the eight primary emotions and their connections.

The model has applications in communication, leadership, and conflict resolution. Understanding emotions can enhance relationships and nurture emotional intelligence. Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions is valuable in unraveling human emotions and navigating diverse emotional terrain.

Unlock the Key to Your Emotional Health Using Plutchik's Emotion Wheel

Now that you know about Plutchik’s wheel, let’s examine how you can use it to improve your emotional intelligence. 

Learn the Wheel

This vibrant wheel is divided into eight primary emotions, each branching into feelings of varying intensity, connected by their opposites and complementary emotions. This map helps pinpoint your feelings and explore their nuances.

Check Your Emotional Weather

Pause and reflect. What emotion are you feeling right now? Is it mild irritation or full-blown frustration? Start with the primary emotions and find the closest emotion on the wheel. Then consider its intensity based on the color shade (darker = more intense). 

Explore Deeper

The wheel encourages you to look beyond the surface by exploring opposite emotions (joy vs. sadness). This helps you understand if you're suppressing one emotion by over-expressing another. For example, constant annoyance might mask underlying disappointment. 

Decode Complex Emotions

Sometimes, over-expressing emotions goes beyond the eight primary ones (joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, anticipation, anger, and disgust). Consider feeling more than one emotion. For example, disgust and anger create hostility or hatred, while joy and acceptance create love. 

Understand the Why Underneath Behavior

Once you've identified the emotion, ask yourself: "What triggered this feeling?" Understanding the root cause empowers you to manage your emotions effectively. Your anger might stem from feeling unheard, while sadness might stem from unmet expectations. 

Choose Your Emotional Response

The wheel helps identify "opposite" emotions as antidotes. Feeling overwhelmed? Consider serenity. Need a motivation boost? Look to the joy quadrant. This empowers you to choose healthier responses.

Several black men laughing together while looking at a smartphone!

Practice Makes Progress

Mastering your emotions takes practice, and it might even be a lifetime endeavor. However, the more you understand, the more competent you’ll become. Use the feeling wheel throughout your day whenever you experience positive or negative emotions. The more you use the feeling wheel, the more it becomes an intuitive tool for self-awareness and emotional regulation.

Simple, right?

Use Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions to enhance your emotional literacy and understand yourself and others.

Increasing Emotional Intelligence  with the Wheel of Emotion

Many struggle with understanding and managing their emotions. Emotional turbulence upsets many people’s lives, whether it’s anxiety or depression, or being too emotional. No matter how much we might try to stuff our emotions, they dramatically impact our personal and professional lives—for better or for worse.

Thankfully, a simple first step towards higher emotional intelligence (EQ) is accurately identifying your feelings. This is where Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions comes in handy.

But it goes beyond just naming emotions. The Wheel offers a structured approach to deepen your understanding:

  • Categorize: Group your feelings into eight primary categories with which most people can identify. This helps you see common themes and gain self-awareness.
  • Recognize Opposites: Understanding how joy and sadness can influence each other, refining your self-awareness and empathy.
  • Gauge Intensity: Use the color-coded levels to identify the strength of your emotions, which will help you manage and express them more effectively.

The more you understand your feelings and reasons, the better you feel and communicate, making work and personal life more manageable and more fulfilling.

So, why is Plutchik's Wheel more than just a fancy emotion list? It's like an emotional map, revealing connections, intensities, and even paths to solutions.

Here's how it helps:

  • Visualization power: The colorful wheel relates to the appropriate emotions (red for rage, for example), making them easier to identify.
  • Understanding yourself: As you recognize your own emotions, you learn to see things from others' perspectives, boosting empathy and communication.
  • Personalized Journey: Remember, emotions are unique. While the wheel offers a starting point, feel free to personalize it with words that truly resonate with you.

Taking it deeper:

  • Exploring Intensity: Practice using the wheel to map out the intensity of different emotions and how they connect. This can help you navigate complex emotional states and manage them effectively.
  • Navigating Challenges: When conflicts arise, use the wheel to analyze your emotions and choose healthy responses. It can be valuable for improving communication, resolving issues, and promoting personal growth.

Think of the wheel as a guide, not a rulebook. Explore, personalize, and use it to understand yourself and your relationships better. Just like there are many uses for a ladder, you’ll get better at discovering your own unique ways of applying the information. Be patient because although it is a framework, if you’re just beginning to acknowledge emotions, it can seem overwhelming.

Closing Thoughts

When we're more aware of our feelings and what fuels them, we can enjoy the highs and navigate the lows of daily life. Pluchik’s Wheel of Emotions helps improve our emotional intelligence by providing a great tool for familiarizing ourselves with the many variants of our emotional nature.

Do you want to explore and understand your emotional intelligence better? Plutchik's Wheel of Emotions is a starting point. Heartmanity's online Emotional Intelligence course provides you with the basics of emotional literacy, emotional awareness, how to set healthy boundaries, and the key steps to empathize effectively.

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Jennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence CoachJennifer A. Williams / Emotional Intelligence Coach
Jennifer is the Heartmanity founder and an emotional intelligence expert. She has two decades of EQ experience and is the author of emotional intelligence training and courses. As an emotional fitness coach, Jennifer teaches EQ skills, brain science hacks, and a comprehensive approach that gets results. She is happily married and the mother of three incredible grown children.

Posted in Emotional Intelligence & Fitness

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