We all have reasons for not being able to identify or communicate our emotions. Whether these feelings originate from trauma, frequent hardships, or what we learned from our parents, they may have caused us to shut down. As researcher and best-selling author Brené Brown explains, “We all grew up and experienced it in varying degrees; trauma, disappointment, hard stuff . . . we armored up, and at some point, that armor no longer serves us.”
Clamming up can, of course, provide a sense of safety and security. However, it can also cause misunderstandings and unnecessary or prolonged conflict. For example, if you refuse to communicate about a problem, logically, the issue will persist.
Communicating our emotions helps build bonds with others, foster trust, increase emotional intelligence at work, and promote collaboration. Without communicating how we feel, we not only hold ourselves back from becoming our best version but also hold others back.
When you realize this disconnect, learning how to fix it becomes the next step. In this article, discover how to use the emotion wheel to articulate your feelings and increase the strength of your interpersonal relationships.
What Is the Emotion Wheel?
The emotion wheel features two concentric circles that demonstrate emotional degrees by color as they relate to eight basic emotions: anger, anticipation, disgust, fear, joy, sadness, surprise, and trust. Its purpose is to help people identify and communicate their emotions. The emotion wheel is also referred to as the feelings wheel or wheel of feelings.
The emotion wheel was created in 1980 by American psychologist Robert Plutchik. As part of his psycho-evolutionary theory of emotion, Plutchik added to the idea that there were six primary emotions, proposing that there are eight emotions that all humans experience. His feeling wheel showed that emotions present in varying degrees (from extreme to less extreme) and that when two emotions are combined (joy and trust, for example), a new emotion cultivates (love).
How to Use the Emotion Wheel (With Examples)
“An emotion is your brain’s creation of what your bodily sensations mean, in relation to what is going on around you in the world.”Lisa Barrett
A 2017 study by researchers Alan Cowen and Dacher Keltner found that 27 distinct varieties of emotion exist within the human experience. Unless you know all 27 of these off-hand, knowing which emotion best describes how you feel can be difficult. For this reason, the emotion wheel can be incredibly effective in helping people navigate their emotional states.
To use the emotion word wheel, think about the emotion that best describes how you’re feeling at that moment. Then, refer to the wheel to further understand the degree of that emotion and any related emotions. The following list are examples of how to put this into practice in business using the seven core emotions in the diagram.
During a team meeting, an employee claims credit for the success of a recent marketing campaign. As the leader, you understand that the campaign’s success was the result of good work by many, not just one. For this reason, you become angry with the boastful employee.
Before angrily confronting the employee after the meeting, review the feelings wheel. Anger is your primary emotion, but on the feelings wheel, irritation, mistrust, and frustration are in the next degree. After reviewing it, you find that frustration better describes how you feel about the employee rather than anger. Fully understanding this, your emotional intelligence has now increased and you’re better able to communicate with that employee effectively.
You see a fellow team member take a shortcut to finish a project early. You know that the shortcut they took goes against company policy and is unethical. As a result, you feel disgusted with your team member.
You want to say something to them. Before you do, however, review the wheel of emotions. You see that related to disgust are disapproval and judgment, and realize that while you feel disgusted, the root emotion is disapproval. You don’t approve of your team member’s work ethic and poor judgment. Realizing this, you can now confront your team member and communicate more deeply about how you feel about their actions.
You have a deadline for a major expansion, and work anxiety is at its highest. You’re fearful you don’t have enough time or resources to follow through with the expansion without delay. You don’t want to cause any unnecessary alarm, so talking to your manager about your fear is a dreaded option.
In this case, the wheel of emotions can help you get to the bottom of your fear. Is it really that you’re afraid, or is there another emotion underneath? Reviewing the emotion wheel, you see “anxious” and “overwhelm” one and two degrees off of fear. From this, you determine that “overwhelm” is a more appropriate term. Having identified that you’re overwhelmed, you’re now feeling more confident approaching your manager about the project. Your increased emotional intelligence enables you to calmly explain that adjustments will need to be made to better allocate time and resources.
You receive a long-awaited promotion at work. You’ve been working hard toward this new role over the past couple of years, so of course, you feel happy and ready to celebrate.
Explore the depth of this emotion by reviewing the wheel of feelings. One degree up from “happy” is “proud,” and one degree further up from that is “confident.” With this, you realize that while you are happy, “proud” adds more color to the true range of your emotion. You’re proud of your hard work and dedication, and that your company recognized it.
You were expecting a promotion at work, but it was given to someone else. A reverse scenario from the previous, this situation elicits feelings of sadness. You know you worked hard for that promotion, and it sometimes felt like your superior was hinting you’d get it.
You know your boss will be able to detect your sadness during your next meeting. Instead of avoiding the situation, lean into it by reviewing the feelings wheel first. Next to sadness, you see “hurt,” and beyond hurt is “disappointment.” You’re sad you didn’t get the promotion, but at the core, you feel disappointed because you had been led to believe you would. Understanding this, you’re now better able to express disappointment to your boss.
You manage a small team within a company, and everyone is very close. You know your team very well, and the corporate culture is positive. That is, until one of your members suddenly gives their two weeks’ notice. You didn’t see that coming at all or suspect any issues, so you’re surprised by the news.
Naturally, you want to communicate your surprise to the team member. You’re wondering if it was something you did or didn’t do that influenced their decision to leave. However, before approaching the employee, review the wheel of emotion to determine if surprise is the only emotion occurring. Surprise is the basic emotion, but one degree up from that is “confusion” and “shock,” and up from there is “unclear.” You realize that really what you’re feeling is “unclear.” You feel your team communicates well, so you want to gain clarity about what happened.
You’ve been working more than usual, and you can tell it’s starting to affect your mood. You’ve lost interest in doing things you enjoy, you can’t get enough sleep, and you’ve been short with your colleagues. You feel bad, but you can’t understand why.
These symptoms of work burnout can creep up on us. Things may be going well for a while when suddenly you feel like you’ve lost the motivation to do anything. In these situations, the wheel of feelings can be effective for really narrowing down what’s going on.
On the diagram, one degree up from “bad” is “stress” and “tired.” One degree further up from those is “overwhelm.” Using the feelings wheel as a tool, you discern that while you do feel bad, the root of that feeling is overwhelm. Now, you can use that understanding to communicate your needs better.
Increase Emotional Intelligence With the Emotion Wheel
Daniel Goleman, author of Emotional Intelligence, identifies four key components of emotional intelligence: self-awareness, self-regulation, empathy, and social skills. The first of these, self-awareness, can be boosted tremendously using the emotion wheel. This is because the emotion wheel forces you to look deeper at what you’re feeling rather than accepting it at face value. The wheel cultivates self-awareness by prompting the question, “What’s behind this emotion?”
Essentially, when we better understand ourselves, we better understand others. This is critical for living abundantly in all areas of our lives. Therefore, the next time a situation elicits a feeling, practice using the feelings wheel to dig deeper.
Tips for remembering to use the wheel of emotions in daily life:
- Print out a copy of the wheel and place it anywhere you’ll see it.
- Use an emotion journal to help uncover emotional layers.
- Drink your morning coffee from an emotion wheel mug.
- Place a small emotion wheel keychain on your keys.
- Put a free-standing emotion wheel block on your desk.
Continue on and read 4 Ways to Increase Emotional Intelligence for Personal Success to learn more about strengthening your personal and professional relationships.