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The Emotion Wheel: How To Use It and Why

The Emotion Wheel makes it easier to understand your emotions and gain strong emotional awareness.


Emotions are a complex human experience that inform our thoughts, actions, and life choices. Having strong emotional health has been linked to greater life satisfaction and overall happiness, but understanding our emotions well enough to leave lasting positive change can be difficult. The Emotion Wheel is a tool that helps users dive into the "why" behind their emotions and figure out what their emotions are trying to tell them. This article covers the history of the Emotion Wheel, why you should use it to improve your mental health, and how to use it.

How are you feeling right now? Is it one distinct emotion or a messy combination of multiple emotions? If you were to walk through your day, starting from the moment you woke up to this moment, could you count how many emotions you experienced? 

Probably not. The human emotional experience is a complex one that scientists are still trying to understand. Humans shift from one emotion to another seamlessly, experiencing all the shades in between. Understanding our emotions can be key to understanding our mental health and making powerful, lasting changes in our lives. Identifying emotions is a part of many therapeutic techniques, including Dialectical Behavioral Therapy, Cognitive Behavioral Therapy, and Emotionally Focused Therapy. 

But with all the combinations of emotions, how can you sift through the chaos and identify what you’re feeling and why? The emotion wheel is one tool that can help.

What is the Emotion Wheel?

There are many different types of emotion wheels, all with their own uses. The one we show here is a standard emotion wheel with the six core emotions in the center: Fear, Disgust, Sadness, Happiness, Surprise, and Fear.

The Emotion Wheel breaks the six core emotions down into more specific feelings.

From there, the emotion wheel branches out into more specific emotions. The idea is that you can put your finger on the general feeling you’re experiencing—such as anger—and trace that emotion outward. For example, you find you’re feeling frustrated, and that’s only because you’re feeling provoked. 

The emotion wheel also ranks emotions by their intensity—threatened is a much more intense feeling than worried, which is a more intense feeling than fear. 

This core emotion wheel can be a tool to practice and strengthen your emotional intelligence.

The 6 Core Emotions

During the 1970s, psychologist Paul Eckman came up with the theory of the 6 primary emotions. These are emotions that form the foundation for all other emotions. When combined, they create the entirety of the emotional experience. Later in his research, Eckman expanded his theory to include contempt as the seventh emotion, although most emotion wheels continue to show the original six. 

“Emotions are a process, a particular kind of automatic appraisal influenced by our evolutionary and personal past, in which we sense that something important to our welfare is occurring, and a set of psychological changes and emotional behaviors begins to deal with the situation." - Paul Ekman, PhD

Emotions are a combination of our current environment and our past experiences. For example, two people are walking on the street when a big dog starts walking towards them. Person A grew up with large dogs and loves them, and they immediately experience happiness. However, Person B was once bitten by a large dog, and they immediately experienced fear. 

In this case, the environment was the same, but the two people’s past experiences were different, resulting in different emotions. 

Happy and Sad are two core emotions, but the emotion wheel shows they can expand into much more complicated and powerful emotions. Let’s dive into how you can use the emotion wheel to determine what you are feeling and improve your emotional intelligence.

How to Use the Emotion Wheel

The emotion wheel is a tool, and like all tools is not applicable in all situations. This wheel of emotions is a good tool to use when you are in a safe environment and able to think clearly about your situation. If you are in an immediate or perceived danger your body will go into a fight-or-flight mode, where your stress levels will be high and your brain’s main goal will be to get you out of your current situation. 

When using the emotion wheel, it’s best to calm your body and mind. Try some calming exercises to get into the right mind. When you’re ready, use the emotion wheel to dive into your emotions. 

  1. Identify the core emotion you’re feeling—Try to strip away the thoughts associated with what you’re feeling and just focus on the emotion. What’s at the core? Are you angry, afraid, happy, sad, surprised, or disgusted? 
  2. Notice any secondary emotions—Humans are complex, and sometimes you’ll feel more than one emotion at a time. In addition to the first core emotion you experienced, note any secondary emotions. For example, maybe you’re feeling sad and disgusted. 
  3. Look at the second ring of the Emotion Wheel, what resonates with you?—Time to take it a step deeper. Along the second ring, right down or note any of the emotions that speak to you. As it gets more complicated, it’s okay to note more than one emotion, but try to limit yourself to the three most powerful. 
  4. Mark the emotions you feel in the third ring—Sometimes, you don’t need the third ring. If the emotions in the second ring describe what you’re feeling, stop there. Sometimes though, what we’re feeling is intense. 
  5. Bring the thoughts back into it—What are the thoughts surrounding your emotions? Why are you feeling this way? Try to find patterns in your thoughts. 
  6. Write down any triggers—To help you form emotional intelligence, it’s important to know your emotional triggers. A trigger is a physical event that causes an emotion—like seeing something you’re scared of, a friend saying something hurtful, or a stressful drive. Keep a journal and write down your triggers and their corresponding emotions. 
  7. Plot a course of action—Not all emotions are negative, and it can be good to process them. Determine if a) You are in a safe enough space to fully process and b) You have the tools to do so. We’ll look into ways to process emotions later. If you are not able to process your emotions now, find a way to remove yourself from the situation or trigger more pleasant emotions. 

The emotion wheel can help you identify emotions, but what can you do with the identified emotions? To process emotions means to feel them fully, understand them, and move forward through them. It doesn’t mean to ruminate on them, but it also doesn’t mean pushing them away. 

Some healthy ways to process emotions include: 

  • Going for a walk 
  • Exercising 
  • Talking to a friend
  • Journaling
  • Drawing what you’re feeling 
  • A guided meditation 
  • Let yourself cry 

Identifying and processing emotions are both important aspects of emotional health.

What Is Emotional Health?

Emotional health is the ability to cope with both positive and negative emotions. It means when you feel terrified, vengeful, or depressed, you can still carry out actions in a way that remains true to your values and goals. It is not just pushing these emotions down or ignoring them, but instead acknowledging that all emotions have a message and role to play. 

Emotions tell us things we don’t always want to hear. Sadness may whisper to us that we have been hurt, and a confrontation needs to take place. Anger reminds us that we need to hold our boundaries. Fear keeps us from danger. 

But while our emotions are always valid, they’re not always right. 

You are entitled to your emotions, they are a true representation of what you are feeling based on your memories and current situation. However, they don’t always paint an accurate picture of what’s happening. For example, you might feel betrayed and frustrated that a friend lied to you. This is a perfectly understandable reaction! 

Someone with high emotional health will allow themselves to feel this pain over their friend's betrayal and confront their friend in a healthy, calm manner. When they hear that their friend has had a recent death in the family and don’t know how to talk about it, they can acknowledge that their frustration is not the best response to this situation, even though it is still valid. Instead, they lead with comfort and understanding. 

Someone without the practiced emotional health may cut this friend off completely without hearing their side, or yell at them despite hearing their side. 

Of course, you might have high emotional health and still decide to break away from the friend. But the important part is you are doing so consciously and with a mind for your values. You are not reacting based off of your emotions, but instead seeing your emotions as just one puzzle piece into the puzzle of how you should act. 

Emotional health can be hard to cultivate, and the emotion wheel is just one tool to help you. If your emotions frequently get the best of you, or you feel one segment of emotions overwhelming, therapy can help. Lifebulb offers compassionate therapy that can help you understand your emotions and gain emotional health. 

Give our team a call for more information.

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Frequently Asked Questions

 The emotion wheel is a powerful tool that helps us identify and understand our emotions. It is a visual representation of different emotions, divided into sections. By using the wheel, we can pinpoint and label our feelings, which is crucial for self-awareness and emotional regulation.

 The emotion wheel works by giving us a framework to recognize and categorize our emotions. Each section of the wheel represents a specific emotion, allowing us to identify and express how we're feeling more accurately. By using the wheel, we can expand our emotional vocabulary and develop a deeper understanding of ourselves and our emotions.

 You can use the emotion wheel as a tool for self-exploration and emotional well-being. Start by taking a moment to reflect on your current emotions and find the category that best matches how you're feeling. This will help you gain clarity and insight into your emotional state. Additionally, the emotion wheel can facilitate communication with others by providing a common language to express your emotions effectively.

 Emotional health refers to our ability to understand, manage, and express our emotions in a healthy and adaptive way. It involves developing self-awareness, regulating our emotions, and building healthy relationships. Emotional health is crucial for overall well-being as it impacts how we cope with stress, handle adversity, and maintain positive mental health.

Absolutely. Therapy can be incredibly beneficial for understanding and processing emotions. A therapist provides a safe and supportive space for exploring and expressing your emotions, helping you gain insight and develop healthier coping strategies. Through therapy at Lifebulb, you can learn to navigate and understand your emotions more effectively, leading to greater emotional well-being and improved mental health.

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