Do you often use words like stressed, anxious, bad, good, fine or okay to describe how you feel?
That’s six words – only one of which is an emotion.
According to studies conducted by Robert Plutchik, PhD. in the 1980s, humans can experience 34,000 unique emotions (that’s a lot of nuance!).
Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions
However, Plutchik postulated that it’s not possible to understand and nuance each of these 34,000 emotions. To simplify things, he narrowed them down to eight primary emotions (that’s a lot of pruning!).
He developed what is commonly known as Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions, which contains eight primary emotions. Each primary emotion has:
- an opposite emotion (for example, the opposite of joy is sadness or the opposite of anticipation is surprise)
- different intensities of the same emotion (for example, anger intensifies into rage and de-intensifies to annoyance, joy intensifies into ecstasy and de-intensifies to serenity)
- another emotion with which it combines to form secondary emotions (for example, anger combined with disgust can lead to contempt, joy combined with trust can lead to love)
Personally and professionally, I don’t see emotions as having ‘opposites’. In the dictionary, they might, but you could say there’s a “dictionary opposite” and a “subjective opposite”. Emotions are inherently subjective; experienced by a person and not directly verifiable by others. The opposite of joy may be sadness for one but hopeless for someone else. Plutchik himself described emotions as hypothetical constructs – ideas that help describe a specific experience. And experiences are subjective, they pertain to personal mindsets, arising from perceptive mental conditions within the brain.
There are different emotion wheels out there and you can take your pick with what resonates with you. This emotion wheel developed by the Junto Institute identifies some basic emotions and opens up various other ones that might stem from that basic feeling, offering a larger, more nuanced emotional vocabulary.
Why do we need such a large vocabulary to identify our states of being?
- For one thing, research is showing that being able to put your emotions into words with some specificity helps you to feel better and to be more resilient. A study found that individuals who were able to recount a difficult situation in a journal and precisely pinpoint the emotions that arose seemed to experience less stress and coped better, compared to those who were less able to be specific and differentiate their emotional responses (using the good, fine, ok type of vocabulary).
- For another, a nuanced emotional vocabulary helps with what is known as emotional transparency; the ability to know your own feelings and to talk about them so that others understand them. Many of us want to be understood when we don’t first understand ourselves. We expect others to read our minds and feel disappointed, hurt, neglected or even betrayed if others fail to understand how we are feeling or what we need.
Having an extensive emotional vocabulary enhances your emotional literacy too, which makes navigating your emotions a whole lot easier.
While ‘literacy’ literally means the ability to read and write, it is also defined as a person’s basic skill or knowledge of a subject. The subject here is your emotions, and since the experience of emotions arises within you, the ultimate subject here is YOU. So when you build your emotional literacy you not only understand the nuances of emotions and how different emotions relate to one another but you also start to understand yourself more.
Ways in which to use the Emotional Wheel:
- Take the time to reflect in a journal, use this wheel to pinpoint your thoughts and feelings as you write.
- Share it with your kids. If they (or you!) journal or write in a diary, encourage them to check in with the wheel before they write down their thoughts and feelings.
- Build your self-awareness; use the wheel at different times after different situations with different people and notice your self-awareness over time.
- Use it in a group (friends, book club, meetings, with the family) to build empathy for and understanding of others. Whoever is comfortable to, can have a look, notice what they are currently feeling, share the word, and optionally share the reasons why they may be feeling that way. Listen and tune in to their experience without questioning or judging. Emotions are personal to each of us, biologically and psychologically – they cannot be debated or denied. When done respectfully and non-judgementally, this exercise builds empathy by helping us understand and relate to others. This exercise is not just for the uncomfortable emotions, notice the feel-good ones, too! Love and joy have many nuances.
- If you use EFT, this emotional vocabulary really helps to get specific. Use it the next time you create your Setup Statement and notice what’s different.
It’s true that emotions are personal to each of us and cannot be argued or denied. However, emotions can be questioned – although each emotion is valid, it might not be telling you the truth. More about this in another post.
- Buy the Junto Emotion Wheel (great to put on the fridge, above your desk or in your child’s bedroom)
- Download the Feeling Wheel from The Gottman Institute (PDF) developed by Dr. Gloria Willcox
- Search on Google for Emotion Wheels – find one that’s not subject to copyright and print it out for your personal use.
Since writing this article, I have developed my own Emotion Wheel. Sign up for my newsletter to get your free download.