The ‘Feelings Wheel’ Reveals the Complexity of Your Emotions

Photo: Getty Images / Stephen Zeigler
Emotions are complex, and yet we generally use oversimplified—and often, inaccurate—language to describe them. When I say, "I'm depressed," for example, I typically mean I'm stressed, anxious, tired, and feeling stuck in the circumstances that've led to those emotional states—none of which actually describes sadness. Essentially, then, I'm not communicating effectively, which makes it difficult for anyone—my therapist, boyfriend, best friend, etc.—to help me feel better. Plus, if I don't understand my own emotional state, I can't effectively improve things for myself, either. "We often feel 'strange' or 'wired' or 'down' but don’t necessarily have the proper words to express what we feel," says performance coach Dris Mi.

To solve for this, Gloria Willcox created what's known as "the feelings wheel," a chart designed to help people quickly and easily identify the specifics of their emotional state. "The feelings wheel allows people to accurately name their experience, which often leads to using tools that are more effective at managing those emotions," explains Sabrina Smith, LCSW.

The wheel features three rings, the innermost of which includes six core emotions: sad, mad, scared, joyful, powerful, and peaceful. These are go-to emotional states but they're fairly vague, which isn't all that helpful when it comes to trying to remedy (or achieve) them. The outer two rings, however, drill down into the specific emotions associated with those larger emotions to give you a better sense of what to do about them. "For example, [let's say] someone says that they are feeling sad—when that person realizes that the feeling is actually guilt, how they would cope with the feeling of guilt would look different from someone who realized that their sadness is actually loneliness," Smith explains.

In a clinical setting, this nuance is especially helpful, says psychologist Aimee Daramus, PsyD. The wheel can help translate a diagnostic term into a personal description of someone's experience. "'Depression' is a diagnosis, but the actual experience varies a lot by person. To treat it effectively, a therapist needs to know about that personal experience. Does the person feel sad? Emotionally numb? Angry? Physically tired but for emotional reasons? When a client and I are deciding how we want to approach depression, we’d approach sadness differently than numbness," she says.

There's a second way to utilize the chart, too; you can look to it as a tool for identifying your goal emotions. If you're feeling anger with respect to your job, for example, you might look across the wheel at anger's opposite emotion, joy, and then seek out a new job (or situation within your current job) which enables the second and third-tier emotions, e.g. "proud", associated with that feeling of joy. In other words, you can use the outer rings of the wheel as a guide to back yourself into major positive mood states. (Trying to simply find a job that makes you broadly happy is difficult, where trying to find one that makes you feel more specifically hopeful is less so.) "I often use the feelings wheel to help clients improve their outcomes and make better decisions," Mi explains.

Of course, being able to identify an emotion is only the first step in working through it, whether that work need be done alone or with another person (your significant other, therapist, co-worker, or best friend). "Having a tool that helps someone find the right words won’t cure anything by itself," says Dr. Daramus. "But people often feel a little better [after using the wheel] just because they feel listened to and understood."

PSA: There are four distinct stress personalities, and your proclivity for UTIs (migraines, etc.) may actually be attributable to yours. And here's how to strengthen your emotional resilience

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