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What is an Emotion Wheel

Updated: Oct 8, 2020

I was first introduced to the emotion wheel in the early stages of my writing career. I had an eating disorder, and I was eating my feelings. I started writing to figure out how to express my emotions. My rational brain loved seeing all the emotions organized in such a comprehensive way.



An emotion wheel is a tool to help individuals learn to recognize and communicate their feelings. There are two: one by Dr. Gloria Willcox, which we will refer to as the Willcox Wheel, and the other by Dr. Robert Plutchik, which we will refer to as the Plutchik Wheel. We will examine both.


Dr. Gloria Willcox Emotion Wheel



The Willcox Wheel has six primary emotions; they are surprised, fear, anger, disgust, sad, and happy. The wheel starts on the inside with the underlying emotions then breaks down the feelings as you move outwards. There are two ways to use it.


Willcox Wheel can be used to identify what you are currently feeling, by using what's called "drill down." Drill down refers to starting at the center of the wheel and working outwards to a specific emotion. It's to understand better what you are feeling.


For example, if you are trying to identify how you are feeling about your promotion at work, you might pinpoint the feeling as surprised, but it's more than surprised. If you follow the wheel, you could be excited about the promotion. Maybe even eager to start your new role.


Willcox Wheel can also be used to reverse the emotion you are feeling by going to the opposite side of the wheel. If you are feeling surprised, excited, and eager, the exact opposite of those emotions is on the reverse side of the circle. So those emotions are disgust, disapproval, and loathing.


If you are feeling jealous, you want to feel sensitive. If you are feeling hesitant, you want to replace it with shock. Using the wheel, you can find which emotion you want to embrace. The Willcox Wheel can't tell you how to make your feelings do a 180, but it can help identify elusive feelings.


Robert Plutchik Emotion Wheel

The Plutchik Wheel has eight primary emotions; they are vigilance, ecstasy, admiration, terror, amazement, grief, loathing, and rage. Same principle as Willcox Wheel, the emotions across from each other are opposite. Joy is the opposite of sadness, trust is the opposite of disgust, fear is the opposite of anger, and surprise is the opposite of anticipation.


The same principle as Willcox Wheel, the emotions are arranged from inside out, but the Plutchik Wheel arranged the emotions by intensity. The different shades of the colors indicate the strength of the feelings. The darker the tone, the more intense. For example, the highest level of boredom is loathing.


This wheel does a better job of showing how emotions relate to each other. The part of the wheel with no colors represents the mixing of two primary emotions. For example, mixing trust and fear results in submission, combining disgust and anger results in contempt.


How to use it?

Plutchik's wheel breaks down complicated concepts. It helps individuals discover what primary emotion they are feeling. It can also help the user identify the intensity of their feelings.


Plutchik took the wheel one step further with the theory of defense mechanism. Defense mechanism states that a stimulus creates an emotion that creates an action. Plutchik used the eight primary emotions to explain those stimuli and responses. For example, a threat will create fear and cause the individual to escape to safety. It means that every emotion intends to produce an action. When a feeling is activated, it is to survive.



In Terms of an Eating Disorder

An eating disorder messes up our body's defense mechanism. When a stimulus activates an emotion, the correct action is replaced by eating, fasting, or purging. Instead of escaping to safety or gaining resources, we eat.



Eating your emotions causes all sorts of problems, as I'm sure you know already.

Emotions become blurred, and eventually, every feeling is felt the same way.

Emotions also become your hunger signal, and our biological signals shut down.

Eating becomes a way to numb your feelings and not feel your emotions at all.



What to read next?

How to Express Feelings


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Hi! I'm Renae!

Progress Not Perfection Company (PNPCo) is a health coaching service for undiagnosed eating disorder survivors. We provide classes and one-on-one sessions focusing on fitness and nutrition with an emphasis on science and holistic health that will teach you to live a healthy lifestyle.

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