Feelings Wheel: A Tool for Empathy, Communication, and Self-Discovery

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Feelings Wheel: A Tool for Empathy, Communication, and Self-Discovery

Developed in the 1970s by psychologist Dr. Gloria Willcox, the feelings wheel is a tool used to help people identify and distinguish between different emotions. With its colorful, pie-shaped diagram divided into inner and outer rings, this deceptively simple tool provides a vocabulary for expressing our complex inner experiences. In this article, we’ll explore the origins, applications, and impact of the feelings wheel.

A Brief History

The feelings wheel was created as part of Willcox’s dissertation research into emotions and wellbeing. She recognized the need for a visual aid to help clients articulate their feelings more specifically. The first version had just 10 emotions. After years of testing, the wheel grew to include over 130 feeling words grouped into categories.

This research contributed to the growing field of affective science studying emotions. The feelings wheel became a popular resource for therapists, counselors, teachers and beyond. Simple yet insightful, it gave people a common language to communicate their emotional landscape.

The Basics of the Feelings Wheel

The outer ring of the feelings wheel includes words we might use in everyday conversation like happy, sad, angry, bored, etc. But the richness comes from the middle and inner rings.

These concentric circles feature more nuanced feeling states. For example, instead of just saying you’re sad, you can pinpoint whether you’re feeling “disappointed,” “neglected,” or “despairing.” The wheel aggregates related emotions together for more specificity.

There are versions tailored to different ages, but a typical feelings wheel has four to six rings divided into at least ten color-coded categories. These include feelings like:

  • Happy – feeling peaceful, glad, hopeful
  • Surprised – feeling amazed, curious, confused
  • Angry – feeling cold, frustrated, jealous
  • Disgusted – feeling contempt, mortified, repulsed
  • Scared – feeling anxiety, distrust, vulnerable

Using the wheel helps people find the right word to express the shades of our emotional experiences.

Applications of the Feelings Wheel

There are many ways the feelings wheel can be applied:

Personal growth – Clarifying feelings helps increase emotional self-awareness. The wheel helps find the source of triggers.

Communication – Choosing a descriptor from the wheel makes it easier to articulate your inner state to others.

Therapy – Therapists often use the wheel to help clients open up about emotions. It helps identify patterns.

Education – Teachers use feeling wheels to help students expand their emotional vocabulary and literacy.

Business – Managers can improve team communication and emotional intelligence with the wheel.

Research – Psychologists utilize it as a measurement tool in their studies on human emotion.

Mindfulness – Consciously recognizing our shifting emotions promotes living in the moment.

Art – Creative types use the spectrum of feelings to enrich their expressive works.

Though applications vary, the shared goal is to become more attuned to the nuances of emotion.

The Impact and Significance

The feelings wheel is one of the most widely used tools for emotional awareness. Its influence comes from making the invisible visible – equipping people with tangible terms to articulate the full range of human feeling.

Without a vocabulary, we struggle to convey or even understand our inner world. Emotions fill life’s spectrum, but anger, sadness, and fear often dominate discourse. The wheel offers balance through categorization, validating that all feelings are part of being human.

Demystifying emotions has therapeutic effects at individual and societal levels. As our inner seas grow calmer through recognition, we can navigate life with more self-knowledge, fulfillment, empathy and connection.

Frequently Asked Questions

How many emotions are identified on the feelings wheel?

Most feelings wheels identify between 120-140 distinct emotions. The wheel is not meant to encompass every human emotion, but provide a representative vocabulary of feeling states.

Who benefits from using the feelings wheel?

The wheel can benefit anyone seeking to understand emotions and improve communication skills. It is especially helpful for children still learning emotional literacy and for individuals in therapy. Teachers, parents, managers and healthcare workers also often utilize it.

What are the main categories of emotions on the wheel?

While categories vary on different versions, the most common are: happy, surprised, angry, sad, disgusted, scared, accepting, curious, pensive, trusting, impatient, and apathetic. These represent broad emotional groups.

How can you use the wheel if you don’t know what you’re feelings?

The wheel works best when you have some sense of your general emotional state, e.g. upset or tense. Scan the corresponding color zone to find a word that resonates. Over time, it becomes easier to pinpoint precise feelings.

Why is it important to have words to describe our emotions?

Putting feelings into words engages the rational brain, helping regulate the emotional center. This facilitates self-awareness, communication skills, relationship health, reduced anxiety/depression, and overall wellbeing.


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