The Feeling Wheel

Written by Janet Burr

In therapy, helping a client learn appropriate emotional expression can be tricky. Children, especially, tend to have a hard time labeling and understanding what they are truly feeling. For example, your child stomps their feet, storms off and slams their bedroom door. Clearly they are angry. But their behavior may actually be a response to feeling hurt or judged. Improving emotional expression can be extremely helpful, for both the child and the parent. Once a person has a clear understanding of what he or she is feeling, they can deal with it more effectively.

The Feeling Wheel (FW) is a beneficial tool to use when working on emotional efficacy. The FW is divided into many sections. The top half of the FW identifies more negative emotions and the bottom half, more positive emotions. The FW is then split into six color-coded triangles (three on the top and three on the bottom). The six inner emotions – Sad, Angry, Afraid, Peaceful, Powerful, Joyful – represent the emotions that are most easily identified. These are called secondary emotions. While they are easiest to identify and label, they are secondary to what a person actually may be experiencing (e.g., I know I’m feeling angry, but I’m actually hurt). The outer layers in each trajectory represent the primary emotions associated with each secondary emotion.

The Feeling Wheel

When using this tool in therapy (with children and adults), the client is asked to identify one of the six secondary emotions that they are feeling (the six closest to the middle of the circle). These are the easiest for most people to connect with. Then the client peruses the primary emotions listed in the “triangle,” or trajectory, for that emotion. They list as many as they feel truly fit what they are experiencing. Then time is spent processing the identified emotions. Note: For adult clients, it can also be helpful for them to read through the emotions listed in other trajectories. This can offer insight into other emotions the client is experiencing but may not have identified. For example, maybe they identified feeling angry, but then recognized that they are feeling lonely or insecure.

For parents (and couples): This is a great tool to use in the home! Hang it on your fridge and “check in” with each other every day. Instead of settling for an “I’m fine” or “I’m okay” response, encourage your child (or spouse) to use the FW to share a more accurate description of their emotional state. It’s a great way to stay connected with your child and as a family. It’s also a great conversation starter!

Gaining insight into true (primary) emotions helps develop more effective emotional expression. The better we are at identifying our emotions, the easier it is to control our responses (behaviors) which decreases negative responses and increases positive ones!

*Using the color version of the Feeling Wheel is recommended.

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