A Practical Map of What You’re Feeling Inside
By Aaron H. Wallace, Esq.
Emotions. They are the invisible driving force of humanity — ineffable, inescapable, and sometimes seemingly impenetrable. They reside within the very core of who we are.
You would think, then, the fact that there’s a map of how they work would be bigger news by now.
Maybe you’ve heard of Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions. Before last year, I hadn’t. As it turns out, emotions aren’t quite as unmappable as we believed. Psychologist Robert Plutchik created a flow chart of emotional functionality all the way back in 1980, and it does with cartography what Pixar’s Inside Out did with CGI — it makes emotion easy to visualize, conceptualize, and understand.
So salient is Plutchik’s Wheel that we might consider inducting it as an essential part of a new lawyer’s toolkit, right next to The Bluebook and Black’s Law Dictionary. After all, as I have previously written about, recent scholarship has even explored whether emotional regulation should be deemed a core competency for lawyers. Perhaps you’ve recently encountered a lawyer who could stand to acquire a little more emotional competency. Perhaps that lawyer was even you. (There have certainly been times when that lawyer was me!)
That’s why I’m so grateful for the opportunity of Well-Being Week in Law 2023, which designates today’s date as “Emotional Well-Being Day.” It’s the perfect chance to share this new — er, new to me — tool with you.
How the Wheel of Emotion Works
It’s simple really. At the center of the wheel are eight core emotions: ecstasy, admiration, terror, amazement, grief, loathing, vigilance, and rage. These are intense emotions. That’s why their shade of color is the darkest.
It can take a lot to move us into those deeply saturated shades of feeling. More often, we feel slightly lighter variations. Those are the ones that sit a ring out from the center, and they’re the moods most common to our emotional vocabulary (sometimes called the “primary emotions”): joy, trust, fear, surprise, sadness, disgust, anticipation, and anger. You might recognize these as the Inside Out characters, more or less.
From there, the emotions get lighter with each outer ring.
Some emotions combine to produce hybrid feelings. Those are represented by the outermost emotions. (You’ll notice that the triangles pointing to those hybrid moods are a blend of two core color shades.) Rage mixed with loathing, for example, yields contempt.
Objective One: Better Understand What You’re Feeling
The Wheel of Emotion helps us manage our emotions in a few ways. First, it provides a method for tracing our current emotional state to its deeper core.
Feeling annoyed? At its root, that’s an extension of rage.
Other connections are perhaps less obvious. When is the last time you thought of boredom as loathing, for instance?
Those verticals are significant because, pursuant to Plutchik’s theory, an emotion left unchecked has a tendency to intensify. Pensiveness can be healthy, but too much rumination can lead to sadness and, ultimately, grief.
On the flip side, accepting something can lead us to ultimately admiring it. Similarly, if you’re looking for more joy in your life, the wheel tells you to start with serenity.
Objective Two: Understand Opposite Emotions
Ah yes, the flip side. That’s an important dimension of the Wheel too. Plutchik posits that each emotion has an opposite, thus the design of the wheel. Admiration is the opposite of loathing. Ecstasy is the opposite of grief.
Understanding the opposites can do two things for us:
- Reveal some potential “medicine” for an undesired emotion. If you’re feeling disgusted by something, the wheel suggests you might try to find some quality to admire in it instead.
- Help us with social chemistry. Under Plutchik’s theory, opposite emotions do not always nullify one another when brought into the same room. Rather, they can have an intensifying effect. Someone who is feeling sad may have their spirits lifted by someone exhibiting joy — or they might be pushed further toward grief.
Objective Three: Understand What Others Are Feeling
Just as the Wheel of Emotion can help us understand our own feelings, it can also be instrumental in navigating the emotions of others. This can include not only our family and friends but also our colleagues, clients, opposing counsel, jurors, law office personnel, and so on.
Objective Four: Becoming Aware (and Analytical) of Our Emotions
The Wheel’s most important impact might be simply its ability to get us thinking analytically about emotion. With a mental framework in place, we can begin to manage our emotions rather than feeling them unquestioningly.
Emotionally regulated lawyers are generally better liked by their colleagues and clients, tend to perform better under pressure, and experience overall greater well-being. So there is practical utility to this kind of emotional analysis.
Is Plutchik’s Wheel of Emotions Generally Accepted by Psychologists?
While there are innumerable variations on Plutchik’s Wheel, many psychologists do recognize the notion that emotions exist along a spectrum, and that there is some symmetry among them.
This post brings to an end our celebration of Well-Being Week in Law 2023, an initiative of the ABA and IWIL. But the fun doesn’t stop here! Stay tuned to our social media & Sunny Decisis™ blog all year long for more great well-being content!
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