Get to know yourself better through the wheel of emotions

A new handle on old acquaintances

While browsing Wikipedia on human emotions, I came across what is called the Geneva Emotion Wheel. It presents 20 human emotions across the two axes, activated/calm and unpleasant/pleasant:

You will see that different types of emotions are spread around the circle, according to their relative strength on the two dimensions. And I have to say that I find the depiction entirely accurate in the sense that I would not want to switch any of the dots.

I noticed that I had instant associations for some of the emotions that seemed to fit with one of the emotions in particular. I then sat down and just brainstormed everything that came to my mind; whether an activity or object, I mapped it to wherever I thought it fit the most.

After about 5 minutes, I already had about 25–30 specific associations off-the-cuff and — knowing my own stories all too well — most of them were about the things I’d think about most of my time. Curious!

Here is how that looked for me:

Damn right, I also noticed some deep stuff. Compelling were the cases that showed up more than once: There was little doubt that those terms were related to them all, although the differences between the feelings were quite remarkable. The intuitive interpretation for this is that we can experience multiple emotions about a cause — a.k.a. mixed feelings.

The other big one is that I can easily see how certain elements are interconnected and what I could do to get things in a relationship I would prefer. Let’s take a closer look at one: I feel fortunate in my current life situation. Hence economic reasons won’t be a strong motivator to start a business from zero. 

The above example might seem obvious to you, but I’ve been trying to get into this position for most of my life, and I still need to catch up with the fact that I’m wealthy, both objectively and, more importantly, as seen through the eyes of my former self. I got what I wanted long ago, but some of my default thought patterns and emotions come from the days where that wasn’t the case. Now I can choose a motivator that I associate with positive emotions (which is probably how great businesses get started in the first place anyway).

To say the least, the simplicity and clarity that comes from this exercise are on a new level for me. This quick exercise has been the most effective psychoanalysis for me that I can recall to this day. Here are a few reasons why:

  • I didn’t know that such distinctive human emotions existed, let alone have a helpful map for how they could be logically structured.

  • Writing some of the connections down in such a simple manner doesn’t require any more words to understand the relationship between some (seemingly!) essential things in my life — and I even learned about some of them in the first place.

  • The map has shown me plenty of things that I deeply care about, regardless of whether it is good or bad.

  • If I’m feeling down next time, I can pull out the sheet and locate myself on it, thereby paving the way to accept the emotion and possibly guide my mind or actions towards something more positive.

Note that the last one might be a bit tricky: Overriding negative emotions with positive distraction is not an ideal strategy all the time. If taken to the extreme, it can turn into a form of escapism which may not solve a deeper issue at hand and leave you with more damage in the end.

Just in case you are wondering, I certainly didn’t like everything that I wrote on the left side, nor did it feel great writing them down or presenting them on the Internet. But that is not the point here: That’s how things are at a given moment, and I might as well be aware of what is going on. Nor does any of the terms mean that this is how things are — some of the unpleasant ones actually made me chuckle when I wrote them down.

If you haven’t caught fire by now, nothing in the remainder will. In that case, you might want to spend your time in a better way. But if you have, I encourage you to go towards the flame! You may not “like” some of the things you discover, but those will give just as much power as the others. It gives you the power of awareness to precisely articulate your relationship with something or someone and the ability to choose your actions accordingly.

This reminds me of the Serenity Prayer, which was first written by Reinhold Niebuhr and neatly adapted by Russ Harris:

“Develop the courage to solve those problems that can be solved, the serenity to accept those problems that can’t, and the wisdom to tell the difference.”

Do you need to wait for the perfect moment of inner peace and mental alertness? Hell no! You just sit down for a few minutes and give it a go. That’s how I did it. And when I realized that writing gave me joy and pride, I sat down and started writing.

I also went above and beyond to digitize the whole thing and make a presentation template that you may copy here. Although I was not too fond of the part of actually sitting down and doing the same exercise all over again and with great care, I did it nonetheless because — you guessed it — being able to help someone else gives me contentment.

The next thing I did immediately was contacting a few friends that I haven’t talked to in a while. Because although I was about to meet one, the exercise surfaced that I will find interest, amusement, and joy speaking with another one. Not that this came as a surprise, but I took the hint regardless of it.


The Geneva Emotion Wheel is a fairly new but established tool, and there is a whole book chapter dedicated to it. But before you arm yourself with theory, I encourage you to sit down and do the exercise. This will keep your mind fresh and unbiased.

This wheel is not the only framework for emotions. You can check out this Wikipedia article to find a few.

Another possible angle on life comes from the wheel of life (the Western version, I don’t know the Buddhist version very well). Both models can work in harmony and help better understand the nuances in your emotions or the big topics in life.

Emotions don’t control our behavior. But to stay in a neutral state despite a strong sensation, we often have to make a conscious choice not to give in to the default reaction. There are ways to help with that, such as meditation and MBSR.


Thanks to Matilde Rosa and Maximilian Heidgen for providing valuable feedback on this.