Emotions and the Feeling Wheel

A question I ask (and get asked) a lot is, “How are you feeling?” I remember once when I asked this question to a guy that we will call Zach. After he completed a lengthy Step 4 inventory, I asked, “Zach, how do you feel?” He said, “I feel fine. To be honest, I’ve always been an easy-going person. I don’t get emotional often. I certainly never cry.” I could barely gather my thoughts when he said this. It was as if somebody brought out a mirror, stuck it in my face and said, “Sound familiar, Clark?”

Zach’s reply struck a chord within me because it is exactly how I use to describe myself to other people. I wore the descriptions of “easy-going,” “fun-loving,” “steady,” and “unemotional” as badges of honor. These descriptors were usually well received by others who would affirm my pleasant temperament. The problem with these personality traits is that they were false.

My Emotional Life Before and After Recovery

Much of my emotional life has been neither high nor low, but some gray space in the middle. Beneath my pleasant shell was a core deprived of emotional intelligence. My lack of emotional range was not due to lack of circumstances, but in large part to my pornography addiction. Porn was what I used to avoid any strong emotion. If a negative situation arose, my solution was to numb those feelings with porn. And because I had grown so accustomed to using porn to avoid negative emotions, I didn’t know how to experience positive ones. So I’d run to porn with those, too. I had no idea how to experience the full range of emotions in any sort of healthy way.

Since starting a life of recovery, I’ve been forced to broaden my emotional range. Feeling all of my emotions is difficult, but I am more alive than ever before. If a negative situation comes up, the goal is not to run and hide, but to experience emotions as they come. My choice to feel negative emotions opens myself up to experience a fuller joy and happiness in positive situations. I cannot have one without the other. I must choose to experience the bad parts of life in order to experience the good. If I numb my negative emotions, I lose my positive emotions.

Broaden Your Emotional Range

Now, even though I feel all my emotions, it can still be hard to determine what emotion I feel at any given moment. A helpful tool I’ve found is the Feeling Wheel, developed by Dr. Gloria Willcox.

The inner circle contains six core emotions: sad, mad, scared, joyful, powerful, and peaceful  The middle circle has 36 more specific words that stem from the six core emotions. The third outer circle has 36 even more specific words. The wheel can work in both directions. You can go from a core emotion to a specific emotion. Or you can go from a specific emotion to determine a core emotion.

For example, let’s say I wake up on a Monday morning to find that I forgot to do laundry and my car is low on gas. (Not only do I have to wear the one shirt that I don’t like but I also must showcase it to everybody as I fill up with gas on my morning commute). These two things by themselves may not be a big deal but I start my day overwhelmed. This is where the feeling wheel comes in handy. If I am overwhelmed, a more specific word for that is anxious, and the core emotion behind both is scared. The wheel just helped me to become more emotionally aware. I understand that when I am overwhelmed, I am really scared.

The feeling wheel also works in the opposite direction. Say I have a great conversation with my wife. This conversation made me feel peaceful, which a more specific word could be loving, and an even more specific word is serene. The feeling wheel has just helped me to go from a vague core emotion to a specific word to describe my emotion.

The ability to determine emotions is essential to a life of recovery. Unwanted sexual behavior is often a source of medication for unwanted emotions. To walk away from sexually compulsive behavior, you must broaden your emotional range and vocabulary. I believe the feeling wheel is a helpful tool to do just that!

            Here are three ways you can use the feeling wheel to develop an emotional vocabulary:

  1. Check-in with yourself whenever you detect a change in your emotions. This means you are less likely to bottle things up inside. It frees you to feel all your emotions and care for yourself well.
  2. Check-in with yourself every morning or before bed. This regular repetition will help you to develop an overall sense of your emotions and develop your emotional vocabulary.
  3. Pick one word from the wheel to describe how you feel before a check-in with a spouse or friend. Describe this to word to your partner and what circumstances have led you to feel this.


Clark Hasler is the Assistant Director for Awaken. He has personally benefited from Awaken’s ministry as it has helped him to navigate his own addiction to pornography and sexually compulsive behavior. Now Clark seeks to walk alongside other men to help them find freedom from sexual brokenness. He has been married to Katie since 2016 and together they have an awesome cat named Remy.