Broadening Your Emotional Understanding Can Help Students, And You!

May 18, 2022
Laura Hall, D.Ed, NCSP

Did you know that there are at least 27 categories of emotions? Even more so, there is a range of each emotion depending on how intensely an emotion is felt. When we discuss mental health though, we do not seem to have as wide of a vocabulary. We tend to group emotions into nonspecific categories like “good or bad” or “happy or sad.” However, diversifying our vocabulary about emotions is important for everyone and can especially help our students understand better how they are feeling and how then to react to a variety of situations.

Look at the feelings wheel from Dr. Albert Wong, below. There are six primary emotions that are universal in humans, which include: happiness, sadness, surprise, fear, anger, and disgust. These basic emotions make up most of the vocabulary we use when discussing our feelings. When we look at a feelings wheel though, we see that each basic emotion stems off into secondary and tertiary emotions. On this specific wheel, there is also a bonus section labeled “bad” to help us decipher what exactly we are feeling since “bad” is not technically an emotion.  


Clinical Psychologist Kevin Gilliand said, "Your emotions also impact your thoughts, which is one of the reasons it's important to be accurate.  The emotion can unlock thoughts that help you have a broader understanding and perspective — at times, it's like knowing the right emotion unlocks a back-log of insight."

The language we use drives our overall emotional well-being. Expressing our emotions helps us feel connected, empowered, understood, supported, and in control.

Let’s Practice!

Practice on yourself, your kids, or your students to gain insight and help narrow down the search for the most fitting emotions.

  1. Pick a category: start your search by identifying the general category in the center of the wheel and then moving farther out, narrowing it down until you hit upon exactly what you’re feeling.
  2. Expand your emotional vocabulary: when you find yourself using the same word to describe how you’re feeling over and over again, go back to the wheel and determine if there is a better or more specific word to describe your emotions in that moment.
  3. Look for the positives: when it comes to emotions, sometimes we can get burdened down with all the negative ones. Make sure to look when you’re in a good mood too. Oftentimes, feelings like pride, confidence, joy, hope, and valued get overlooked but are equally if not more important to recognize.