The Five Primary Emotions

Use these to navigate and make sense of Your Inner World

By Jim Wolfson

We want to feel and connect with our emotions.  Yet our inner world is a vast sea of thoughts, feelings, sensations and images.  

By using a simple model of the Five Primary Emotions, we can quickly hone in on what we are feeling and provide meaning to our inner experience.  As a wise man once said “All models are wrong, but some are useful.”  This is a good model that will help you make sense of your emotions and help you to process them so you can move on with your life.  This Blog will identify the Five Primary Emotions and give you a guide to help you integrate what you are feeling.   

What are the Five Primary Emotions

The chart below lists the five primary emotions.  Anger, Sadness, Joy, Fear and Shame.  These five primary feelings will help you navigate and identify what is going on inside of you.  See How to Feel Your Emotions.  


(This chart was created by my colleague Ben Littauer)

How to Use the Five Primary Emotions Model

As your explore inside what you are feeling, locating it in your body, try to look for one of the Five Primary Emotions.  Sure, we all use different words, and that is ok.  For instance, “I feel enraged, pissed off, like I could smash something.”  This is fine, and using the model, its pretty easy to see these feelings fall under the category of Anger.  

It’s important to not get hung up on the exact words, but rather to use the model to help you sort out what is going on inside of you.  So if you are feeling like “I’m grieving the loss of my mother,” then you can use the general category of Sadness.  

Over time you will see that this model, although not perfect, is very effective.  If you find another model that seems like a better fit for you, by all means use it.  The important thing is to improve your ability to identify your emotions.

What if I feel more than one thing?

It’s normal to feel more than one thing at a time.  Some experts say that all five primary emotions are present all the time.  For the time being, understand that it’s common to feel a few different things at once.  For example, you might feel anger primarily.  And as you feel into your anger, you might discover sadness is present too. You could say “I feel anger on top of sadness.

Using the model, you also may discover that what you think you are feeling is actually something else.  You could begin the process and feel sadness, and as you deepen into it, you might discover that it is actually fear that is the primary experience you are having.  This is very common.  

Also, make sure to understand that this is just a conceptual model.  It’s quite artificial to conclude that “I’m feeling sadness on top or joy”, or that “I thought I was feeling anger but I realize that it’s actually anger.”  This is pure artifice, but very useful  We are drawing artificial distinctions to make sense of our inner world.

Asking questions to help identify the feeling

You can see in the chart of The Five Primary Emotions that there is a question next to each emotion.  Asking yourself these questions can help you sort through and narrow in on what is going on inside yourself.   For example, sadness is about loss and letting go.  You might be going about your day with a general unsettling feeling inside.  When you take the time to tune in, you may think it is fear or anger or sadness that is primary for you.  By then asking the question, “What am I letting go of?”  or “What is being lost?”, you might be able to see that you are really grieving the loss of a friend or a way of being, or even of your youth!   Asking the question will help you see that you are really feeling sadness.

Use the Model to identify your emotions

We’re swimming in a vast ocean of thoughts, feelings, sensations and images.  By taking the time to tune in to our inner world, and using the model of The Five Primary Emotions, you can identify what it is you are feeling as part of the process of integrating it and letting it pass through you.


1 thought on “The Five Primary Emotions”

  1. Pingback: How to Feel Your Emotions | Jim Wolfson

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