Core Emotions

Inside Out emotions

I was recently listening to an episode of the Two Pastors Podcast dealing with fear, anxiety, anger and hatred, and it got me thinking. I really enjoyed Inside Out, in part because it very effectively and dramatically incorporated a lot of research on core emotions that I have been learning about for the last few years, particularly based on the work of Paul Ekman. (If you have ever heard of a “micro-expression” then you’ve heard something of Ekman’s work) In brief, Ekman and others have identified five (or maybe six) core emtions based on universal human facial expressions and bodily cues. In the context of Inside Out, there were five core emotions: anger, disgust, fear, joy and sadness. To this list Ekman and others might add surprise, but that isn’t an important one for what I want to talk about.

I’ve used ideas around these core emotions, and their healthy expression and function, in situations like pastoral counseling and the spirituality groups I led for the behavioral health program at a hospital in San Francisco. I’ve also used these ideas a lot in my own life, not only trying to increase my EQ but also better understand myself and better manage my own mental illness challenges (depression and anxiety).

I found this really cool matrix based on the Inside Out emotions online that show show these five core emotions can combine to create other emotional experiences. I liked it, but I didn’t think it was quite right, so I made my own:

Anger Disgust Fear Joy Sadness
Anger Rage Hatred Panic Triumph Grief
Disgust Hatred Revulsion Horror Morbid Fascination Loathing
Fear Panic Horror Terror Surprise Despair
Joy Triumph Morbid Fascination Surprise Ecstacy Nostalgia
Sadness Grief Loathing Despair Nostalgia Despondency

One of these that I think I need to explain is the combination of joy and anger, I decided to characterize as triumph. Previously, I had fiero and also righteous anger in that slot: fiero I get from Ekman – he thought there was a particular facial expression for the feeling one experiences in something like a crucial sports victory, and he didn’t think there was a good English word for that feeling, so he used an Italian one. But just imagine the exultant, gritted-teeth, clenched fist emotion someone might exhibit right after they score a goal. This emotion might be distinct from righteous anger, but righteous anger was another example of how I understand a combination of anger and joy. I decided to go with triumph, however, but I’m not as confident about that one as I am with others.

Another key note: of the five core emotions, each has a healthy and necessary function for us, even though we think of most of them as “negative emotions.” In fact, of those listed, the only obviously “positive” one is joy. But one thing I loved about Inside Out is that each of the emotions had their place in one’s health, and a person couldn’t get by without all of them. Just like in real life.

Where one emotion intersects with itself in the matrix, I just listed an extreme form of that emotion, each of which is probably less healthy in its own right. But how these various combinations map to “health” and so on is a whole other discussion.

For now, just check out the matrix and tell me what you think. For me, it was helpful just to write out, if nothing else.

6 thoughts on “Core Emotions

  1. trying again…I’m also pondering what the intersection of anger/sadness is. I don’t think “betrayal” is quite it (although that would certainly cause anger and sadness…). frustration? disappointment? grief?

    I enjoy your matrix. thanks for making it. 🙂


    • Yeah, I wasn’t sure what to put in that intersection. Betrayal is close – that’s a situation that would prompt the feeling at least. Grief could work. Especially in the sense of aggrieved. Hm.


  2. I haven’t read your sources. Where would more positive emotions like love or contentment fit in the diagram? The negative emotions all seem to have some ongoing-pain correlates, like misery/depression, but joy is (to me) an occasional or temporary high emotion; can’t be maintained. What is a continuing semi-joy?


    • In this case, partially based on the sources I’m drawing upon, the emotions identified are ones that correspond to a universal human facial expression. An emotion like contentment would be a continuing semi-joy. I’m using joy because she’s a character in Inside Out, Ekman would say happiness. In essence, the five core emotions are the ones that correspond to a distinct facial expression that seems to be very widely shared among humans. But there is plenty more going on under the surface in subtler feelings and experiences that wouldn’t carry a clear marker like a facial expression.

      It would be possible to have a low-grade longer-term version of many of these feelings, or even multiple versions of each. Low-grade joy could be contentment; low-grade fear could be characterized as anxiety (though some people might experience anxiety that isn’t rooted in fear but rather in anger, or even fear of their own anger, etc.) Low-grade anger might be frustration, and so on.

      You could also look at contentment as a mood rather than an emotion. It might be what an ‘ordered’ mood looks like, in the way that depression and anxiety can be diagnosed as ‘mood disorders.’ But then this gets into the construction of ‘mental health’, which itself is a whole other conversation.


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