Understanding Emotion

Topic Progress:
CompetencyEmpathy / Insight
Skills DevelopedEmotional Mapping / Behavioral Understanding / Motivation
Written ByKeary McCutchen

Acting Principles

  1. Acting is not emoting. Acting is not showing. Acting is reacting. Acting is doing.
  2. Acting is effortless.
  3. Every action must have an organic emotional impulse behind it. We do not speak or move because the director or the script says so, we speak and move because we have a want, a desire, that we are trying to satisfy.


Human beings are emotional creatures that think, we are not thinking creatures that feel. Emotion is how we appraise value, make decisions, and subsequently act. Without emotions, there is no desire, without desire, there is no action. Acting is action. Acting is doing. Emotion helps us understand our desires, what we want to change in our environment. When our world is exactly how we want it there is no desire. We relax. We are content. Often new actors and bad actors think acting is emoting, its not, acting is doing, emotions is the catalyst that produces behavior. Emotion is why we do what we do and how we do what we do. The actor must understand this.


Emotions are like colors and tastes. There are only a few primary colors: Red, Yellow, Blue but from those three colors, we can experience 10 million colors. There are only 5 tastes, sweet, sour, salty, bitter, and umami but from those 5 tastes, we are able to experience a seemingly infinite number of flavors. We all have four primary emotions: Rage, Terror, Grief, and Ecstasy. The secondary emotions are created by combining them, for example, Loathing is not a separate emotion but a combination of Rage which is red, and Grief which is blue, hence why the color for Loathing is violet, the result of mixing red and blue. Some experts believe that these four primary emotions can be combined to form as many as 34,000 distinct emotions.

Understanding emotions give us clarity and specificity in our work. The difference between being enraged and being slightly annoyed helps us decide on appropriate responses to each moment by grounding us in our perception of what is happening rather than what is actually happening i.e. I perceive that he is trying to kill me even though the reality is that is a rubber knife, this isn’t my blood. Our job as actors is to tell the truth of every moment. Truth can be simple or profound, boring or exciting, big or small. The truth is what it is, no more, no less. If the truth is enraged and we are only annoyed we are holding back, when we withhold even one world, it is no longer true. If the truth of the moment is annoyed and we express rage, it is no longer true, when you add even one word it is no longer the truth. Actors are artists who use behavior to create and at the center of behavior is emotion. Actors who don’t fully understand emotion are like painters who don’t understand colors or chefs who don’t understand flavors.


Jacksonville Acting Emotion Wheel
EmotionHow It Affects Behavior
EcstasyIs used to evaluate positive value. The more something makes you happy the more you will pursue it, the more risk you will take to get it.
AdmirationHumans are pack animals and it’s important for us to conform to our group. This is used to identify those who are above us in our social hierarchies. These are the people we mimic and who to cooperate with.
TerrorTerror is what we use to identify threats that we should flee from.
AmazementAmazement is a pre-effective emotion that occurs when something unexpected happens. It happens when our brain doesn’t know what to do or how to react.
GriefIs used to evaluate negative value. The more something makes you grief the more you will avoid it and the more risk you will take to stay away from it. Humans are primarily motived to avoid grief than to seek ecstasy.
LoathingLoathing is the emotion that keeps you away from impurity i.e. disease, filth, poison, venom, things that are unclean.
RageRage is similar to terror, it is used to identify a threat, but these are threats we believe we can destroy.
VigilanceVigilance is our alert system to the unknown. When you hear a sound in the middle of the night or spot someone you are attracted to.

The closer you are to the center of the wheel the more intense the emotion, which is why the colors are darker. As you move to the outside of the wheel the emotions are the same but less intense. In the same way, Pink is not a different color than Red but rather a less intense Red. Emotional intensity as it relates to behavior determines if the Appraisal response will occur or if the subconscious will inhibit rational meddling and go straight to a behavioral response like when you pull your hand off a hot stove or when something scurries across your hand. Lessor intense emotions allow for more rational involvement i.e. more thinking and less doing.

Pro Tip: Not sure how to start or end a scene? Just choose the opposite emotion on the wheel. If the scene starts ends on Grief start with Ecstasy.

The order of the emotions on the wheel is also important. Notice that the primary emotions of Rage and Terror are next to Grief, this is because it is not uncommon for people who experience rage or terror to start crying. It’s also not uncommon for people who cannot express grief or fear to express rage instead or people who can’t express rage to express fear or grief. This is a common disorder for men and women who were raised with very strong gender roles where men aren’t allowed to cry or women aren’t allowed to be aggressive.

Pro Tip: Instead of playing an emotion, playing one of the emotions next to it. To avoid looking weak, people will often mask grief with their neighbor, rage.

Everything we feel, desire, and subsequently chase is totally out of our control because they are driven by who and what is in our environment. As actors we cannot act unless we know three things, what we want (Objective), what are going to do to get it (Tactic), and the nature of the relationships between me and other people who are either enemies, going to prevent me from my objective, or allies, will help me achieve my objective (Point of View). The more self-aware we are to how we actually behave and how to stimulate different responses, the more we are able to blur the lines between what is real and what is imaginary, and instead of the audience seeing an actor pretending, they see a human being trying to live their life. When practicing in class, you should always be trying to move towards the center of the wheel, towards more intense versions of the emotion. Intense emotions are more difficult to sustain and to truthfully achieve. It’s important to practice in class because the environment on set is hostile to this process and if you can get to a primary emotion in class, onset you will most likely only get to a secondary or tertiary emotion.

New students will need to work hard to cultivate this skill because it goes against social conditioning which teaches us to avoid emotions, avoid conflict, cooperate, and be polite. The further we are from the center of the circle the weaker, less effective, less compelling we are. By studying emotion, organismic subsystems and how to understand them during repetition will give us clarity, specificity, and intensity.

List of Emotion Words

Actors need to be experts on emotion. The following list will increase your emotional vocabulary so that you won’t get stuck in your head during repetition. Avoid using the words in red. They are not effective or are an indication of an absence of emotion. Acting is doing if we do not have an emotional desire compelling us to act, we cannot act and therefore cannot do. The best words to use are those that are dramatic and superlative. Make everything important, everything life or death. Increase your sensitivity so that a tiny amount of imagined pain can cause you to respond like you’ve experienced immense tragedy.

At EaseCloseApprehensiveDisillusionedAnguishInhibitedContemptBold
BlissComfortedBurned OutDistantBadAppalledCynicalBrave
CaringDeterminedDespairHesitantDesolateWeakOn EdgeCurious
CourageousCertainEmptyNumbDismayed AggressiveEnchanted
DelightedHumbledExhaustedListlessDissatisfied AngryEnergized
EnergeticOptimisticFatiguedLostForlorn AnnoyedEngaged
EcstaticPassionateFearfulPerplexedFragile BitterEngrossed
ElatedPowerfulForcedPessimisticGloomy BoilingEnthusiastic
EncouragedProudFrazzledRemovedGriefing CrossExcited
FestiveSensitiveFrightenedResistantGuilty EnragedExploring
EuphoricFortunateHelplessShut DownHeartbroken FumingFascinated
FriskySympathyHesitantShyHelpless GrouchyHopeful
FulfilledTenderImpotentSkepticalHopeless HatefulImpulsive
GladThankfulIncapableStupefiedHumiliated HostileInquisitive
GoodTouchedInferiorTenseHurt IncensedInspired
GleefulTrustingInhibitedUnbelievingDespair MoodyInterested
GreatValiantNervousUncertainInjured IndignantIntrigued
HappyWorthyHorrifiedUneasyLonely InflamedInspired
Joyous OverwhelmUnsureLonging InfuriatedInvigorated
Jubilant PanicWithdrawnLousy InsultingInvolved
Liberated ParalyzedClosed OffMelancholy IrritatedKeen
Loving Pathetic Miserable IrateLively
Lucky Perplexed Mournful OutragedNosy
Merry Powerless Offended PissedPassionate
Optimistic Quaking Pained ProvokedPresent
Overjoyed Questioning Pessimistic ResentfulRadiant
Playful Rattled Powerless SoreRebellious
Patient Rejected Regret UnpleasantReceptive
Peaceful Reluctant Rejected UpsetRefreshed
Pleased Resigned Remorseful VindictiveRejuvenated
Provocative Restless Sad Worked UpRenewed
Quiet Scared Sensitive RepugnantSecure
Relaxed Shaken Sorry  Snoopy
Reassured Shaky Sulky  Stimulated
Reflective Shocked Teary  Sure
Safe Skeptical Terrible  Tenacious
Satisfied Stressed Tormented  Unique
Serene Suspicious Tortured  Vibrant
Spirited Tense Moved   
Sunny Terrified Unhappy   
Surprised Threatened Upset   
Thankful Tight Victimized   
Thrilled Timid Wronged   
Trusting Trapped Yearning   
Understanding Unsure     
Warm Useless     
Wonderful Vulnerable     

Increasing Your Emotional Vocabulary

Everyone is familiar with general emotional terms such as Happy, Sad, Angry, Disgusted but those terms are often vague and general. Specificity is vital to giving a truthful performance. Increase your vocabulary while building a deeper understanding of how different emotions are related (side by side on the wheel) and how each outer and inner circle aren’t different emotions but different intensities of the center circle emotions.

Jacksonville Acting Emotion Wheel
Jacksonville Acting Emotion Wheel
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